Let me admit something right off the bat: I truly expected to dislike this cake.
I'd been reading about Tres Leches Cake (Three Milks Cake) for years. The signature cake of Mexico, as well as many parts of Central and South America, this plain yellow cake is baked, then soaked in two types of milk – sweetened condensed, and evaporated – plus heavy cream.
Soggy yellow cake oozing condensed milk? Ewwww......
So I dithered and fussed, promising myself that someday, as a responsible cross-cultural baker, I'd make this cake.
After all, to earn favorite-son status in countries all over the hemisphere, it has to have SOMETHING to recommend it, right?
And boy, was my initial assessment ever wrong.
Tres Leches Cake tastes exactly like those last tasty bites of the best strawberry shortcake you've ever had – minus the strawberries. Picture a cake (not biscuit) shortcake, the whipped cream having settled and soaked into the tender spongecake.
Like that yellow spongecake many use for shortcake, this is quite literally a sponge, soaking up and holding the liquid so that each mouthful is a just-sweet-enough, super-moist, dense-but-not-soggy delight.
And its flavor – well, again, think ice cream (heavy cream) and cake. A marriage made in heaven, right? Just like this cake.
Today is Cinco de Mayo – the perfect occasion to embrace this rich and creamy celebration cake.
Feliz Cinco de Mayo!
Here are the three "milks" you'll need: 5 ounces of evaporated, 14 ounces of condensed, and a half-pint (8 ounces) of heavy cream.
Can't find those small cans of evaporated milk? You can substitute 1 1/2 cups (340g) half-and-half (or a 12-ounce can of evaporated milk), a 14-ounce can of condensed milk, and 1/2 cup (113g) heavy or whipping cream.
OK, let's get started. Preheat your oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 9" x 13" x 2" pan; line it with parchment and grease the parchment, if you plan on turning the cake out onto a serving platter. Note: use a pan that's at least 2" deep; this is a high-rising cake.
Next, separate 6 large eggs – whites in one big bowl, yolks in another. Have the eggs at room temperature; if you're not the planning-ahead type, submerge them, in their shells, in hot water for 5 to 10 minutes, to warm up.
Combine the egg whites with 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar, or 1/4 teaspoon lemon juice. Beat the whites until soft peaks form, and set them aside.
Beat the egg yolks until well combined. Add 1 1/2 cups (298g) sugar, and beat until the mixture comes together and thickens. When you stop beating, the mixture should fall from the beater(s) in ribbons as you lift them out of the bowl (middle left, above).
Add 1/3 cup (74g) cold water, 2 teaspoons vanilla extract, and 1 teaspoon almond extract to the egg yolk mixture, beating to combine. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl, and beat again.
Stir in the following:
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups (177g) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
Beat gently, just to combine.
Finally, gently but thoroughly fold in the beaten egg whites, stirring until no streaks of white remain.
Scoop/pour the foamy batter into the prepared pan, gently smoothing the top.
Bake the cake for 28 to 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
See what I mean about this being a high-rising cake? It's like a soufflé, in that it sinks once it's out of the oven; but it does need sufficient pan depth (2") to support it while it's baking.
Remove the cake from the oven, and set it on a rack. Loosen the edges with a spatula or table knife.
After 20 minutes, gently turn the cake out onto a parchment-lined baking sheet or serving platter, turning it upright, if desired. You can also leave it face-down, if you like; you'll be topping it with cinnamon, so any imperfections on the bottom crust will be hidden.
You may also choose to serve the cake right from the pan; in which case, leave it where it is.
Allow the cake to cool to room temperature.
When the cake is completely cool, make the topping by stirring together 1 cup heavy cream; a 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk, and a 5-ounce can evaporated milk. An inauthentic but perfectly acceptable substitute for the 5 ounces of evaporated milk is 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons half & half.
Stir in 2 teaspoons vanilla extract, or 1 tablespoon brandy or light rum.
Poke the cake all over with a fork. Pour the milk mixture over the cake slowly, stopping occasionally to allow it to soak in.
This seems like a lot of liquid for the cake to absorb; but don't worry, it will.
Cover the cake and refrigerate it for several hours before serving.
Here's what it looks like after a few hours in the fridge. I chose to cut squares and plate them individually, rather than bring the whole cake to the table; it was kind of messy looking around the edges.
Speaking of cross-cultural – potent Vietnamese cinnamon is the perfect topping for this Latin American cake. A liberal shower of cinnamon not only adds pleasing flavor, but dresses up (read: hides) the rather imperfect looking surface of the cake, with its plethora of poked holes.
Serve the cake with diced mango, pineapple, or other tropical fruits, if desired.
While the cinnamon-dusted cake is delicious as is, serving with fruit gives you the entire wonderful shortcake experience. I diced mangoes and strawberries, added a touch of vanilla and sugar, and let them macerate overnight.
Next day, I served squares of the cake with the fruit and a generous mound of whipped cream (because nothing succeeds like excess). We all agreed: it's a keeper.
Read, bake, and review (please) our recipe for Tres Leches Cake.