Last Christmas, I made the journey from “still-on-lockdown” Mumbai to my “everything-is-normal here” home in Goa, India. I arrived just in time to prepare the Christmas sweets. My mother, sister-in-law Larissa, and I sat together to curate a list of what would feature in our Christmas tray, or kusvar. My mama prefers the comfort of cakes like the semolina-and-coconut bathk and simple shortbread biscuits like nankhatais. Larissa and I decided, on a whim, to try bebinca.
Bebinca is often called the “queen of Goan desserts.” In fact, the Goan government recently announced it is pushing for it to get an official Geographical Indication (GI) tag from the World Trade Organization. The multilayered cake or pudding is sweet, buttery, and eggy (like a custard) with spice notes. It is made with several egg yolks and baked one painstaking layer at a time. Twenty-five percent of the Goan population identifies as Catholic, and bebinca is a must at pretty much all religious and secular festivals. In addition to Christmas, it’s a big part of Easter celebrations, where it’s a common after-meal or tea-time sweet. No chocolate or marzipan egg can touch the allure of a fluffy, perfectly baked bebinca.
Its origins are a bit of a mystery. Legend has it that in the 17th century, the nuns in the Santa Monica Convent in Old Goa came up with, in millennial-speak, a zero-waste idea. They used egg whites to starch their habits and the leftover yolks to make sweets or doces conventuais (confectionaries from the convents). It was Sister Bebiana who took the yolks and created a layered cake — seven layers to symbolize the famed hills of Goa and Lisbon. In her honor, the cake was called bebinca.
Of course, that’s just one story. Others say the Portuguese introduced Goans to bebinca; the colonizers did bring the technique of adding eggs to many other sweets. There are versions of bebinca common in other former colonies to support this theory: the coconut-rice cake bibingka in the Philippines and the coconut-jaggery cake bibikkan in Sri Lanka.
In Goa, bebinca is called bebik, and it has become the quintessential Goan dessert. Packaged versions are the go-to souvenir for visitors; for Goans living away from home, it offers the taste of nostalgia. Some like it warm, others eat it cold, and the smartest take theirs with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side. But the one characteristic that separates a mediocre bebinca from a great one is the layers. Here, more is better. Goans will cut a slice, count the layers, and nod approvingly if the number is above seven. Legend has it that when Sister Bebiana offered the seven-layer bebinca to a priest, he asked her to increase the number. Today, you’ll find bebincas stacked up to 16 layers high.
Most Goans have a family member, or what we call a contact — a baker or talented uncle or aunty — who makes “the best bebinca.” These contacts are rarely shared outside a small circle, and my family is lucky enough to have three, whose exquisite bebincas have reliably made their way to my Mumbai home for the last 13 years.
Last year, my sister-in-law and I attempted to become the fourth.
Confession: I cannot bake. Baking and its complicated, disciplined adherence to timing and mathematics (a subject I detest) does not appeal to me. This holds no water against the enthusiasm of my sister-in-law. Larissa walked into our lives three years back, bringing with her an infectious energy, quiet determination, positive vibes, and a face you cannot say no to. She finds joy in cooking and baking. Under her tutelage, I bravely learned how to make filos — pancakes of overripe bananas and maida — liquor chocolates, and beef stew with macaroni. With her, baking bebinca didn’t seem all that complicated.
Though the ingredients are simple, making a bebinca requires time, attention, and one thing I definitely lack — patience. Bebinca, old-timers will tell you, was traditionally baked in earthen ovens called tizals, placed over fire fueled by sonnam (coconut husks) and kotteos (coconut shells). The lower tizal had a layer of sand. Once heated, a container with bebinca batter was placed on this sand. Another tizal filled with sonnam or kotteos covered the bottom tizal. Sometimes there were three tizals — sand and sonnam in the bottom one, bebinca in the middle, and more sonnam on top. But the absence of firewood and clay dishes in our apartment in Goa meant we had to use a modern contraption, the OTG (oven-toaster-grill).
Larissa and I worked with a borrowed recipe from a friend’s grandaunt, matching it against my mama’s trusted and well-thumbed Joyce Fernandes cookbook. We mixed freshly scraped coconut flesh with warm water and squeezed it to extract coconut milk. We separated yolks, measured out flour, and whisked it all together with some salt and nutmeg powder until everything coalesced. Then into the oven — easy enough. The first layer took more than half an hour to cook, and eventually the batter rose like a dome and deflated into an even, flat layer only after being pricked. To this, we added ghee, then more batter for the second layer. The baking process — nine layers in total — took us all morning. The final product was a jumbled mess: The bottom three layers were burnt and stuck to the baking tray. The top six layers were firm and even, just as we wanted.
The good thing about bebinca is, even the mistakes are delicious. We scraped off the bottom layer and ate the crumbs with relish. The good layers went in the tray.
As someone who doesn’t relish cooking, my tryst with bebinca felt momentous. My favorite cooking memories as a child were helping my mother make holiday sweets. After I moved away, those occasions became rare. Until last year. Baking bebinca with Larissa reminded me that the joy in cooking comes from doing it with others. You discuss recipes, barter tips and tricks, make mistakes (and eat them), and share successes.
Our second stab at bebinca — baking, not eating it — happened at another relative’s home. In Goa, practically everyone is related by six, or even three or four, degrees of separation. The wonderful Janice Figueiredo became part of the family via Larissa’s sister, Liane, who married Janice’s nephew. I had heard stories about her cooking prowess. If invited to a party, chances are Janice will bring her special bebinca or sans rival (a cashew cake). I’d tasted Janice’s bebinca once before and it was definitely one of the best, a taste born of 30 years of practice.
On hearing about our failed attempt, she invited Larissa and I over to try again with her. So, on a wintry evening, we attempted our second bebinca. “It’s really uncomplicated,” was Janice’s common refrain throughout the evening. Under her watchful gaze, we followed the same process: measuring, sifting, whisking.
Larissa and I realized our mistake early on: We were too stingy with the ghee. Janice had no qualms, bathing the tray with it. It was the ghee that gave each layer the lovely sheen and slight caramelization, or leopard spots. Getting the first layer right is important, we learned. Janice heated a baking tin with ghee on the stove, adding batter to the fat till it sizzled and letting it cook for a few minutes on low. Then it went into the oven. Each layer got 15 to 20 minutes to turn brown before being bathed in yet another ghee and butter mixture — “for better viscosity and taste” — and covered with more liquid.
Our cooking class soon turned into an impromptu party. As relatives streamed in, out came the feni (local cashew liquor). The kitchen resounded with the sounds of conversation and laughter. As the layers baked, we made and ate beef samosas, aided by Janice’s daughter and nephew. The leftover egg whites went into another cake, the sans rival.
Our hours of hard work, if you can call them that, paid off. The final bebinca was a thing of beauty, golden with craters of caramelization and glistening with ghee. It was rich, smooth to the touch, and delicate on the tongue. It had seven layers, and though slightly uneven, they stacked up beautifully.
The older Goans in the house inspected the layers and smiled admiringly. Our queen stood tall and firm, enjoying her moment in the glare of the fluorescent kitchen tube light.
Unfortunately I’m away from home this Easter, so my third attempt at bebinca has to wait. In a month, though, when I celebrate a milestone birthday at home, I am ready to bow to the queen once more.
Joanna Lobo is a freelance journalist from India who enjoys writing about food and its ties to communities, her Goan heritage, and other things that make her happy.