The Negrense Heritage Cake

The island of Negros has always had a vibrant and unique culture, and its cuisine and delicacies are among the most important reasons why that is. For Pastry Chef Marlene Monfort, using ingredients that are part of Negros’s rich heritage is an homage to the island’s culinary passions that span generations.

Chef Marlene’s preferred sugar for her cakes is the famed muscovado – a type of sugar that undergoes little to no refinement process. Due to that, most of the natural minerals and nutrients remain in the final product.

“Often called the artisanal sugar, the brown liquid syrup called molasses remains in the final product that results in the muscovado’s dark brown color and high moisture content resembling wet sand,” Chef Marlene explains. “Because of this, muscovado has the complexity of toffee and caramel notes and has a slightly bitter but rich aftertaste.”

Born and raised in Bacolod, Marlene’s love affair with baking cakes and pastries started at a very young age. She was seven when she asked her mother if they could bake together – her way of vying for her businesswoman mother’s attention. Not knowing how to bake, she got Marlene a KitchenAid mixer and the two started bonding over baking cakes. That baking implement became the catalyst for what is now Marlene Monfort Pastries.

Starting in the culinary arts, or at the very least making sure that what you make is edible, requires taste testers. That role was automatically held by her family, and they were among the first ones who encouraged her to continue. Chef Marlene honed her craft by trying out recipes she found in books. After her college years, upon seeing an ad in the newspaper that said, ‘How to be a master cake decorator’, she immediately thought to herself “I want to be that! I want to be a master cake decorator!” She enrolled in that course to learn even more about what she was passionate about.

When later she moved to the U.S., Chef Marlene started baking cakes for her relatives’ special occasions, such as weddings and birthdays and baby showers. For different generations and different life cycles, she was the one they’d call when they’re in need of something special and sweet. Experiencing a mid-life crisis at 44, she formally enrolled in baking and patisserie classes to learn more. “I thought my life wasn’t full,” Chef Marlene recalls, “and I thought ‘I know how to do this, but I want to learn more about baking and patisserie’.” With that desire to expand her knowledge and to be a certified pastry chef, she enrolled in the California Culinary Academy, gaining even more experience along the way.

Chef Marlene returned to Bacolod in 2011 to be with her mother after her father passed away. She started building up her home kitchen from the ground up right then and there, and later on began baking privately for restaurants. This lasted for years until the pandemic that got her stranded in Manila. With her partner’s encouragement, she baked once more, this time professionally and in a town far from her home. Despite Marlene Monfort Pastries being born in Metro Manila where her cakes are in high demand, Chef Marlene is a Negrense through and through.

It’s not just the sugar that’s the local component that she uses. For her signature four-layer Muscovado Espresso Cake, a cake that features alternating layers of muscovado and espresso cakes with espresso buttercream on the inside, she uses coffee beans sourced locally. “Because it’s the full robusta kind of beans, it’s really strong in flavor,” Chef Marlene says of the Kanlaon coffee. “I wanted that to come out in the cake the moment you take a bite.”

Chef Marlene describes the blending together of the two Negros heritage ingredients, “the featured artisanal muscovado with its ephemeral bitterness and dark chocolate notes pair perfectly with the toasty full bodied and robust steep of the Mt. Kanlaon coffee.”

More than anything else, Negros is rooted first to the memory of sugarcane fields and hacienda homes where kitchens turned out singular expressions of an island’s storied past.

Article by: John Mari Marcelo

Photos by: Khen Sanlo

Videoscript by: Mayee Fabregas

Video by: Grilled Cheese Studios

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