Bienmesabe! A singing word that sounds like a big hug! There are words like these that make you want to sing and that make you think of those languid Spanish melodies that you can’t stop listening to.
In Spanish, bienmesabe means “it’s good for me” or “tastes good to me”. Sabe comes from the word sabor, which means “taste”.
Venezuelan women say that bienmesabe is a medicina para el alma, a “remedy for the soul”, in other words, the wounds of the soul. They say that the benefits of bienmesabe are magic, that it cures the pains of the heart and that a good piece of this cake soothes all the pain of the soul and fills that deep emptiness that can cause a heartache.
Whole eggs, coconut, sherry and meringue can make you happy?
When you learn about Venezuelan desserts, you quickly understand that the bienmesabe will always have a very special place in the kitchens of the country.
What is the origin of bienmesabe?
Bienmesabe has several centuries of history behind it. This dessert dates from 1635 and comes from Andalusia, the Canary Islands and Malaga. In Spain, it is known as antequera bienmesabe and, at that time, this specialty was prepared by the nuns of the Convent of Clausura de Belén de las Monjas Clarisas in the city of Arab origin, Antequera, currently province of Malaga.
At that time, the nuns made it with almonds, fruit syrup and angel hair. Bienmesabe arrived in Venezuela thanks to the settlers who taught the native slaves and the Africans who served them in their haciendas, how to prepare this delicious dessert, exactly as it was made in Spain.
The Venezuelan bienmesabe, as we know it today, came much later when the Franciscan nuns of El Paraíso, in Caracas, replaced the almonds with the coconut pulp and water to give a tropical flavor to this cake.
The recipe of these Franciscan nuns was transmitted through the many cooking classes they offered, with the goal of generating additional income and helping them to assist the most deprived: street children and single mothers who roamed the streets looking for work and food for their children.
Another very popular story about the origin of the Venezuelan bienmesabe is about “the best bienmesabe of Caracas” quoted in the famous book La Mantuana, written by the well-known Venezuelan author, Soledad Morillo Belloso.
In this historical book, the Venezuelan woman, who is said to be beautiful not only outside but also inside, appears in the historical context of colonial society: a woman, a mantuana from Caracas.
Soledad Morillo Belloso quotes a woman named La Negra Contemplación and her bienmesabe. But how was La Negra Contemplación’s bienmesabe so special to still be quoted today?
To understand, I am sharing with you an excerpt (translated) of “La Mantuana” where this singular story is narrated:
No woman in Caracas has ever prepared the bienmesabe as well as La Negra Contemplación. It was said that its virtues were almost magical, and that he who ate her bienmesabe felt that his misfortunes entered into serenity.
Her secret was not in the recipe, but rather in the hours it was taking her to prepare it. She was preparing it at dawn, before the roosters crowed, while only the fireflies were awake, to be devoted to the art of love.
Thus, in the silence of the night, La Negra Contemplación went to the kitchen and prepared her bienmesabe with the light of a candle and without making any noise. Her bienmesabe was a medicine for the soul. She said :
“I took three big coconuts, I got the flesh out. I put all this in a saucepan and I added two cups of hot water. With a mallet, I crushed the white flesh. Then I sieved it through a cloth to extract the milk from the coconut. Then I added eighteen egg yolks and a pinch of salt. Then, in a saucepan, I poured three and a half cups of sugar with a cup of water and I carried it to the fire, very hot, without stirring, until reaching a syrup with a thread. Then, I removed the pan from the fire and I added the mixture of coconut meat and eggs and beat until obtaining a cream. I rested it on the fire and I stirred slowly, very slowly, until boiling. Then I extinguished the flame of my candle and let it cool a little. Then I took one of the cakes that was still in the cupboard and cut it into thin slices. In a glass dish, I placed the slices and immersed them in half a glass of sweet sherry. I put a layer of coconut cream on it. And then finally I put on a generous layer of a meringue prepared with three egg whites, half a cup of sugar and a pinch of cinnamon”.
Before the rooster crowed, La Negra Contemplación had prepared the bienmesabe, and placed it in a safe, cool place, away from the temptation of ants and other whims.
La Negra Contemplación prepared three bienmesabe each morning: one to take to the convent of San Jacinto, another to leave in the square in front of the cathedral door for the beggars, and a third to taste for the house of Doña Carlota and the visitors, or for the staff too. The same three bienmesabe, without any difference.
