23 tantalizing Filipino desserts
There’s one word I’d use to describe Filipino desserts, and that would be colorful.
Filipino desserts are a bit different from any that I’ve tried on my travels. It consists of local and traditional cakes and sweets, while also reflecting upon its Spanish colonial heritage.
While many Filipino desserts differ from those you’d find in places like Sicily, there’s one thing they’ve in common. They both satisfy your sweet tooth.
Start at the foundation
On my culinary adventures throughout the country, there was one ingredient that stood out for me.
Glutinous rice is a type of grain that when cooked, becomes sticky and denser in texture. It’s used in many desserts, not just in the Philippines, but in other southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Malaysia.
You won’t be surprised to read then, that this sticky rice forms the basis of many popular Filipino sweets.
Cast the diet aside, and put on your comfiest sweatpants. Here are 23 seriously sweet desserts to try on your travels in the Philippines.
Ice, ice baby
When the sun’s beating down, and you’re in need of some ice-cold refreshment, Filipino sweets offer the perfect solution.
It’s icy, milky and with a whole lot of sweet treats added for good measure.
Halo-halo is probably the most popular dessert in the Philippines. In a country where the average temperature is around 26.6°C (79.9°F), this icy sundae is a godsend.
The name means ‘mix mix’ in the Philippine language. And, once seeing the ingredients that go into a Halo-halo, it makes a whole lot of sense.
A sundae with a twist — Filipino sweets
Different regions in the Philippines vary their ingredients and toppings, but the Halo-halo base usually remains the same.
Plenty of shaved ice is the standard, as is evaporated milk to give the dessert its milky base.
What comes next depends on what the stall or shop has on display.
I tried one with small sweet red beans, sugar palm fruit (cubed), and sweet coconut strips. This was followed by nata de coco (coconut jelly), jackfruit and leche flan (crème caramel).
I politely refused a scoop of ice cream on top, as my glass was already overflowing.
Mix the ingredients together and let the ice melt into the milk. Once you try your first spoonful, you’ll totally understand why it’s a Filipino favorite.
Halo-halo is one of the favorite Filipino desserts
“Unique, delicious and bursting with color, these desserts are an Instagrammer’s dream.”
2. Ube ice cream
You may have already seen this popping purple ice cream on social media, but had no idea what it was.
Ube is a purple yam that’s used to flavor and color the Filipino ice cream.
The taste is unusually nutty and not overly sweet. Ube ice cream’s a popular ingredient in Halo-halo but you can also eat it on its own.
A similar take on Halo-halo, but probably more random is Iskrambol.
Also known as ice scramble, this frozen dessert’s very popular among children. Shaved ice is mixed with evaporated, or condensed, milk.
Next, comes a mountain of toppings including marshmallow, ice cream and chocolate syrup.
Where it also differs from Halo-halo is that the shaved ice for the Iskrambol is dyed pink with food coloring.
When trying an Iskrambol, make sure to stir the ingredients together before enjoying.
Along with ube ice cream and other popular varieties, there’s another type of ice cream, and more traditional too.
As you can see in its name, sorbetes comes from the word, sorbet.
It’s traditionally made using carabao milk. The water buffalo ingredient is mixed with cassava flour and coconut milk. Fruits such as mango, melon and jackfruit are added to flavor the dessert.
Listen for the bell — Filipino desserts
You can mainly find sorbetes from the street sellers that walk around with their colorful carts. They’ll typically ring a bell to let people know that they’re there.
Try sorbetes in a cup, a wafer cone, or like in Sicily, inside a bread bun. It’s a local take on ice cream and something you won’t find everywhere.
Look out for the colorful carts selling sorbetes
Let them have cake
Filipino cakes are a unique grouping. While some reflect the recipes and textures that we’re accustomed to in the west, others embrace its traditional roots.
5. Cassava cake
There are some foodie moments that stick with you on your travels, and cassava cake’s one of mine.
This root vegetable was one of many crops that was brought to the Philippines from South America.
Traditional base ingredients of flour and butter, are substituted with grated cassava, coconut and condensed milk. It’s firm and chewy in texture and the right amount of sweetness for me.
