If you live in the Philippines, your medicine cabinet likely holds a big glass jar of Panecillos de San Nicolas alongside the aspirin and nasal decongestants.
These delicious cookies made from arrowroot are believed to heal any and all physical ailments. Every year on the feast of San Nicolas Tolentino, the cookies are blessed in Catholic parishes and collected in jars for use throughout the year.
That is if their patrons can restrain from devouring the delicate buttery treats all in one sitting. Don’t let the word pan — Spanish for bread — fool you. Made with sugar, butter, and coconut milk, they taste more like shortbread. You’ll recognize them by the embossed saint on top.
Not only are Panecillos de San Nicolas believed to have miraculous healing powers (there’s even a prayer that goes along with them when eaten), but they allegedly bestow good luck and are often crumbled into rice fields before planting.
Saint Nicolas, an Italian saint who died in 1305, is the patron saint of dozens of towns throughout the Philippines' 7500 islands. According to legend, the Virgin Mary appeared to him when he was on death’s door and instructed him to eat a piece of bread dipped in water. Evidently the Virgin knew what she was talking about, because Nicolas made an instant recovery and began distributing bread to the sick, often provoking miraculous cures. His mythical legacy only grew when his story, along with other stories of Augustine saints, came to the Philippines with the Spanish in 1521.
The recipe for the healing bread (aka buttery cookie) has been passed down generation after generation in the Philippines. I had the good fortune of meeting Atching Lillian Borromeo, a cookbook author, food historian and renowned Filipino chef whose family has been baking the cookies for hundreds of years.
Her Cusinang Matua (old kitchen) in Pampanga, Philippines is more like a museum with dozens of hand-carved heirloom cookie molds, clay and copper pots, antique dishes, and, of course, an altar to the blessed Saint Nicolas.
While reciting the rosary, 70-something Borromeo mixes the dough, rolls it with a long rolling pin, and presses little palm-size balls into antique mahogany molds. She has dozens of them, many passed down from her grandmother who taught her to cook when she was only four. One of the newest additions to her collection is a recessed mahogany carving of Pope Francis, who visited the Philippines in 2015.
When she’s not praying the rosary and baking the cookies that are distributed throughout the country, Borromeo continues to cook such traditional Kapampangan dishes as adobong maputi (white adobo) and paksing demonyo (a vegetable dish) in her open-air kitchen next to her ancestral home.
As for the cookies, I brought home a boxful and so far; I’ve been radiantly healthy and as, Hugh Hefner used to say, “the luckiest cat on the planet.”