Doña Carlota was very strict on two points: on the fact that we are all equally children of God, and as far as sharing is concerned.
You will understand that La Negra Contemplación was therefore the cook of Doña Carlota, the heroine of this historical book. This version of the origins of bienmesabe has become a legend of Venezuelan cuisine.
Variants of bienmesabe
– In Panamanian cuisine, bienmesabe is a dessert made with milk, rice and panela (unrefined whole cane sugar), that is cooked very slowly.
– In Puerto Rican cuisine, bienmesabe is a sweet syrup made with coconut milk, egg yolk and sugar.
– And, be careful, if you try to order a bienmesabe in the region of Cadiz in Spain, you will be served… fish! A marinated and fried fish preparation, often prepared with dogfish.
I strongly suggest that you prepare the bienmesabe with fresh coconut but you can also use canned coconut cream and coconut milk as a substitute.
How to crack open a coconut?
Do you know how to crack open a coconut to extract its water and flesh? With the coconut, nothing is lost!
The shell of this fruit is particularly resistant. So opening a coconut requires some skill. To open it, you must first pierce one of three visible “eyes” on the shell, using an ice pick, a screwdriver, or a corkscrew.
After filtering the coconut water in a large glass, you can break the nut by striking it along its equator line with a hammer by turning it on itself. No need to hit the hammer like a madman. By slowly hitting with small strokes, the coconut will eventually open! This way, it will be possible to crack open the nut in half and consume the pulp after pulling it carefully and patiently from the shell with a small knife.
To preserve the coconut flesh, it is recommended to immerse it in the same liquid extracted from the coconut, after it is filtered. You can also cover the coconut with cool mineral water and keep it in the fridge for 3 or 4 days, by changing this water every day.
I prepared this bienmesabe for the birthday of a pretty and young 8-year old Naomie. I do not know many children who do not like coconut! The kids loved it… and the adults too!
Do not wait for a heartbreak or setbacks to prepare this delicious cake whose recipe is so simple!
- 8 eggs
- 1½ cup sugar
- 3 cups flour
- 3 large coconuts
- 3 cups hot water
- 18 egg yolks
- 1 large pinch salt
- 2¼ cups sugar
- ½ cup Sherry
- 4 egg whites
- 1½ cup sugar
- 1 pinch salt
- Preheat the oven to 350 F.
- Separate the eggs.
- Beat the egg whites while gradually adding the sugar.
- Continue beating, and add the rum and then the yolks, one by one.
- Using a spatula, gently fold in the flour.
- Bake for about 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out dry.
- Unmold and set aside in a cool place.
- Split the coconuts and remove the coconut water and flesh.
- Filter the coconut water.
- Pour the water and all the coconut flesh into a blender, add 2 cups of hot water.
- Blend thoroughly, then sieve the mixture through a large cheesecloth to extract the coconut milk.
- Pour the coconut milk in a large salad bowl and add the egg yolks.
- Beat the mixture, add salt and set aside.
- In a large non-stick pan, pour the sugar and remaining hot water, and bring to a boil. Cook on high heat without mixing to form a syrup until a thin thread is formed.
- Turn off the heat and add the coconut milk and egg mixture. Beat vigorously, preferably with an electric mixer, until a cream forms.
- Place the pan on a low heat again and stir until reaching boiling point.
- Remove from the heat and let cool for 30 minutes.
- Cut the biscuit into 3 thin slices.
- Place the first slice of biscuit in a greased, removable springform pan, and drizzle with a little sherry.
- Spread a layer of coconut cream.
- Place the second slice of biscuit on top, sprinkle with a little Sherry and pour the coconut cream over again.
- Finally, place the third slice of biscuit on top, drizzle with remaining Sherry and add all remaining coconut cream.
- Refrigerate immediately for 2 hours.
- Add the egg whites and the salt into a bowl.
- Breaking the whites: Beat them slowly at first to make them liquid.
- Add about ⅓ cup sugar and beat at a slightly higher speed for 1 minute to stiffen the whites.
- Finally add the remaining sugar gradually and beat on medium speed for 4 to 5 minutes.
- The meringue must be very smooth, and especially very dense.
- Remove the biscuit from the refrigerator and unmold.
- Apply the meringue gently with a pastry bag and a start tip and cover the bienmesabe entirely.
- Refrigerate again for 4 hours before serving.