Ube Magic

For Divina Orbase, baking is a love story in every bite.

In our community, in our culture, Filipinos love with food.”

Divina Orbase smiles as she reaches over to pour rich, fragrant coffee from the French press. The only thing warmer than the steam coming from the cup is the warmth of her hospitality.  Genuine hospitality oozes from every ounce of her demeanor, so when she says Filipinos love with food, you know it in your soul to be true.

“We make a joke about it… but instead of saying I love you, Filipinos say, ‘Have you eaten yet?’ Everything revolves around food. Whether for housewarming parties, birthdays, anniversaries or meeting someone for the first time, like today, eating together is seen as a priority.”

For Divina, that experience of food as love began in her own kitchen growing up, the smell of garlic and onions perfuming the air every day. “My dad was always in the kitchen—he’s from a part of the Philippines that’s known for their cooking. He taught me to eat before anyone came, so that we could focus on serving them. It’s funny now; I’ll have dinner parties and my friends, my family, are always asking me to sit down, but I’m too busy serving them, making sure they’re enjoying the food, that they have everything they could want or need. That’s the pleasure I get… seeing their delight, their enjoyment. My dad taught me that… that way of loving through food.”

As her story unfolds, it’s no wonder that Divina is making a name for herself. But the truth is, cooking didn’t come naturally at first.

Born in San Francisco, California, Divina moved to Orlando when she was eight. Though her Filipino heritage colored her home life, she …. (Something about being American here). She graduated from college with a nursing degree, specializing in oncology and hospice. The job was as rewarding as it was heartbreaking. “I’m particularly empathic, so I absorb everything. I could never separate myself from my patients, their wins were my wins, their losses, my losses. And it just became too much. I burnt myself out.”

So she went to work for the family business, which she credits for giving her stability and an appreciation for customer service. But ultimately, it left her unsatisfied day after day. Slowly, she found herself seeking refuge in the kitchen.

“On and off all my life, I was just kind of a semi-homemade type of girl, but when I left the family business in 2020, I started to get more serious about it. I have my mom to thank for that, actually. At that time, she was a year into retirement living with us. She was in a new phase of life, and I was in a new phase of life, so we kind of clung to each other.  And more and more, we found ourselves in the kitchen, and one day she’s making siopao—pronounced “shoo-pow,”—which is a Filipino steamed dumpling. Or, as I like to call it, a Filipino hot pocket. That’s the American in me, coming out,” she laughs.

"We make a joke about it… but instead of saying I love you, Filipinos say, ‘Have you eaten yet?"

“That siopao was a turning point for me. It’s not easy. There’s four hours in making and proofing the dough, let alone braising the meat or making the adobo, or whatever filling you’re going to use. Then there’s the assembly. But I found myself loving the process. I became obsessed with testing out different variations and seeing what happened.”

If it was siopao that ignited Divina’s culinary adventure, it was ensaymada that sealed the deal.

“I can honestly say that the birth of Beng Bread came on 7/11… my mom’s birthday. She was saying, make me something different. Looking back, I can see that she was encouraging me without me even thinking that she was encouraging me, right? So I decided to make ensaymada.”

Similar to the ube breads that she’s become known for, ensaymadas are made with brioche dough that is rolled with butter and sugar to make a small bun; each bun is then topped with more butter, sugar, and a special type of cheese. “It’s fluffy and warm and what’s not to love about slathering warm, fluffy bread with butter and sugar and cheese?” She laughs, an infectious giggle that floats in the air like the insides of her ube bread.

“It was then that I kind of got the confidence to say, Okay, I’m ready to fail. I’m ready to make mistakes. I’m ready to just go out there and see what I can do.” 

With the full support of her husband and mother, Divina began experimenting in earnest. Testing recipes and ideas, devouring cookbooks and blogs, listening to podcasts. In fact, it was Lunch with Biggie, a local podcast about small business and creatives, that gave Divina the courage to start doing pop-ups.

