“You have to eat that with your hand. That is the best way to savor each bite,” a charming lady smilingly advised us when we picked up the fork and knife to slice the ube ensaymada that we ordered. We heeded her words, picked the soft and still warm bread and munched on. The charming lady really knows her stuff. There is definitely something about eating with your bare hand that makes every mouthful, every bite savory. The lady is Ceyli Tong, the owner of Icings Bakery and Cafe, a quaint cafe located in Dr. Lazcano in Tomas Morato.
The cafe was born out of her love for food and passion for cooking. As young as 10 years old, Ceyli has learned the basic of cooking. Ceyli would follow her mother around the kitchen and learn the dishes just by watching over her mother’s shoulder as she cooked one dish after another. “My mother didn’t follow any recipes. She didn’t measure the ingredients. She cooked by heart. It was as if her hands knew what ingredients she needed, what spices to put and how much to sprinkle to have the right flavors. For a young girl, it seemed magical,” shared Ceyli. At 10, she was tasked the basics, from peeling the onions to cutting the vegetables. Eventually, she was given more challenging jobs. As she grew older, she learned all about the family’s culinary heritage and took everything in with pride. Following the food philosophy that the family lived by, she was able to preserve the heirloom recipes that have been lovingly passed from generation to generation. “When my mother passed away, I took the responsibility to feed the family. I was just 18 then. It really wasn’t easy feeding the entire family. That was how my culinary skill was honed. I practice what my mother had taught me. I think that was how my passion evolved and took roots. That experience has shaped the food philosophy that I adhere to,” shared Ceyli. She believes that a wonderful soup must always start with the freshest, natural ingredients and gently simmer to achieve the right consistency and depth of flavor. A cake, on the other hand, must be made from real butter, pure sugar and fresh eggs. It must be expertly mix and bake at the right temperature. The batter must stay in the oven just long enough to transform into soft, moist decadent treat.
For the bread, the whole wheat flour, the yeast and water must come together in harmony. Kneaded with love, it will rise to make every breakfast a memorable moment. “I believe in using the freshest and highest quality ingredients to create the best food. You can’t just substitute things and hope that it would turn out okay, especially in baking. It has to be precise,” enthused the cafe owner, adding that “as much as possible, I use local Filipino materials. I use Philippine mangoes. I use local chocolate if I can get some supplies. We have the agricultural resources. We just have to tap into them.”
And it wasn’t just talk. When we visited Icings, we tried some dishes on their menu. For appetizer, we had Seafood Chowder Soup. It wasn’t just a sad excuse of a soup. It has generous morsels of shrimp and fish, with the right thickness and consistency. Each spoonful was full of flavors, I just couldn’t help but finish the whole serving.
Then, came the Chicken Pops, their version of chicken lollipops. The pieces were fried to perfection, topped with crunchy garlic bits. There was also the Green Salad with Nuts and Fruits, a plate of mixed greens with apples, mangoes, orange wedges, grapes, cashew and dressed in balsamic vinegar reduction. If there is one thing a diner really must try in Icing, it is their ostrich dishes. Icings is one of the first restaurants in the Philippines that introduced ostrich to the dining public. It has been in their menu since they opened their door in 1993. They source the ostrich meat from a farm in Cagayan de Oro.
That time, we tried the Tomato and Ostrich Meatballs Pasta. But if you want the real meaty flavor, have their Espresso Ostrich Steak. It was ostrich fillet, marinated in strong espresso and grilled to perfection. Or the all-day breakfast meal of ostrich tapa, served with egg and rice. Yes, it may sound scary because it is not everyday you get to eat ostrich. Thinking about those gigantic birds won’t help you either. But I tell you. It was worth a try (or two). It doesn’t taste like game meat. It tastes like beef.
If you want to be on the safe side, try the baby back ribs or rib-eye steak. Perhaps, the Lengua Estofado, braised ox tongue with mushroom, and the Pan-seared Salmon Royal which is served with creamy parmesan sauce and candied walnuts. Or the chicken dishes such as Grilled Rosemary chicken and Chicken Teri Meal. To quench our thirst, we tried the Lemongrass Pandan (quite refreshing) and the Pistachio Paradise (a dessert in itself). While enjoying the cakes, I wondered why she named her cafe Icings. (I know it is somehow related to cakes, the sweet frosting on top). She shared: “Over the years, friends and families began requesting my signature dishes during gatherings. If there is a party, I would always be in-charged of the food. My friend and I thought about bringing our passion beyond the boundaries of our homes. We want to share our idea of home-cooked traditional comfort food to other people. So, we began planning what to sell and cook. We thought about cakes. Then, we wanted bread. We wanted this and that. We wanted a lot of things.” She continued: “So, one day, while we were baking cakes, we were about to put the icing. Out of nowhere, we kept on saying ‘Icing, Icing, Icing.” And it hit us. We knew we just have to use that word. That was how the name came to be.” To keep the family culinary tradition alive, Ceyli’s daughter Candice joined the company. She has a degree in Hotel, Restaurant and Institution Management from De La Salle – College of St. Benilde. She is quite committed to remain true to the recipes that Ceyli treasures, while introducing innovative development. “The joy of cooking comes from the satisfaction you see on the faces of the customers who partake your food. The happiness and smile on their faces when they have something good on their stomach. That is the best reward,” enthuses Ceyli. To cap our meal, we had Mango Griestorte, light and airy flour-less cake with fresh ripe mangoes and whipped cream, and Hearts on Fire, dark chocolate cake with creamy chocolate filling. The mango cake has the right balance of sweetness and tartness; while the chocolate cake was so divine. It was so moist that I could not stop eating spoonful after spoonful while listening to Ceyli as she shared and reminisced her stories. If that doesn’t spell happiness and satisfaction, then I don’t know what it is.