I lived in the same house for most of my childhood in North Jersey, as did a majority of the neighbors on my block. We played together, walked to school together, attended each other's baptisms and birthdays and Independence Day barbecues, and pretty much grew together like family. My Cuban neighbors taught me how to dance merengue. On Sundays, my Syrian neighbors often took us with them to their Assyrian Orthodox church. And my Korean neighbors introduced us to Lunar New Year, decorating their front step every February.
My Filipino neighbors, however, were the ones who always had the best parties. The adults would be dancing in the back yard and singing hours of karaoke, while the kids all crowded around the living room couch while we took turns playing Sonic The Hedgehog. When it was time to eat, there would be giant trays of lumpia, pancit canton, and on the most special occasions, lechon - a whole roasted pig. All of the food would be seriously amazing, but my favorite was the halayang ube, a sweet and sticky cake made with sweetened condensed milk and the pulp of ube, a type of purple yam.
Fast-forward to July 4th,1999, my last day living in New Jersey. We had a huge neighborhood party complete with fireworks and food and all of the kids on the block playing games together. When it was time for everyone to say goodbye, one of the things that Maggie, the mother of the Filipino family, did was give my mother a small package of purple yam ube powder and the halayang ube recipe because she knew it was my favorite. To this day, I really, really miss Maggie, her family, and the years we spent together, so when I am able to make halayang ube, I can't help but feel incredibly sentimental.
To make this recipe, which calls for actual ube yams, you may have to go to a Filipino market or a grocery store that offers a large amount of Asian products. Contrary to what many believe, taro root and ube are not actually the same, so make sure that if you're buying frozen or powdered product to substitute, you're still buying the right one.
Also, the picture has the halayang ube piled into small jars, but most people simply spread the halayang on a baking dish or plate. It may look a little messy, but it tastes great!
Halayang Ube (or Ube Halaya)
1 1/2 cups grated cooked purple yam
1 cup evaporated milk or (traditionally) coconut milk
1 14oz can condensed milk
a pinch of salt
1 tablespoon butter/margarine plus extra for smoothing the cooked yam
1. Wash the purple yam thoroughly, and peel and slice it into big chunks. Boil until tender.
2. In a deep pot or saucepan, combine all the ingredients except the butter or margarine. Stir to combine well and on medium high heat, cook until the mixture thickens. You have to keep stirring while cooking to avoid lumps. It will get harder to stir as it cooks.
3. Halfway through the cooking, add a tablespoon of butter. Mix well and continue cooking until it starts to pull away from the sides of the pan/pot and when you get some, it doesn’t fall off the spoon.
4. Transfer the sweetened purple yam into well-buttered dish/dishes. Add a pat of butter on top of the mixture and using the back of a spoon, level and smooth the purple yam.