“Biggie was interviewing Jeff Perera from Jeff’s Bagels. I remember listening to that podcast two or three times because Jeff was talking about baking under the cottage law, which is how he started. I hadn’t even considered markets just yet… I was still baking for family and friends. But after listening to him, I signed up for my first pop-up event. I think it was Orlando Local Makers.”

For that first market, Divina brought her signature recipe, Ube Muffins. Basically ube milk bread filled with ube jam, cheese or macapuno (young coconut).

Spoiler alert: she sold out.

"I’ve gotten really good at describing a flavor that doesn’t quite exist for most Americans, yet."

For those that aren’t familiar with the Filipino favorite, ube, don’t worry. “I’ve gotten really good at describing a flavor that doesn’t quite exist for most Americans, yet,” Divina says. “In the Philippines, ube is used how vanilla is used in the U.S. It’s a slightly sweet, earthy, nutty take on vanilla.”

Of course, there’s no mistaking its brilliant purple hue, which is part of its glorious appeal.

Native to Southeast Asia, ube is a purple yam whose glimmering purple center, mild, sweet flavor, and coconut-like aroma have made it a popular ingredient in traditional Filipino sweets. Across the U.S., chefs are using ube to give color and character to everything from cocktails to cakes. Even though ube and purple sweet potatoes share a sweet, earthy taste, ube has a distinctively nuttier, vanilla-like flavor. In addition to their differences in taste, ube is more moist than sweet potatoes, which tend to be drier in texture. Apart from its beautiful color and delicious taste, ube is also very healthy, containing vitamins A and C as well as high levels of potassium.

Health benefits aside, the ube muffins and ube milk bread loaf are a sensory delight. The whisper-thin crust melts on the tongue, revealing a luxuriously light bread accented with a slightly sweet, caramel-like center. Made even better when slathered with Divina’s homemade Ube Butter, which she includes at no charge because she can’t sell it under the cottage law. At least not yet.

Since that first market, Divina’s menu of delights has grown to include ube and pandan crinkle cookies. “All my friends like the crinkle cookies best,” Divina says. She has her own peanut mix, loosely based on pulutan, a popular bar snack in the Philippines. “My mom cuts the garlic slivers by hand, and then she fries them alongside the biggest, plumpest redskin peanuts she can find. It’s an addictive bowl of nostalgia.”

As is Divina’s unique take on Chex Mix, again a nod to her American upbringing. She blends Corn Check, Rice Chex, Wheat Chex and rye chips with the garlic peanuts and furikake spices—mixture of sesame seeds, seaweeds, herbs, fish flakes, and salt—for a deliciously addicting snack.

Most recently, Divina added what’s quickly become her favorite menu item: the Royal Cookie.  “My mom and I were on a cruise and there were these oatmeal cookies, which were good, but just kind of sad looking, sitting there on the buffet. We both looked at each other and said, ‘We can do better,’” she laughs. And so she got home and immediately started crafting an oatmeal-based recipe with coconut, white chocolate, cornflake crunch, and pandan. “And we call it the Royal because Royal Caribbean.”

And so, in the wake of these achievements, Divina reflects on her mother’s profound impact—a source of inspiration that transcends the norm.

“My mom is fearless in the kitchen. Absolutely fearless. She sees something on YouTube, and the next thing I know, she’s in the kitchen whipping up her own version. Without a recipe! I’m more methodical. I research endlessly before I even make a grocery list. We’re different that way, but I think that’s what makes her my biggest inspiration. Knowing that she had to be fearless to come to America as an immigrant and work a job for 30 years to support her family. And she’s been fearless in retirement, whether it’s learning to garden or trying new recipes. At 79 year old, she isn’t afraid of anything. And that’s given me the courage to do this.

Every day I step into this kitchen and work on the business, I try to be 1% better than the day before. It’s attainable, and it drives me to be greater; to be 10%, 50% better than the day before. And that’s really the journey, taking the pressure off needing to be 100% perfect. Beng Bread represents that; my journey is just starting. And that 1% every day, showing up for myself, is already a success.”

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