Happy Cinco de Mayo everyone! Hopefully your day today is filled with margaritas, chips and salsa, and possibly a slice of muy delicioso tres leches cake. The tres leches cake has become one of my all-time favorite cakes over the past few years. The first time I tried one was also the first time I made one, and I stared in disbelief as the recipe called for me to pour what seemed like an endless amount of a milk mixture over the top of the cake. So much that I thought “There’s no way this cake is going to be anything other than a big pile of mush.” But I took that first bite, and I was hooked. This was no mush; this was a big ol’ bite of heaven.
Moister than any cake you could ever imagine, cool and creamy with delicious hints of cinnamon; a tres leches is no ordinary cake. The name comes from the fact that the cake uses three different milks, usually condensed, evaporated, and good old fashioned whole milk. The cake itself is traditionally a sponge cake, which gets holes poked all along the top of it, and a milk mixture is poured over the top, saturating every crumb. It’s usually topped with some sort of whipped cream frosting. There's a whole lot of dairy going on in this cake, and it's all a good thing.
When I’ve made tres leches cake in the past I've always used the same recipe, which follows the more traditional version of a tres leches. There’s one twist in that the three milks that get poured over the top of the cake get heated up so that they become rich and intense, with flavors similar to that of dulce de leche. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that recipe, but when I decided to bake a cake for Cinco de Mayo this year, I wanted to try something a little different.
I had looked past this recipe many times in the Tartine cookbook, probably because I thought that a layered tres leches cake seemed unlikely to achieve the moist and delicious results of the single layer it is usually made in. But I liked the idea of a dressed up, little bit fancier version of the cake that I'm used to.
What I ended up with however, was not the beauty queen that I was hoping for.I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again. I’d much rather eat a dessert that looks a little homely and tastes good, then one that looks perfect but tastes awful. And that’s exactly what we’ve got going on here. If I had my wits about me, I would have just frosted the entire cake, instead of just the top, which would have solved the issue of the wonky looking sides. But I didn't, and so instead of marveling at this cakes beauty, I just marveled at its taste.
Let me brief you by saying that there’s several different steps going on in this cake, so bear with me while I attack you with a barrage of photos and instructions. However, this cake is not as difficult as it may seem, especially since most of the steps can be done ahead of time. The cake layers, pastry cream, and caramel (if using) can all be made 2-3 days ahead of time. If you get those tasks out of the way, the cake comes together in no time. Alright, so first up, coconut chiffon cake layers! Whisk all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Whisk in the eggs, some whole, some yolks only, some water, oil and vanilla until its just smooth.
Right now we have the basis for a plain old chiffon cake, but that’s not what we’re going for right now, oh no. Let’s finely chop up some coconut and turn this into something even more special.
Whisk the coconut into the batter until it disappears. Now we’re talking tasty.
Next let’s beat some egg whites until stiff peaks start to form. The egg whites are what will make the cake light and airy.
Fold in a third of the whites to lighten up the batter. The batter and the egg whites need to get to know each other a little bit better before we go throwing the whole mess of whites in there. After a third of the whites get folded in, mix in the remaining, smearing any clumps that may try and stick around. Don't let those whites boss you around.
Pour the batter into two cake pans, preferably two of the same size cake pans, rather than the ahem, two different ones I used. Springform pans are preferred for chiffon cakes as they have a tendency to stick to the sides of regular cake pans. I don’t own two springform pans in the same size however, so I went with these two misfits, and it turned out just fine.
Now let’s move on to the filling part of the cake. Oh pastry cream, you are truly a dream. If nothing else, you must make this pastry cream at some point in your life. It is one of those recipes where the end result makes you feel so accomplished, so proud of yourself for making something that is so damn good. I have been making this pastry cream for years now, and it has never once disappointed. It all starts with some milk and a vanilla bean. Mix the two together and you know some magic is about to happen.
Heat the milk and vanilla in a pan until it’s just simmering. While that’s heating up, whisk together some cornstarch, sugar, and then some eggs. This mixture will be what thickens the pastry cream.The eggs need to be tempered, so once the milk is simmering, pour or ladle a third of it into the bowl with the eggs, whisking continuously. Transfer the egg and milk mixture back to the hot pan, still whisking. After a couple minutes the pastry cream should be thickened and beautiful.
