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In the Philippines, children of all ages can be found nurturing their sugar cravings with a hypersweet dessert known as bukayo. Its primary constituent is browned, shredded coconut that is formed into small balls with the aid of a simple syrup of sugar or molasses. Vanilla extract and leaves from the pandan tree add an even sweeter punch of flavor to the final product.
Makers of bukayo typically use the sweetest coconuts, the youngest variety called buko. This is where the treat gets its name, and it is the only kind of coconut that will help the balls hold their final shape. Luckily, the Philippines have plenty of coconuts to go around. The island nation is the leading coconut producer in the world. The city of Lingayen is reportedly where this dessert originates, but it is currently popular across the country's many islands.
A traditional method for crafting bukayo is to boil juice from young coconuts along with brown sugar, vanilla and what are known as pandan leaves, which come from a tropical tree that bears fruit used in many Filipino foods and medicines. After removing the leaves from the syrup, the grated buko coconut goes into another pan with some oil until browned. At this point, the syrup and coconut come together for a final simmer to thoroughly thicken the liquid. Some chefs substitute corn syrup and molasses, or pulot-ipot, for the brown sugar and coconut water — the sweetening effect is essentially the same.
The balls are not formed until the bukayo is removed from the heat. Small portions are balled up by hand and set onto a tray for final cooling. It is important to form the balls while the bukayo is still hot. Wax paper should keep the bukayo from sticking to the tray.
Sweetness is the central theme of this dessert, although it does not have to be. One version eliminates the vanilla and pandan leaves, using only coconut water and sugar, then stirring in the coconut with some flour as a thickening agent. Others alter the recipe with the addition of some citrus zest during cooking, or a sprinkling of powdered sugar or even sesame seeds while the balls are cooling.
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