On the near end of Maginhawa Street in Quezon City, approaching V. Luna Extension, is a nondescript building that has a narrow opening on the side, which leads to a set of stairs adorned with Machuca tiles. On the third floor is a charming, young bakery that goes by the name of Hiraya, a Tagalog word for imagination and dreams.
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Everything about the place, the name, the tables and chairs made of reused wood, the capiz windows, the white brick wall is a reflection of the life and passions of one of its founders Nicole “Colette” dela Cruz.
Here, the usual café staples are not to be found: no ensaymadas nor brazo de Mercedes. In their place are pastries with a mixture of ingredients born out of Colette’s and her co-founder Likha Babay’s imaginations. The results are gustatory delights that tease and dare the taste buds to like something definitely ingenious.
The pastry chef from Laguna
Hiraya Bakery started in 2016, as a next-door-neighbor/close-friend seller in Laguna, where Colette grew up and still resides. At the time, they sold brownies and banana cake. But the brownies were unlike the ones usually sold by neighbors: this one had sampinit, a Philippine wild berry, which is similar to raspberries. The banana cake was made with lipote, also a local fruit, which tastes like plum.
Colette’s confidence to try out these kinds of recipes was built from years of global culinary experience and honing an innate skill.
The curiosity in the kitchen has always been there, Colette tells us. Born in Manila, but raised in San Pablo, Laguna, she spent most of her Christmases and holidays at her maternal aunt, Socorro, who used to live at the Fort Bonifacio—now commonly called, Bonifacio Global City—in Taguig City.
“She was the baker in the family,” she says of Socorro, who now lives in Canada. Her mother, whom she says “wasn’t really a good cook,” was a busy career woman, but would sometimes make sampalok candies with her.
When she wasn’t in the kitchen, she was reading cookbooks: “At seven I already knew what glucose was. I knew what chartreuse was because of the list of food colorings. I read labels, so I knew what maize was and its color.”
At home, their family’s verdant backyard was her playground. She was very close to her Lolo Sanoy, a farmer, who was also the home cook. Growing up surrounded by fruit trees, Colette would eat santol and lanzones from a kaing (fruit basket). Then she and her lolo would pick avocados and cacao, and go through the whole process of making tablea, from pulping the seeds, to drying, to roasting, to grinding, to molding them down and preparing them for a warm champorado.
When the young baker was in high school, her mother already enrolled her in baking classes and workshops. Naturally, in college, she took up B.S. Food Technology at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UP-LB), Laguna.
After graduation, she worked at The Maya Kitchen as a researcher, demonstrator, and writer—because while she was certain of her love for the culinary arts, she also loved words. This was a time in her life when she found herself at a crossroads. “I wanted to take my masters in comparative literature, but I really couldn’t do away with food,” she recalls. To get a little bit of both passions, she took up a non-degree literature course at UP-Diliman, Quezon City.
Soon, she became a pastry cook helper at the Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila, Pasay City, where she met Likha.
A few years later, she decided to move to Boston, Massachusetts, because she planned on taking a Master of Arts in Gastronomy at Boston University—“but it was too expensive.”
While her plan did not pan out as expected, it was in Boston where she had a sort of epiphany—a drawn-out one—after taking odd jobs and working for call centers. As she was trying to find herself in Boston, she got a job at a now-closed, casual New England, French restaurant called Sel de la Terre, and its upscale counterpart, L’espalier.
It was in these walls where Chef Franc McClelland, who managed both restaurants, introduced her to the locavore movement. A locavore is a person who prefers to eat food grown locally, and is made in a place near a market. She remembers, “The chef would just come in from the market with whatever was in season or available, and say, ‘What can we do with this?’ Boston is in the East Coast, so we had four seasons. We changed our menu every season.”
The experience was gainful and eye-opening, but, as Colette would find out, a job that required a person to be on her feet from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., with only one day off, can be grueling. After three and a half years of grind, she felt the burnout.
“I started to think about the whole purpose, the meaning of what I was doing,” she says. In her need to take a break, she decided to shift careers and become an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in New York City. But she was not without a kitchen to work with. In her free time, she was still staging (an unpaid internship) for a restaurant, “I didn’t want to lose it.”
Then, one day, in 2016, she went back to the Philippines to go on vacation and start a business with Likha. “I asked my boss for my ESL job, ‘When I come back, will you still accept me?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ I was really planning on going back,” she recalls.
