January 23, 2011
Kutsinta, Filipino Steamed Rice Cake
Kutsinta, like the previous episode’s puto, is a very popular Filipino dessert. Kutsinta however, is less likely to appeal to a wide range of people because of it’s very gummy, chewy texture and somewhat unfamiliar flavor. Don’t let that stop you from at least trying this recipe, the ingredients in kutsinta are widely available and are inexpensive so even if you don’t like it, you won’t feel like you’ve lost a lot.
Kutsinta, like puto, was one of the recipes my mother never really shared with me. It took me years to figure out how to make it and even recently I’ve had an incredible amount of trouble making it. That’s because ingredients that are just understood by Filipinos are completely foreign to Westerns and require a more specific definition. I’m here to specifically break it down so that any one trying to make kutsinta knows exactly what to use.
First and foremost, the number one reason my kutsinta was such a failure was because I was using the wrong rice flour. There are two main kinds of rice flour: White rice flour and sweet rice flour. To an outside observer one would think sweet rice flour would be the better alternative when baking. That is what I thought, especially since I always saw a box of mochiko sweet rice flour in my mom’s pantry. It never really occurred to me why I always saw it in there though. The reason was she never used it. Sweet rice flour is the same as glutinous rice flour, which is also known as sticky rice or short grain rice. This rice flour is extremely gummy and is used for making mochi desserts – it is not likely to hold it’s shape at all as I have learned. White rice flour is made from long grain rice and is not as gummy as sweet rice flour as is better at holding it’s shape. To summarize, you need to use white rice flour. If you use sweet rice flour, your finished product will begummy, soft, sticky, and a lump of mush. It’s edible but it’s looks awful and it’s much more sticky than if you used white rice flour.
Another (possibly) strange ingredient in kutsinta is called lye. Lye is apparently a very prevalent ingredient in Asian cooking as particularly used in making noodles. Lye is also used to cure and preserve olives, fish (especially in the nordic regions), and seafood like squid. It also gives hard pretzels their characteristic brown color and texture and is also used in bagel making. Sounds perfectly safe right? Well, lye is a very powerful alkali (the opposite of acid) reaching about 13-14 on the pH scale and is known as caustic acid. It is an important ingredient in drain cleaners, soap, oven cleaners, and bio diesel production. Mmm… I love when my food has an octane rating. Now with all this being said there are different kinds of lye – mostly food-safe and non-food-safe, but even the food-safe lye (which is regulated by FDA) is very dangerous. It can burn your skin and irritate, if not completely destroy, your esophagus and stomach. However, knowing all this I used to eat Kutsinta by the fistful as a kid and as far as I know, I’ve never had an ulcer. That’s because when properly cooked and mixed into the batter the lye serves its function (giving kutsinta it’s trademark texture) and then its supposedly reduced to a harmless state.
Knowing this I decided to search the internet for a substitute. For one, I didn’t really want
to deal with such a dangerous ingredient. Two, whenever I spoke about it to co-workers and friends they cringed. Three, if I could make a lye-free kutsinta, my recipe would be unique compared to all the others out there. Four, I didn’t want to have yet another bottle of something in my cupboard. I found that baking soda can be a suitable substitute though many forums felt that it wasn’t anywhere close to being as good as when it is made with lye. That’s when I stumbled on an article written by Harold McGee featured in the New York Times about how you can bake baking soda to strengthen it and use it as a substitute for lye. I found the article fascinating. When baking is equated with science it always makes me a little happy, but when I found a suitable substitute for lye I was practically giddy – and the fact that it was such a reliable source made it that much more relevant.
In the article McGee states that in order to make the baking soda stronger you bake it on a sheet pan lined with aluminum foil at 300 degrees F for an hour. I recommend using fresh, never been opened soda and baking it for 90 minutes. The resulting strengthened baking soda can irritate your skin so handle it with care and make sure you put it in a glass jar to keep it from moisture.
The last not-so-common ingredient is annatto powder. Annatto comes from the achiote tree found in tropical regions. It is most commonly used in Latin, Spanish, and Caribbean dishes and is also used in Filipino dishes. Its most common use is as a food coloring since it is natural and because it is such a deep reddish orange. It also imparts some flavor that can be describe as nutty, earthy, peppery, and sweet. In kutsinta, it is mostly used for color but the flavor definitely comes through.
As I said earlier all these ingredients are relatively inexpensive – that is if you look in the right place. White rice flour can set you back $5.00 in conventional grocery stores but if you go to Asian markets you can snag 16 ounces for a whopping $0.89. I have yet to find unreasonably priced annatto powder but it may be hard to find in conventional grocery stores. If you go to Latin markets or Filipino markets you should be able to find it for less than a dollar – you might be able to find inexpensive annatto in stores like Wal-mart where there is a large Latin community (yay culturally relevant marketing campaigns). Look for it in a plastic bag hanging up or in a sealed pouch – you probably won’t find it in a bottle or glass jar like McCormick.
The kutsinta recipe I provide has been altered to use reduced baking soda in place of lye. Another alteration is I added 3 ounces of granulated sugar since I like my kutsinta to be a little sweeter. I also added a milk component mostly to make it more appetizing. Without milk I feel like it looks dark, almost dismal. You can omit the milk but make sure you add 2 ounces of water in 40 piece batch recipe or 1 ounce in the 20 piece bath. You should be able to substitute with almost any form of milk (soy, heavy cream, whole milk, and even reduced fat milks) since it’s only real purpose is for color – though I’d avoid trying to use buttermilk in off chance it imparts that sour flavor.
Like puto, kutsinta is steamed. However, this recipe requires the kutsinta to be steamed for an hour which can be particularly problematic. Make sure your steamer has plenty of water or you have a kettle of hot water nearby to replenish your water. If not you can seriously damage your steamer – and if your water is hard like mine, the mineral deposits left behind can burn up and ruin your kutsinta.
You might be able to make a gluten-free version of this cake by replacing the all-purpose flour with more rice flour but I haven’t tried it so I can’t guarantee anything.
Kutsinta is also great with coconut. In fact most Filipinos shudder at the thought of not serving freshly grated coconut next to kutsinta. This classic combination is respected so much by Filipino markets that they provide fresh coconut in little individual cups or even take the liberty of sprinkling some on top before packaging. Kutsinta doesn’t necessarily need to be refrigerated but it will also last much longer than if you don’t. Plus kutsinta tastes pretty great chilled.
Anyway, here is the recipe of kutsinta without lye and enjoy the video below! Thanks for watching!