Chocolate Tres Leches Cake with Rum-Caramelized Bananas
Chocolate Tres Leches Cake with Rum-Caramelized Bananas
by Victoria Challancin
Beloved in Mexico, but often misunderstood elsewhere, Pastel de Tres Leches (Three-Milk Pastry or Cake) is a culinary gem that deserves a wider audience. In its most basic form, it is a vanilla sponge cake drenched with a mixture of evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and cream, which is then frosted with either meringue or whipped cream and often adorned with fruit and sprinkled with cinnamon. Its reincarnations, though, are many: sometimes it is also doused with a topping of goat's milk caramel, called cajeta; coconut milk also finds its way into some versions; and my own version is chocolate (of course) with rum-caramelized bananas for garnish. Perhaps I have gilded the lily.
Pastel de Tres Leches: A Little History
Delving into its origin, I found this from Patricia Sharpe, food editor for the Texas Monthly, whom I had met some years ago in San Miguel: Pastel de tres leches became popular in Latin American about a generation ago, it has evolved into a standard celebration cake there, various regions of Mexico claim it as their own (as does Nicaragua), and it began appearing on U.S. menus only recently. She also spoke with Roberto Santibanez, chef author of Truly Mexican: Essential Recipes and Techniques for Authentic Mexican Cooking, who suggests that the recipe was probably a product promotional recipe distributed in Latin America, perhaps by a canned milk or electric mixer manufacturer.
Cakes soaked in liquid have roots that go back to perhaps Medieval Europe. British (and Puerta Rican) rum cake, French baba au rhum or savarin, Polish babka, Italian tiramisu, and various Christmas cakes from many places all stem from a similar technique in which the pastry is prepared and then soaked in liquid to enrich its flavor and enhance or change its texture.
As a way to preserve milk without refrigeration, both condensed milk (created in the mid-1850s) and evaporated milk (developed in the 1870s) became very popular ingredients in Mexico and elsewhere, especially in urban areas where fresh milk was difficult to distribute and store. This cake is a natural offshoot of creative uses of readily available ingredients. And it is no surprise that the Nestle Company also would claim some part in its evolution, saying that it provided a recipe on its label during World War II. Whatever its original source, the cake became extremely popular in Mexico.
When my son was growing up in Mexico, he usually requested a tres leches cake for his birthday. Often I would make it, though I admit to buying excellent ones from a popular local bakery as well. In an advanced class for Gourmet Mexican Cuisine that I taught a few years ago, I found and used the following recipe, which is truly lovely. Rich. Decadent. Wonderful mouth-feel. A winner.
Admittedly, this cake can be hard to handle. Once you have baked the basic sponge cake (sometimes a butter cake), you must poke holes and then literally drench it with the milk mixture. In fact, in Mexico, one can even find the three milks already mixed together, ready to pour. My version calls for a tiny bit more work. The resulting cake is dense, very moist (dare I just say "wet"?)
Because it is dense and wet, I usually cut out individual portions with a ramekin or other mold, and serve it this way. Trying to remove the whole cake has proven a challenge, though bakeries certainly manage it.
The wet, messy cake, slightly ouf of focus...
The rum-caramelized bananas--a great topping for ice cream
A couple of weeks ago I asked the cooks if they had any specific desserts they wanted to learn. I might note here, that my Mexican students always want cakes and pies, big, impressive desserts and are never impressed with a couple of squares of phyllo pastry with a dollop of lemon curd atop. No, indeed, they want CAKES and PIES and CREPES AFIRE, and perhaps a SOUFFLE. Bold strokes. Larger than life. If I dare to teach a deconstructed coconut cream pie or simple fruit squares, the disappointment is almost palpable. Hence, when I asked, they replied "Cinnamon Rolls (hardly a dessert) and Tress Leches Cake!" Normally, I don't teach Mexican recipes in this course of International cooking, but what could I do? Comply, of course. Their hopeful, smiling faces demanded that.
Cook's Notes: We only adapted the recipe slightly for high altitude cooking (San Miguel sits at about 6400 feet above sea level) by adding a couple of tablespoons of flour and subtracting a couple of tablespoons of sugar. Other than that, the recipe is straight-forward. Once we had extracted a wet circle of cake and placed it on a plate, I suggested to one of my students that she decorate it. I didn't even realize when she slipped outside to find the flower and leaves. I prayed it wasn't poisonous.
Yes, this recipe is over-the-top. Yes, it is rich. Yes, it is certainly delicious.
Recipe: Chocolate Tres Leches Cake with Rum-Caramelized Bananas
(Recipe from Sabroso)
Note: When making a tres leches cake, it is usually best to begin early in the morning or even the day before you want to serve it in order to have time to chill it. I never have this luxury in class. I also made this in a 9- x 13-inch rectangular pan rather than the two round pans required in the original recipe.
6 eggs, separated
2 cups light brown sugar, packed
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder
3 teaspoons baking powder
2/3 cup whole milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
Sauce or Tres Leches:
1 (12 ounce) can evaporate milk
1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
5 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted
1/3 cup heavy whipping cream
(Note: I only made half of this)
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
12-ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons vanilla
Preheat oven to 35o degrees F. Grease a 9- x 13-inch pan with butter and dust it with powdered cocoa, knocking out excess.
For the cake, in a large bowl combine flour, cocoa, and baking powder.
In a medium-size bowl, combine the milk and vanilla. Set both aside.
Place egg whites in a clean bowl and beat at high speed until peaks are formed. Turn the mixer down to medium speed and gradually add the sugar to the egg whites. Once the sugar is dissolved, add egg yolks one by one and beat for 3 minutes. Continue beating the mixture on medium-low speed and add flour and milk alternately until well-blended. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for about 40 to 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Leave cakes in the baking pan.
While the cakes are still warm, punch holes in the cake with a wooden skewer.
For the cake, combine the sauce/3-milk ingredients and pour evenly over the cake. Place in refrigerator and allow to cool.
For the chocolate ganache, in a small, heavy saucepan on medium heat, stir the cream and chocolate together until the chocolate is melted and mixture is blended. Add the vanilla and stir well. When ready to assemble, remove desired portions of the cake and place on a serving plate. Frost with the ganache. You can also pour the ganache over the cake and leave it in the pan.
Garnish with fresh strawberries or dust lightly with powdered sugar. Or truly gild that lily and serve it with the following caramelized bananas.
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons dark rum
4 bananas, sliced
Combine the brown sugar and rum in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook until the mixture reduces to a syrupy consistency. Add the bananas and stir gently to coat the fruit. Remove from the heat and cool to room temperature.
Cook's Note: These make a fabulous toping for ice cream.
Another version of this cake from several years ago--with even more gilding, a dollop of crème fraîche
Guille, proud of her decorations
Parting Shot: Huizache in Bloom
©Victoria Challancin. All Rights Reserved.
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