Monday, May 05, 2008

when one milk is not enough: pastel de tres leches

There is a Mexican diner down the street from our place which is a culinary revelation in several ways. The first was the discovery of the torta, that pinnacle of sandwich amazingness. There is no place that makes a better torta, with incredible fresh baked bread. Another is their tres leches cake, layered slices sitting in a pool of milkiness. This cake changed my mind about cake. Because 90% of the time I find cake to be too dry, but it simply cannot happen when the cake is soaked to saturation in a delicious concoction of three different milks. When I found that Alton Brown had done a Tres Leches cake on a Good Eats episode, I decided that I had to attempt it. His recipe calls for baking a single sheet cake in a 9x13 pan, but I thought I'd try to replicate the layer cake at Grand Morelos, spreading jam between the layers. As you can see from the photos, this did not happen.

The first few steps went fine, though I had to keep a close eye while the cake was baking, knowing that the timing would be off since I was using two 9-inch round cake pans instead of one 9x13 pan. It probably could have come out a couple of minutes earlier than it eventually did, but no damage was done. I also only had about 4 hours of soaking time, when Alton called for at least 8 for maximum saturation.

But it seems that four hours was fine, as you can see that the puddle of milk was completely absorbed. The trouble came in trying to unseat the layers. I knew that it would be no easy task to take one milk saturated cake layer and get it on top of the other, but I didn't even get an opportunity to attempt it. They wouldn't budge. Despite greasing and flouring both pans - non-stick pans no less - neither layer would leave its vessel, it just wasn't going to happen. So instead we had two single-layer cakes and no place for jam. It was still yummy in all it's milky goodness, with just the whipped cream icing, but I was bummed. I hardly ever make cakes and this is why. They never turn out how I want them to. The recipe itself was reasonably easy to do, though despite my cutting the amount of sugar in the icing in half it was still really really sweet. I think the recipe could use a sugar reduction in every element - the cake, the glaze (less sweetened condensed milk), and the icing. Note that the amounts in the recipe are by weight, not volume, you really need a scale to bake properly. For example, 6 3/4 ounces ends up being about a cup and a half, not .8 cups. If you don't have a scale, you will end up with a dense log of cake, don't do it! On the upside, it's much easier to measure stuff like flour and sugar with a scale, just keep pouring until you reach the desired amount, no scooping or leveling necessary. Recipe after the jump:

Adapted from I have adjusted the sugar in this recipe, for the original, go here.

For the cake:
Vegetable oil
6 3/4 ounces cake flour, plus extra for pan
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature
4 ounces sugar
5 whole eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the glaze:
1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup half-and-half

For the topping:
2 cups heavy cream
2 ounces sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the cake:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly oil and flour a 13 by 9-inch metal pan or two 9-inch round pans and set aside.

Whisk together the cake flour, baking powder and salt in a medium mixing bowl and set aside.

Place the butter into the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, beat on medium speed until fluffy, approximately 1 minute. Decrease the speed to low and with the mixer still running, gradually add the sugar over 1 minute. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl, if necessary. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, and mix to thoroughly combine. Add the vanilla extract and mix to combine. Add the flour mixture to the batter in 3 batches and mix just until combined. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and spread evenly. This will appear to be a very small amount of batter. Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 20 to 25 minutes (18-20 minutes if making 2 rounds) or until the cake is lightly golden and reaches an internal temperature of 200 degrees F.

Remove the cake pan to a cooling rack and allow to cool for 30 minutes. Poke the top of the cake all over with a skewer or fork. Allow the cake to cool completely and then prepare the glaze.

For the glaze:
Whisk together the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and the half-and-half in a 1-quart measuring cup. Once combined, pour the glaze over the cake. Refrigerate the cake overnight, or for at least 4 hours.

Place the heavy cream, sugar and vanilla into the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the whisk attachment, whisk together on low until stiff peaks are formed. Change to medium speed and whisk until thick. Spread the topping over the cake and allow to chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

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