By Miles Clements
January 6, 2010
Crisp, impossibly airy cookies served straight from the freezer, their centers stuffed with slick buttercream, seem almost Space Age. They're somehow both sturdy and weightless. They dissolve the second they touch your tongue. These otherworldly treats are silvanas, colorful and classic Filipino cookies that could easily be mistaken for oversized French macarons.
They're the namesake of House of Silvanas, a months-old sweets shop at the confluence of Silver Lake and Little Armenia. You won't find the place without some confusion -- it's but one of many stalls located inside Kusina, a surprisingly spacious cafeteria-style turo-turo joint where buffet trays are loaded with ruddy links of longganisa sausage and steaming cups of sinigang, a sour tamarind soup, serve as makeshift palate cleansers.
Never mind its humble surroundings -- House of Silvanas has a long, multi-generational history. Its cream-filled tradition began a world away in the Philippines, where Trining Teves-Sagarbarria's pastries were so popular that a business bloomed to satisfy demand. Those renowned recipes became heirlooms, passed down to daughter-in-law Mary Ann, who has now bestowed them upon her daughter Kathryn.
The first branch of House of Silvanas, like Teves-Sagarbarria's L.A. shop, was born out of necessity: Mary Ann launched it in 1995 after neighbors complained of the flood of customers overwhelming her metro Manila home.
An extended network of the Sagarbarria family tends to House of Silvanas' stateside branches, with dessert-driven relatives operating outposts in the Bay Area and the South Bay. Stand-alone stores in Torrance and Carson have come and gone, but the new stall inside Kusina marks a milestone: the bakery's first foray into Los Angeles proper.
Silvanas remain the bake shop's hallmark. The mystery of the cookies is revealed in their deconstruction: a layer of flavored buttercream is sandwiched between a pair of cashew-meringue wafers that are coated in microscopic cookie crumbs. The puck-sized indulgences are available in seven color-coded flavors: ube, buko-pandan, chocolate, strawberry, mango, mocha and plain buttercream.
Even after you've unwittingly inhaled a whole box, eating even a single silvana is no less strange and satisfying. Its flavor is faint but distinct, drawn from the likes of earthy ube (purple yam) and floral, slightly grassy-flavored pandan leaves. But what will keep you curious is the interplay of temperature and texture, a cold, delicate combination that seems to defy the very laws of culinary science.
Contrary to its particularly specific name, House of Silvanas makes more than just cookies. But while you might find breads burnished a golden brown or flaky pastry pockets at other Filipino bakeries, House of Silvanas keeps it simple. Two-bite bars like the excellent "food for the gods" -- a buttery block of shortbread capped with butterscotch, dates and walnuts -- may be cheap, but they're undeniably rich. There are also even smaller options, like polvoron, a cylindrical confection of powdered milk, toasted flour, butter and sugar that crumbles on contact. Or you can straddle the savory line with an ensaimada, a cupcake-sized brioche brushed with butter and sprinkled with sugar and grated cheese.
Should a special occasion arise, call ahead for one of the bakery's cakes. Billowy chiffon creations flavored with ube or pandan are bound to become party favorites, but don't overlook the sans rival. It's the progenitor to all those silvanas, a cake built from layer after layer of cashew-meringue wafers and buttercream spread as thin as spackle.
In the peculiar annex that is Kusina, everyone arrives for something different. Maybe it's a bowl of beef stew, a cup of coffee, a new purse or a quick influx of cash. But there's one constant: Nobody leaves without a box of silvanas.
Location: 4716 Fountain Avenue, Los Angeles, (323) 667-9752
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