There’s a reason why photos of ube desserts catch a person’s eye on Instagram and stops them mid-scroll. The yam hailing from southeast Asia is a vibrant purple color rivaling that of the McDonaldland character Grimace, imparting its violet hue onto and into most anything it touches. But beyond its highly Instagrammable and eye-catching shade, ube on its own is earthy, nutty, and naturally sweet and far from a social media trend, especially in countries like the Philippines where the root vegetable is a staple ingredient.
Ube is traditionally used as an ingredient for desserts like halaya and halo-halo in the Philippines. Though often confused with taro — a similar starchy root vegetable — ube is sweeter and even more purple than its counterpart.
Three Lolas Bake Shop owner Jen Almanza, who grew up in the Philippines, fondly recalls Christmas gatherings with family always including the deep purple, jam-like dessert halaya on the menu. “It would come out in tins and they would cut it up into squares. It would be like this chewy, fudgy dessert,” Almanza says. Every family makes their own variation on halaya, she says, but it typically features a combination of roasted, mashed, or boiled ube, evaporated, condensed, or coconut milk (or combination of milks), butter, and sugar.
Though halaya can be eaten by itself, it’s also how Almanza incorporates the flavor and color of ube into her baked goods for Three Lolas. “I think [halaya] goes really beautifully with a lot of things people might not think to pair it with,” she says. When Almanza incorporates halaya into her desserts and pastries, she tries to balance how she remembers eating it (the jam) with Americanized pastries, like Pop-Tarts with an ube filling, ube pastry cream-filled doughnuts, and even bread, along with traditional Filipino desserts like halo-halo. Almanza calls ube a “very versatile root” which can easily replace sweet potato in a recipe.
At Doraville Filipino restaurant Kamayan ATL on Buford Highway, chef and co-owner Mia Orino carefully sources her ube. Orino strictly uses ube from the Philippines, or ube crops grown by Filipinos, which sometimes proves challenging. “We used to get ube from a couple in Florida, but they sold their property and stopped growing them,” says Orino. “We used to hoard [ube].” Now the chef gets the purple yam from a purveyor in California who boils the ube and freezes it before shipping to Georgia.
Orino feels protective of her ube desserts. She makes the halaya in-house and oversees making the dessert herself. “I just like the old world way of making things,” she says. “When we see a 90-year-old crying in the corner because they haven’t had ube in a while and they know the texture and taste, it brings back those childhood memories. I don’t want to compromise that.”
Her ube flan cake is a best seller at Kamayan ATL, which she and partner Carlo Gan added to their pop-up menu in 2018, before opening the restaurant last year at Asian Square on Buford Highway. It’s two layers: flan on top, ube cake on the bottom. Making the cake requires careful attention to detail, as the flan layer starts out on the top of the cake pan and floats to the bottom during baking.
“Anything could mess it up, and that’s the reason why I am the only person making it,” says Orino, who is now teaching her chefs at the restaurant to make the cake. “I’m not going to be around forever, so I want to be able to share the recipe.”
Baking with ube brings Almanza right back to her youth in the Philippines. Even the process of making halaya brings back memories. “It can easily take 30 minutes to an hour and a half depending on how much you’re making,” says Almanza. “Sitting there, stirring the pot, [making halaya] does make me feel connected to my roots.”
Below are five bakeries and shop to find ube desserts around Atlanta.
This Filipino pop-up bakery from Jen Almanza sells everything from ube blondies, ube brioche doughnuts, and slices of Sans Rival cake to pastries stuffed with spam, eggs, and cheese. Expect halo-halo popsicles during the summer, too, as well as other confections with ube such as turnovers, iced shortbread cookies, and pandesal — a slightly sweet bread filled with condensed milk and ube whip.
No meal at Kaymayan ATL is complete without a slice of chef Mia Orino’s flan cake. Everything is prepared in-house, from the rich creme caramel to the dense ube cake made with halaya. Look for ube churros, puto, halo-halo, and pandesal at Kamayan ATL, depending on availability each week.
Baker Anthony Fisher produces myriad ube treats, ranging from traditional to nonconventional, at his Filipino micro-bakery and pop-up Seven Fingers. But Fisher’s desserts are always made with real ube, whether in dried or powdered form or halaya. Expect ube pandesal, cheesecake with coconut caramel, eclairs, and sticky buns from this pop-up. Fisher frequently sells ube shortbread cookies at Rebel Teahouse in Decatur.
Ube appears in both the beverages and desserts at July Moon Bakery and Cafe in Alpharetta. Try Vietnamese iced coffees like the Prince topped with an ube foam and drizzle or the Leah with black sesame and an ube foam. Make sure to also try the ube waffles and soft serve ice cream.
Larissa Neto owns this cottage bakery in Atlanta’s Ormewood Park neighborhood where her ube cookies and cakes are very popular. Neto first fell in love with ube during a stopover in LA where she took a self-guided tour of Filipino bakeries and cafes around the city. “When I came back [to Atlanta], I started trying to replicate the things I had tried and loved so much [in LA].” Her ube crinkle cookies and blondies are best sellers at Bakey Bakes. Order online.