Most Filipinos enjoy eating cassava cake for ‘merienda’ or snack. However, I found it so moreish, I could happily eat it any time of the day.
An optional topping — Filipino sweets
The classic version of cassava cake comes with a coconut-custard topping. It’s made with egg yolks, condensed milk and sugar.
I tried some with the topping but honestly preferred it without. It takes away from the texture of the cassava, which — for me — is the best part.
A must try in the Philippines, cassava cake
6. Leche flan
This creamy caramel flan is another memorable Filipino sweet, and is a usual favorite at special occasions.
Leche flan, literally meaning milk flan, is the Filipino version of a crème caramel. Condensed milk and egg yolks are the 2 principle ingredients.
Where leche flan differs from making a crème caramel are the molds that they use. In the Philippines, the flans are poured into a tin called a ‘llanera’ and steam-baked in the oven.
The result is a melt-in-the-mouth dessert with the glossy caramel syrup on top.
When traveling in the Philippines, you’d be crazy not to try leche flan.
7. Buko pie
The first time I tried a slice of buko pie was in the cool climate of Tagaytay.
This traditional coconut pie is a Filipino must, and seriously delicious. It’s packed full of coconuts, a custard base and plenty of calories.
‘Buko’ are baby coconuts and the filling is made from the flesh, along with sweet condensed milk. The filling’s poured into a pastry crust and baked.
The pies have also gained an international following as you can now find buko pie outside the Philippines.
Los Angeles, California, is home to several places where you can get an authentic slice of buko pie.
8. Ube cake
Philippine ‘Mamon’ are light and fluffy sweet sponge cakes. They also typically form the basis for many Filipino sweets, such as the ube cake.
Mashed purple yams are mixed together with flour, eggs, baking powder, vanilla, milk and cream of tartar. Food coloring may sometime be used to make the purple color stand out more.
Ube cake is moist in texture and a delight to eat. Its frosting consists of whipped cream or buttercream, which is also flavored with ube.
Buko pie is popular inside, and outside, the Philippines — Filipino desserts
All about the rice (cakes)
As mentioned earlier, glutinous rice is a main ingredient in many Filipino sweets. A simple grain with many uses, it’s something you’ll see a lot on your Philippine food travels.
As well as being a traditional cake, bibingka is a symbol of the Christmas period. This baked glutinous rice cake is something that many Filipinos will eat after attending Midnight Mass.
The cakes are also sold outside churches during the season for church-goers to eat for breakfast.
Steamed and filling — Filipino sweets
Along with glutinous rice, coconut milk, or water, is added to the mix. The traditional way of cooking bibingka is in a banana leaf and over pre-heated coals.
Modern — and less time-consuming — methods use the banana leaf, but replace the coals with an oven. While you can eat bibingka as it is, many like to add toppings such as sugar or grated coconut.
I tried a bibingka when it was still warm and with no toppings. It has a soft spongy texture with a slight hint of sweetness.
I need to address the (rude) elephant in the room before continuing. ‘Puto’ has no association with the word ‘puta’ meaning a promiscuous woman (!).
These Filipino steamed rice cakes are innocently delicious and a staple in the country.
Made from a slightly fermented rice dough, you can eat puto as they are, or to accompany savory dishes.
There are many varieties of puto, some of which include toppings like cheese and coconut. Personally, I tried one without any toppings and enjoyed its simplicity.
The texture’s unsurprisingly rice-like, and with a subtle sweetness that gives it an enjoyable edge.
Innocently delicious, puto rice cakes
Simple yet sweet, this Filipino rice cake is another popular dessert. Very easy to make, it consists of just 3 ingredients: glutinous rice, coconut milk and brown sugar.
Once the rice is cooked, it’s mixed with the milk, brown sugar and is then baked. After it has cooled, the biko is cut into squares and served.
Other variations of biko include ube and pandan leaf. The latter gives the biko a vibrant green color from the leaf extract.
If traditional Filipino sweets are what you’re looking for, you can do no wrong with this rice cake.
Suman is another glutinous rice cake, which is cooked in coconut milk and then wrapped in a banana leaf.
The cake’s steamed and then sprinkled with brown sugar once cooled. Some variations substitute the rice with cassava.
