Every once in a while I have a food experience that’s so mind-blowing, so completely unexpected, that it’s etched into my memory as a milestone, in just the same way I marked my first kiss and my college graduation. My first oyster was something like this, a shock of brine and slime so unlike anything I’d ever put into my 12-year-old mouth that I had to fight the primal urge to spit it out. The subtle mingling of salty and sweet was lost on my palate. I simply willed myself to swallow it, doing anything else at the dinner table would be too embarrassing. It was a life taken in vain, but in that moment a light turned on within me. I kept eating oysters, first cooked and then raw. Now, I don’t know if I’ll ever eat enough of them.
The dessert I’m telling you about today was a similarly life altering experience. I’d just moved to Costa Rica to spend my junior year in college abroad, and was going through an orientation, living with a family that fed me nothing but rice, beans and bread twice a day. Costa Ricans are renowned for their friendliness, but this family was the exception to the rule. I was a boarder there for two weeks, and they seemed eager to make as much off me as possible, mostly by skimping on the food and otherwise pretending I didn’t exist. One afternoon, a classmate invited me over to her house. Her host mother invited us to sit down at the kitchen table, asked how our day was, and oh by the way were we hungry? My stomach leaped as I watched her pull a whipped cream laden Pyrex dish from the fridge, and cut us each a generous portion of what I assumed was a cake.
It was indeed a cake, but it was like no other cake I’d had before. I felt like Dorothy entering Oz after the first bite. The cake was cool, creamy and just subtlety sweet. But what was most unexpected was the texture. The cake was wet, more like a custard than a baked good. I struggled to find the words in my elementary Spanish to express how blown away I was. The only thing I could come up with was, “Que es?” What is it? Fortunately, the answer was as simple. Pastel de tres leches, she said. Te gusta? Do you like it? I could only nod as I took another bite.
Once I learned more about pastel de tres leches,or three milk cake, it came as no surprise that I was enamored with it. I’ve written about my love-affair with tinned milks before, and the tres leches is laden with them. An angel food-like cake is baked in a square cake pan, then stabbed with a fork and soaked with a concoction of three milks: evaporated, condensed and heavy cream. The cake is then “frosted” with whipped cream, and topped with fruit, usually a maraschino cherry, though I’ve also seen peaches used. Strawberries and blueberries could also make it a wonderful addition to a 4th of July barbecue. Hint. Hint.
Since those days in Costa Rica, I’ve only found tres leches at Cuban places in Miami. I got really excited when I spotted one on a menu in Cambridge a few months ago, but it was awful, more like a sodden biscuit than a tres leches. After that, I decided that I’d have to take matters into my own hands. I perused the internet and found some promising recipes, and simply made my own. It was so easy, and so delicious, I can’t wait to have an excuse to make another.
Tres Leches Cake
(adapted from Pioneer Woman)
For the cake:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoons salt
5 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar, divided
1 teaspoon vanilla
⅓ cups milk
For the topping
1 can evaporated milk
1 can sweetened condensed milk
¼ cups heavy cream
For the icing:
1 pint heavy cream, (or whipping cream)
3 Tablespoons sugar
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
Pre-heat oven to 350 and spray a 9 x 13 inch pan with cooking spray.
Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks with 3/4 cup sugar on high speed until the mixture is pale yellow. Stir in milk and vanilla. Pour egg yolk mixture over the flour mixture and stir very gently until combined.
In a clean bowl, beat the egg whites on high-speed until soft peaks form. Then add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and beat until egg whites are stiff but not dry. Fold the egg white mixture into the batter and mix gently until just combined. Pour into prepared pan and spread to even out the surface.
Bake for 35 to 45 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Turn cake out onto a rimmed platter and allow to cool completely. (If you don’t have a platter, you can also do the following in a cake pan. The only difference will be that the sides of your cake won’t be frosted.)
Combine condensed milk, evaporated milk, and heavy cream in a bowl or pitcher. When cake is cool, pierce the surface with a fork several times all over. Slowly drizzle all but about 1 cup of the milk mixture evenly over the cake. (Reserve the rest of the milk mixture for another use… like iced coffee). Allow the cake to absorb the milk mixture for 30 minutes to a few hours.
Whip a pint of heavy cream with sugar and vanilla until the mixture is thick and spreadable, and then ice the cake with it. Cut into squares and garnish with maraschino cherries or the fruit of your choice. Serves 16.