She didn’t come back, and Hiraya Bakery was born.
Colette is a believer in pushing for the use of local ingredients, “This is our land, our landscape. We have to use what we have.” But she is quick to say that to expand someone’s creativity in gastronomy, it is imperative to bring in the flavors of the rest of the big world.
“We don’t want to limit ourselves. Culinary is all-encompassing,” she says.
The pastries at Hiraya Bakery are stories of the owners’ experience, and the experience of other Filipinos, majority of whom have a global perspective. There is barely a Filipino now, who doesn’t know a friend or a relative or a neighbor living or working in another country.
Likha’s mother, for instance, works as a domestic helper in Syria. He feels his mother’s story in their tahini and sumac brownies.
When OFWs come home, they usually bring with them stories. “They might say, ‘When I was in Saudi Arabia, we used to eat these sesame seeds.’ This person may not have the vocabulary to explain what a tahini is. Likha’s mom is one of those people. When our customers taste our food, they might say, ‘Tay, alam ko na ’yong sinsasabi mo na na-try mo. ’Yon pala ’yong kinakain mo sa Saudi.’ Food is an excellent way for us to understand other people’s experiences. By eating our food, you, hopefully, get a connection.”
Still, at the core of their menu are local ingredients, many of which are not even found in the local markets. Then they combine their knowledge on local products and her vast experience working abroad.
The Sampinit Fudge Brownies are reminiscent of the raspberry Linzer cookies that she used to make at Sel de la Terre. Since she was taught to use whatever was available in the market, she decided to use sampinit, which grows during summer in San Pablo. She turned the fruits into jam, mixed it with brownie batter, and created one of the bakery’s first products.
Their Passion Fruit Cinnamon Sticky Buns are expected favorites. The buns play on the sourness of passion fruit—which Colette grows in her backyard—and the sweetness of caramel. The walnuts serve to add texture to a pleasantly treacly topping. Sadly, their passion fruit is limited. When they run out of jam, customers might have to wait until summer to try out this feat.
For those who love the taste of lemon in their dessert, the Calamansi Strawberry Brûlée Brioche is a good choice. The calamansi curd and strawberry compote renders a good contrast. Also try the Calamansi Basil Torte.
The strawberries, by the way are from the municipality of Bontoc in Mountain Province. The same supplier provides some of their coffee beans—the other beans are sourced from Batangas, and they’re planning to get more beans from Negros City, where Likha grew up.
One of Colette’s favorites are the Hermits, which call to mind fruit cake, due to the wood spices, and food for the gods, because of their texture. These cookies are a good pre-Christmas treat, perhaps, since the “ber” months are here?
The Tamarind Cumin Blondies deserve a nod, too, not the least bit for creativity and boldness.
And speaking of creativity, Colette tells us that the night before our interview, she and Likha were eating lanzones and drinking Yakult, when, almost in-sync, they thought, “Yakult panna cotta with lanzones!” Lanzones had just started to fill the fruit stands, so this pastry might actually come into being soon.
While they like exploring, there are menu staples, such as the Chocolate Cerveza Cake, the Smoked Salt and Rosemary Chocolate Truffle Cake, and Lemon Matcha Cheesecake, to name a few.
A special place
Before the Maginhawa store opened in July 2019, the owners of Hiraya Bakery were already happy selling their products in bazaars and online.
But the owner of the building approached them, and asked if they wanted a physical store. They agreed.
It’s a small team until now, with three cooks Terry, Rian, and Joy, working full-time at their main place in Laguna. As part of their mission, Colette and Likha continue to equip their employees with skills (through mentoring), and give them opportunities to become more financially sustainable. A few years ago, they gave some passion fruit seeds to their laundrywoman for her to plant. Now, they buy their passion fruit from her. They’ve also given seeds to their neighbors and one of their cooks.
Since they’ve had the store for two months, their followers have been asking them if they’re planning to expand. The store can barely fit 10 people inside, although there are three small tables in the balcony.
“We’re not planning on expanding,” Colette says with a smile. “We’re not planning on having other branches. We really want to keep it small. We want to keep it simple. We want this to be a very special place, that if you really want to try our pastries, you can just come here.”
Hiraya Bakery is at 3/F 195 Maginhawa Street, Sikatuna Village, Quezon City, (0995) 027-9853, Instagram and Facebook @hirayabakery
Photos by Chris Clemente