Cooking Like A Mexican

Pastel de Tres Leches
BY: ALEJANDRA SARACHAGA

Pastel de Tres Leches

This issue the Gringo Gazette marks our 21st anniversary, so maybe we all are going to start behaving as adults. To celebrate our birthday, we will bake the famous three-milk cake.

Three Milks CakeBut wait, what is so Mexican about this one? Is milk Mexican originated? Well, of course not, but its first appearance in the American Continent was through Mexican territory. The first cattle to arrive in the New World landed in Veracruz, Mexico in 1525. Some made their way across the Rio Grande to proliferate in the wild. They became known as “Texas Cattle.” Spanish settlers transported cattle to South America from the Canary Islands and Europe. More followed, and cattle multiplied rapidly throughout New Spain, numbering in the thousands within a few years.

The Jesuit Priest, Eusebio Kino, introduced cattle to Baja California, Mexico in 1679 as part of the missionary effort to establish mission settlements where milk became a staple food item.

Pastel de Tres Leches, or three milk’s cake, has a European origin, and is one, if not the most popular cake sold throughout Mexico. Tres Leches is a sweet, practically wet, homey cake. Its base is a vanilla sponge cake, completely soaked in a sauce traditionally made with three kinds of milk: sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and regular milk. Some versions substitute regular milk with heavy cream. The cake will sometimes have a topping of fresh whipped cream, which I seriously consider a necessity.

Growing up in Mexico City, there was a bakery called Elizondo’s that sold such delicious Tres Leches that even though it was far from home, we used to drive many Sundays to get one when Grandma had not being in the mood to bake one for us. This recipe is as close as I get to my nostalgic memories, because Granny was not the kind of woman who wrote down her recipes. She kept them all in her memory, so once she passed there goes all those delicious secrets that we were not wise enough to learn from her while she was alive because we were much more interested in parties and boys. What a waste.

So I will give you the recipe and at the end I will give you those invaluable grandma’s tips as best I remember.

INGREDIENTS

For the cake:

9 eggs, separated

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2 cups all purpose flour

For the sauce:

1 14oz can sweetened condensed milk

1 12oz can evaporated milk

1 cup milk

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

For the topping:

2 cups heavy whipping cream

1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar

TO PREPARE

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9 x 13 inch pan, lining the bottom with a piece of parchment paper cut to fit the pan. Pour the egg whites into the bowl of your mixer and beat on medium-high speed for 4 to 5 minutes, or until they hold soft peaks. Slowly stir in the sugar and continue beating until they hold hard or stiffer peaks. Turn off the mixer and with a spatula, move the egg white mixture onto a large mixing bowl.

Rinse the bowl of the mixer and its whisk. Now pour the egg yolks into the bowl of the mixer and beat on medium-high speed for about 5 to 6 minutes, or until the egg yolks become creamy, puffy and their color has toned down to an almost cream color rather than a loud yellow. Stir in the vanilla and continue beating for another minute. Turn off the mixer.

Pour the egg yolk mixture onto the egg white mixture and with a spatula, in revolving motions, combine them into a homogeneous single batter. Do so gently trying not to lose much volume from the mixture. When fully combined, fold in the flour, scraping the bowl with the spatula so that all the flour is well mixed.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and place into the oven for 22 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. It can be a bit moist, but not wet. The top of the cake should be tanned and feel fluffy if you touch it. Remove it from the oven and let it cool.

Once it cools down, turn it onto a platter. Remove the parchment paper and cover the top with an upside down platter and invert again. The platter should be large enough to hold the cake and the vanilla sauce you are about to prepare. Using a fork, or two, poke holes all over the cake so that it will better absorb the vanilla sauce.

In a mixing bowl, combine the sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, milk, and vanilla extract. Pour the vanilla sauce over the cake. In the bowl of your mixer, whip up the heavy cream with the confectioners sugar on medium-high speed until the mixture holds up stiff peaks, about 1 to 2 minutes. Spread the whipped cream all over the already wet cake. To make the sponge cake as fluffy as can be, start by beating the egg whites until they hold soft peaks. Add the sugar and keep on beating until they hold stiff peaks.

Separately beat the egg yolks until thick, creamy and very pale in color and add some vanilla.

Then pour the egg yolks (look at how thick and pale the egg yolks are after beating them for 4 to 5 minutes, that’s what you want) with that hint of vanilla, onto the egg white mixture.

Pour it all on top…

Gently, with a spatula, combine the yellow with the white, being careful not to lose much of the volume and fluffiness already achieved. Once well combined, add the flour and incorporate it in evolving motions.

Pour that batter onto the prepared pan, buttered and lined with parchment paper.

It is a simple cake batter: just egg whites, sugar, egg yolks, vanilla and flour. But it turns out fluffy, homey and spongy because of the way these ingredients are used.

Into the oven for about 25 minutes, until the cake has a nice tanned crust, it is spongy to the touch and a toothpick comes out clean.

After you get the cake out of the oven, invert it onto a plate and poke all over with a fork, or two forks. You want to help the cake find ways to absorb the sauce you are about to make.

There goes the condensed milk and the evaporated milk into the regular milk, and a bit more vanilla.

Some modern versions of the cake add other kinds of flavors into the sauce, like chocolate, or Rompope (Mexican eggnog). If you like a hint of alcohol in your desserts, go ahead and pour in some Rum or Kahlua.

Pour all the sauce on top…

Granny’s tips: The cake tastes much better when it has had a chance to soak in all of that sauce and when it is cold. So it is a good idea to cover it and refrigerate it for at least an hour.

It is simple to eat, simple to make. It is an unfussy and tasty dessert that is somewhat neutral, so it can take many variations. Of course you can add some fruit on top or in between, fresh strawberries work really nice here, it’s your choice.

The fluffy yet completely wet cake holds its shape as it gives in to the flavor of the sauce. The whipped cream, as you can see, just needs to go on top. It makes such a nice contrast with the wetness and sweetness of the cake.