This time around, however, I hesitated when it came to participating. The theme for WCC #5 was the celebration of Cinco de Mayo, which is widely celebrated in Mexico and the United States. Cinco de Mayo, or the fifth of May, marks the victory of the Mexican Army over the French in the Battle of Puebla that occurred on May 5, 1862.
Once the theme for WCC #5 was announced, I strolled over to the Overburdened Bookshelf only to realize that I do not have any cookbooks relating to Mexican or Spanish cuisine. Could it be?! With all those cookbooks not one dedicated to the rich and vibrant cuisine of Mexico? Yes … even I was shocked. But it’s true. So, not knowing what to make, I considered sitting this one out.
And then a most serendipitous thing happened. I was leafing through my copy of The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion and I came across a recipe for something called Tres Leches Cake. I’d heard of Tres Leches Cake before, but had never attempted it nor I had I ever even tasted it.
Tres Leches Cake is very popular in Latin American countries. The name refers to three milks (tres leches), which are used to soak the cake after it’s baked. The three milks are condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream. I was particularly happy to read that Tres Leches Cake is very popular in Mexico, which of course meant that I had to make this cake!
The cake is quite simple to pull together. The batter is almost chiffon-like and bakes up into a spongy cake that is perfect for soaking up the tres leches mixture. Once the cake is baked, you poke a series of holes in the sponge and then drench it in a mixture of condensed milk, evaporated milk, heavy cream, brandy and vanilla extract. The cake is refrigerated for several hours (at least) to allow the liquid to fully absorb.
Everything worked very well for me until I got to the icing for the Tres Leches Cake. The icing for this recipe requires a cooked meringue. This means that egg whites are beaten with cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Then a syrup of water and sugar is made and cooked until it reaches soft-ball stage, or 240 degrees F. Once the syrup is ready, it’s slowly added to the egg whites (with the mixer running) and beaten until the resulting meringue is glossy and stiff. My mistake is that I overcooked the syrup. By the time I added it to the beaten egg whites it was almost caramel. The resulting mess was most disheartening. I couldn’t bear to start all over again and considered just serving the Tres Leches Cake solo.
But then I remembered that I had some heavy cream in the refrigerator. I whipped that up quickly, added a tiny bit of sugar, as well as brandy to echo the brandy that it’s in the tres leches mixture. When topping the cake, I put my piping skills to good use and decided to try a bit of a fancier design rather than just blobbing on the whipped cream.
I’d read that Tres Leches Cake is often served with tropical fruit. I had some pineapple in the refrigerator so I cut it into small chunks, heated it in a pan and added a bit of brown sugar and brandy. I served the brandied pineapple alongside the cake and was most happy with the results.
The cake was delicious. I was a bit worried that it might be too sweet but that was not the case. The sweet milkiness of the tres leches was perfect with the golden, spongy cake. And I have to be honest I’m glad the original icing didn’t work out as the sweetened whipped cream with brandy was the perfect compliment, both in taste and texture, to the cake. The brandied pineapple was a nice finish!
All in all, it was a very successful fifth edition of the WCC for me. I ended up trying a new recipe from a book that is sadly underused in my house. Best of all, I ended up with a lovely cake.
Happy (belated) Cinco de Mayo!
Adapted from The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion.
For the cake:
- 1-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 6 large eggs, separated
- 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1-1/2 cups sugar
- 1/3 cup cold water
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and butter and flour a 9 x 13-inch pan.
- Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.
- In a large bowl, whisk the egg whites with the cream of tartar until soft peaks form; set aside.
- In another bowl, beat the egg yolks until pale yellow and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
- Add the sugar and continue to beat the egg yolks until the mixture is very thick and falls from the beaters in ribbons.
- Add the cold water, vanilla and almond extracts to the egg yolk mixture. Mix well. Stir in the flour mixture.
- Gently fold in the beaten egg whites.
- Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and level it with a spatula or spoon. Bake the cake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean.
- Let the cake cool in the pan for 20 minutes.
- With a knife, loosen the cake from the edges of the pan. Unmold the cake onto a large serving platter or onto the back of another sheet pan. Using a fork or a skewer, poke holes all over the cake’s surface. Let it cool for another 30 minutes.
For the tres leches:
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
- 1 can (5 ounces) evaporated milk
- 1 tablespoon brandy
- 1 teaspoons vanilla extract
- Combine all of the tres leches ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Set aside until the cake has cooled.
- Once the cake has cooled, slowly pour the tres leches mixture, pausing every now and then to allow the cake to soak up the mixture.
- Once the entire mixture has been absorbed, cover the cake with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours before serving.
- If desired, serve with sweetened whipped cream (recipe follows) and brandied pineapple (recipe follows).
For the whipped cream:
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 2 teaspoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons brandy
- Whip the cream until soft peaks form.
- Add the sugar and brandy and whip for another few seconds until incorporated.
- Serve cream with Tres Leches Cake.
For the brandied pineapple:
- 1 pineapple, cored, peeled and cut into small chunks
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons brandy
- In a large pan, heat the pineapple until it begins to turn golden.
- Add the brown sugar and allow it to melt, mixing all the while.
- Add the brandy and immediately ignite the brandy. Allow the flame to burn out (be careful!).
- Allow the pineapple to cool to room temperature and serve with the Tres Leches Cake.
Note: This is a big cake and will make about 20 servings. Keep leftovers in the refrigerator.