I found suman to be blander than the other rice cakes I’d tried. Even with the sugar sprinkling, for me, it was a little lacking.
This next Filipino sweet is a soup-dessert hybrid.
Bilo-bilo, meaning rice flour balls, are small bite-sized chewy balls. The flour’s mixed with water to create the namesake ingredient.
Once ready, the balls are placed in a pan containing coconut milk and sugar. Other ingredients like bananas, tapioca pearls and jackfruit are then added to the pot.
Recipes for Bilo-bilo will differ depending on where you are in the country. I was offered a hot bowl of the chewy rice ball coconut soup and lapped up every last drop.
Add some brown sugar to the suman for taste — Filipino desserts
Bananas for bananas
The yellow curved-shaped fruit are big news in the Philippines. With 4 varieties grown in the country, they’re a popular ingredient in many Filipino sweets.
What do you get when you take a banana, a spring roll wrapper and some brown sugar? These 3 simple ingredients make up a sinfully sweet street food called turon.
For Filipino sweets like turon, they’d use a cooking variety of banana like Saba or Cardaba.
Thinly sliced bananas are dusted with brown sugar, before being wrapped in a spring roll pastry and then fried.
Needless to say, turon is best eaten when freshly made — just try not to burn your tongue.
Fruity variations — Filipino desserts
While bananas are the most popular filling for turon, you can also find versions with jackfruit or even mango.
Another unique filling is sweet mung beans, which you can find in the Malabon area of Manila. These differ from the classic banana variety in that they’re triangular-shaped, not rectangular.
15. Banana cue
The clue’s in the name for the main ingredient in this Filipino sweet. Banana cue, also known as ‘Banana Q’ is another popular street food.
‘Cue’ is an abbreviation of barbecue, given the way in which the bananas are cooked.
Similar to turon, Saba bananas are coated with caramelized brown sugar and then deep fried. Unlike turon, the bananas are left whole, and not sliced.
The banana cue is served on skewer sticks, similar to how they would serve a traditional meat barbecue.
Other ‘cue’ varieties include sweet potato, which is known as ‘camote’ in the Philippine language.
16. Sweet bananas
You may have become a bit of an expert with Filipino bananas if you’ve reached this point. This simple sweet again uses the variety ideal for cooking, the Saba banana.
The bananas are cooked in a sugar syrup with water until they’re soft and ready to eat. You can easily eat them on their own, or they can be added to other Filipino desserts like Halo-halo.
Adding the sweet bananas over milk and shaved ice creates another dessert called saba kon-yelo.
Saba bananas with brown sugar, a.k.a. banana cue
Did someone say corn?
Another interesting ingredient popular in Filipino sweets is corn.
It may sound a little unorthodox, but I tried several corn-based desserts, and they were delicious.
17. Maíz con hielo
The first one I tried was Maíz con hielo. It comes from the Spanish, and is translated as corn with ice.
It’s a simpler variation of Halo-halo, consisting of shaved ice, creamed corn, sugar and evaporated milk.
To add an extra touch to the maíz con hielo, ask for a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Mix all the ingredients before eating, and enjoy.
18. Maja blanca
The more Filipino sweets you try, the more you recognize its Spanish influence.
Take the maja blanca. This coconut milk pudding is an adaptation of the Spanish blancmange called manjar blanco.
Its form and texture also remind me slightly of a panna cotta, just without the coconut flavor.
Where the two differ is of course in the ingredients. Coconut milk is used over cow’s milk, and kernels of corn, evaporated milk and sugar are added to the dish.
It’s then put in the fridge to set for a few hours, before being ready to serve.
The finishing touch — Filipino desserts
The maja blanca is usually finished with some brown coconut cream curds, called latik. It gives the dessert an extra layer of texture.
Maja blanca isn’t something they serve everywhere. In fact, the Filipino sweet is usually served during the holidays, and more so at Christmastime.
This next Filipino sweet has strong similarities with South and Central American cuisine.
Binaki are steamed corn cakes served in corn husks. Its appearance instantly reminded me of tamales, but inside is a sweet rather than savory dish.
In fact, you’ll sometimes see the dessert referred to as a ‘sweet corn tamale.’
