Dreaming of jack-o-lanterns and sugar skulls, my mind is on holiday baking. Life’s pace of late has been unsustainable, so I’m off to the kitchen for some slow-down therapy. I’ve always been intrigued by the traditional fiesta cake “pastel de tres leches” and decided to give it a whirl for my daughter’s Spanish class Day of the Dead party. After poring over page after page of recipes, I settled on one from Pati Jinich of Pati’s Mexican Table. I’ve heard Pati on The Splendid Table radio show and each time I want to stop what I’m doing and dive into the kitchen with her. Here goes!
The cake is a magical blend of fluffy egg whites and creamy whipped yolks, sweetened with sugar and a good glug of vanilla, then folded with flour and baked.
The true alchemy occurs when the cake comes out of the oven. You pierce the cake all over with a fork and infuse it with a mixture of 3 milks--whole, evaporated, and sweetened condensed. I took a chance on caramelizing my sweetened condensed milk, a fascinating conversion that happens when you gently boil the unopened can in a pot of water.
The tasters responded with cheers of the highest praise: “It tastes like flan-cake!” Whether you’re celebrating The Day of the Dead or just need some down time in the kitchen, you’ll wow your tasting panel with this festive cake, perfect for any occasion.
Pastel de Tres Leches
adapted from Pati’s Mexican Table
For the cake:
- 9 eggs, separated
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 cups unbleached flour
For the leche syrup:
- 1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk, preferably caramelized (see recipe below)
- 1 (12 ounce) can evaporated milk
- 1 cup milk
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
For the topping:
- 11/2 cups heavy whipping cream
- 3 tablespoons powdered sugar
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
HEAT the oven to 350. Buttera 13 x 9-inch baking pan and line the bottom with a piece of buttered parchment paper.
WHIP the egg whites on medium speed with a stand mixer until they are foamy. Increase the mixer speed to medium-high and whip in the sugar one tablespoon at a time while the mixer is running. Continue beating until the whites hold stiff peaks, about 5 to 7 minutes total. Transfer the whipped whites to a large mixing bowl and set aside.
POUR the egg yolks into the bowl for the stand mixer and beat on medium-high speed until thick and pale gold in color, about 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the vanilla to combine. Fold the beaten yolks into the egg whites.
SPRINKLE the flour over the egg mixture and fold gently to combine, scraping with a spatula so that the flour is well mixed. Pour the thick batter into the prepared pan and bake until the cake is golden-tan and puffy, and a toothpick comes out clean, about 22 minutes. Cool on a cooling rack for 10 minutes, then loosen the edges of the cake with a blunt knife.
TURN the cake out onto the cooling rack, remove the parchment, then invert the cake onto a large serving platter. Place strips of parchment paper around the perimeter of the cake, tucking them just beneath the cake’s edges. Poke the cake all over with a fork (I used a wide-tonged serving fork to make large-ish holes)--the top of the cake will look like a sponge.
MIX the leche syrup ingredients together in a large bowl or quart-sized Pyrex pitcher (you can do this while the cake is baking. If using caramelized sweetened condensed milk, you will need to whisk it well to get a smooth sauce). Drizzle the leche syrup evenly over the cake.
WHIP the cream with the powdered sugar and vanilla until fluffy and spread over the top of the cake and chill for one hour. Cut into squares and serve.
Muchas gracias to Pati for this recipe!
If you want to caramelize your can of sweetened condensed milk, remove the label from the can and place the unopened can on its side in a pot of water, covering the can with an additional inch or so of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low to keep the water at a low boil. Cover the pot and cook for 3 hours, making sure the water level stays above the can.
Using tongs, remove the can from the water and let cool before opening carefully. You will have a thick, golden caramel.
I got hooked on this when my aunt came for a visit when I was tiny. She made this, and we watched in amazement as she opened up the can of milk to reveal caramel sauce. She spooned it over vanilla ice cream topped with fresh pineapple and a sprinkle of dried currants. Such a fun food flashback!