This purple yam, a popular ingredient in Filipino desserts, finds a sweet spot in Chera Amlag’s cheesecakes.
Suddenly, ube is everywhere. The purple yam, a popular ingredient in Filipino desserts, blazes across dessert trays in amethyst-hued scoops of ice cream, cupcakes colored a brilliant violet, lavender doughnuts and macarons, and flans.
“I hope we’re not just a trend,” says Chera Amlag, whose gorgeous ube cheesecake recently led her from a career in education to her own bakery in Ballard.
The trend part is undeniable: Ube is “the new it food,” “the latest international food trend,” “Instagram’s latest food obsession” or one of the “10 weirdest food trends of 2017,” depending on which headlines you read. But for Amlag, it’s much more: She hopes the public embrace of the humble tuber — whose mildly sweet flavor is compared to pistachios and white chocolate — will extend to a broader general appreciation of Filipino food.
“I think we should be at the table” in the wide spectrum of the culinary world, Amlag says. That means everything from Filipino pop-ups and food trucks to the world of fine dining.
The cheesecakes at her Hood Famous Bakeshop, artistically swirled like latte art with an ube jam, stemmed from years of community gatherings over food. That career path began when Amlag and husband Geo Quibuyen (“Prometheus Brown” of star hip-hop duo Blue Scholars) organized a neighborly cook-off in Beacon Hill for adobo, sometimes called the national dish of the Philippines. Winner Garrett Doherty went on to co-found pop-up (and then-restaurant) Kraken Congee.
Amlag and Quibuyen partnered with Kraken Congee on a pop-up, calling their side of it “Food and Sh*t” (initially meant as a placeholder name). It was partly for fun and partly as a fundraiser for an “exposure trip” to the Philippines with their children and other families, meeting farmers and indigenous people and working on typhoon relief.
The pop-up, initially meant as a one-shot, became a regular event. Amlag, who had a day job as a college MESA (math, engineering, science, achievement) director, made the desserts, and the brilliantly colored cheesecake on a coconut-biscuit crust was a breakout hit.
Amlag, who was born in the Philippines and moved to Bremerton as a child, remembers a favorite treat of halaya ube, a jam that’s “almost a soft caramel,” boiling mashed ube, sugar and milk (often condensed and/or coconut), and stirring it at length on low heat.
“I was in charge of stirring” as a youngster, standing on a chair, she says.
In the adult venture, a friend connected her with the deli manager at Uwajimaya, which began stocking the cheesecakes. More outlets and greater demand followed, and in the fall, she opened the tiny storefront and bakery at 2325½ N.W. Market St. featuring cheesecakes; ube cookies; and other sweets, like a chocolate-dipped Filipino shortbread. (The name came from a friend’s comment about trying that “hood famous” dessert.) From kitchen-sized batches, she’s scaled up to 60-quart mixers and 50-pound sacks of Shepherd’s Grain flour.
Her background in community organizing helped her make the career move: “A lot of those skills do transfer,” she says. She took an intensive University of Washington business course. And the final step came when her mother, seeing the popularity of the cheesecakes, said, “You might be on to something.”
She loved her old job, but thinks she sees more people, and touches more people, through the world of food.
In addition to ube, she spotlights cheesecakes made with calamansi, a citrus fruit, and floral pandan leaves. She’s looking forward to showcasing other Filipino flavors — trendy or not — and bringing them to a wider audience. And, “If ube is going to be the thing that does it, OK.”
Looking for ube in Seattle? The root vegetable typically can be found at Viet-Wah or Fou Lee Market, Amlag says, and it’s often at Uwajimaya, as well as smaller Asian markets. Some outlets sell it grated, in frozen form or as a jam (as Amlag uses) or extract, some with added coloring, some without. Other ube products around town include bread and cakes at Despi Delite Bakery on Beacon Hill and ube ice cream from Full Tilt Ice Cream.
This article was originally published in The Seattle Times and written by Rebekah Denn on June 13, 2017. Photography by Ken Lambert.