You can’t find binaki everywhere in the Philippines, only in Cebu and the northern Mindanao region.
Making binaki — Filipino desserts
Grated cornmeal is mixed with milk, butter, baking powder and sugar. Condensed milk is sometimes added as is cheese.
The finished compound is wrapped inside a corn husk and steamed until the cake is firm. Binaki is unique as it’s unusual.
However, if you’re in the Philippines and you get the opportunity, I’d say to give it a go. It’s probably one of the most traditional Filipino sweets I tried when there.
Binaki, also known as sweet corn tamales — Filipino desserts
The country’s Spanish period plays a huge role in the Philippines cuisine and culture. Under Spanish rule for over 350 years, signs of its former colonial past are everywhere.
The Philippines love affair with sweets doesn’t stop at icy concoctions and glutinous rice cakes.
Alfajores are butter cookies with a dulce de leche (caramel) filling and finished with a dusting of powdered sugar.
The cookie comes from the Spanish version of the same name— and filling. Where it differs from the original are the toppings.
Filipino alfajores are typically only dusted with powdered sugar. Spanish alfajores can be topped with powdered or glazed sugar, coconut or even chocolate.
21. Brazo de Mercedes
A Filipino dessert that dates to the Spanish period, this custard-filled meringue roll is dangerously delicious.
Brazo de Mercedes literally means ‘Mercedes’ arm’, but its roots are more religious in nature. It actually refers to the ‘Arm of our Lady of Mercy, or Mary, mother of Jesus Christ.
The meringue’s made from egg whites, cream of tartar and sugar. For the custard filling, egg yolks and condensed milk are mixed together, along with vanilla extract.
Once the meringue’s baked, the custard’s spread on one side before being rolled into a cylinder shape. The Brazo de Mercedes is then chilled and dusted with powdered sugar before being served.
Different variations of Brazo de Mercedes include ube, pandan and chocolate.
By holy order — Filipino desserts
Brazo de Mercedes is a type of ‘pianono’. These are pastries or cakes that were named after Pope Pius IX, his Spanish name being ‘Pionono’.
Piononos are also found in Spain, several South American countries, Cuba and Puerto Rico.
Where they differ from the Filipino version is in the spelling and fillings. Some piononos can also be savory, but in the Philippines, they’re all sweet.
The best way I can describe polvorón is that they’re like a powdery soft crumbly cookie.
The Filipino adaptation of the Spanish biscuit is popular all year round, but more so at Christmas time.
Made of flour, sugar, butter and powdered milk, you can find polvorón everywhere. A well-known brand in the Philippines is Goldilocks, who sell the cookies in gift-size bags.
Small differences — Filipino desserts
An important difference to note between the Spanish and Filipino version is the ingredients.
While almonds constitute the Spanish recipe, the Filipino polvorón makes use of their local ingredients.
These include toasted rice grains called ‘pinipig’, cashew nuts and of course, ube. I tried a more modern cookies and cream polvorón and was pleasantly surprised.
A crumbly cookie that melts in the mouth, polvoron — Filipino desserts
23. Pastel de Camiguin
Along with its volcanoes and lush green landscapes, the province of Camiguin is known for something sweeter.
Located in the south of the Philippines, the province is famous for its delicious pastel (cake in Spanish).
However, the name ‘pastel’ is a little misleading, given that Pastel de Camiguin is really a soft bread bun.
Inside, is a creamy custard filling called ‘yema’ (yolk in Spanish) made from egg yolks, condensed milk and sugar.
Other Pastel de Camiguin fillings range from ube or chocolate to mango or jackfruit. It’s soft, chewy and altogether scrummy.
Did you enjoy your journey through the world of Filipino sweets? Which of these would you most like to try? Let me know in the comments below.
Till next time, happy boutique travels x
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Welcome to my site! I'm Lisa, founder of Following the Rivera. I write primarily for a ‘flashpacker’ audience, a demographic (late 20s onward) that enjoys glamping over camping and staying at boutique/luxury boutique hotels. Flashpackers also like to indulge in the local food and wine, cultural activities, as well as a spot of wellness on their travels. Want to know more? Read on....