Pour it immediately into a fine mesh sieve set over a large bowl. We don’t want it hanging out in the hot pan for any longer or else it can begin to curdle. Use a rubber spatula to force the cream through the sieve, leaving any solids behind. We don’t want any yucky stuff in all this gloriousness.
Let the pastry cream cool for a few minutes, then begin whisking in some butter, a tablespoon at a time. Wait until each piece is incorporated before adding the next. Once the butter is mixed all the way in, the pastry cream is done! At this point it can either be chilled and kept in the refrigerator, or it can be used in assembling the rest of the cake.
When it comes time to assemble the cake, make sure you have all your components ready. Trim your cake layers so that they are approximately the same size. Alright, cake layers, check. Now let's move on to preparing the coconut syrup.
I know I’m in the middle of bombarding you with instructions, but can I stop for a moment to ask where has coconut milk been all my life? Sweet and creamy, so delicious in everything I’ve tried it in, I think I’m in love. I just had to get that off my chest, and whew, do I feel better.
So obviously my eyes lit up when I saw that coconut milk was one of the “3” milks in this particular tres leches cake; especially when I saw that it would be mixed with a little bit of sugar, some vanilla, and that’s what the cake layers would be getting soaked in.
Ok, so we've got our cake layers, our coconut syrup, and our pastry cream is hanging out. I know you're thinking, what more can we add to this cake? Some caramel if you're feeling adventurous. The caramel is optional however. I will say that I wasn't sure how big of an impact it made on the overall final result of the cake, and I'm not sure if I will use it again in the future. But I did include the recipe in case you want to go that route.
So now that we've got all our components ready, we need to turn the pastry cream into a firmer filling. Gelatin is added to assist in this, and the result is the amazing flavor of pastry cream, with a little more stability to help with all the moistness that will be coming from the cake layers. Start by mixing some gelatin with a little bit of water.
This is to soften the gelatin. See that large clump of dry gelatin up there? Make sure that gets mixed in or else you can end up with some clumpy gelatin which is not the greatest. The pastry cream needs to be hot when the gelatin gets added, so if it has been chilling out in the fridge, it’s going to need to be reheated in a bowl over a pan of boiling water for a little bit until it’s hot to the touch.
The gelatin mixture gets whisked in, along with some softly whipped cream, and ta-dah! We've got our filling folks.
Line the sides of a springform pan with plastic wrap so that we'll have something to cover the cake with once we're all done assembling it. Place a cake layer in the bottom of the pan and coat it with half of the coconut syrup mixture. Don’t be stingy now, we want all of that good good liquid to soak in.
If you're using the caramel, this is the point where it would get drizzled over the cake.
Add your pastry cream filling on top of that and spread it evenly. I will mention that this makes for a very thick layer of pastry cream, and that it might not hurt to leave a little bit behind. I went with the full amount, and I had difficulty fitting it all in the pan.
So when I went to place the second layer on top, I had to kind of smoosh it down, which caused the pastry cream to sneak up the outside of the cake, making for some wonky looking layers. So in the future I'm going to try to keep my smooshing to a minimum.
The top layer gets soaked in the rest of the coconut syrup, and then additional caramel (if using) gets drizzled on top of that. Cover the entire cake with plastic wrap and let it chill out in the fridge, preferably overnight. This gives everything a chance to soak in, get sturdy, and become yummier by the minute.
After the cake has set up in the fridge, go ahead and unveil it in all its glory. Or, in my case, all its jaggedy, smooshed up layers.
Whip some cream until very thick and frost away. This is where had I not ran out of heavy cream, I would have doubled the amount and frosted the sides of the cake as well. Ahhh c'est la vie.
She may not be a beauty queen, but she's absolutely delicious. The cake layers somehow manage to be super moist without disrupting the consistency of the pastry cream, and itmelds together beautiful in each delicious, dairy filled bite. Don't let the appearance fool you, this is one cake you don't want to let get away.
Pastel de Tres Leches
Adapted from Tartine and The New Best Recipe
Notes: The pastry cream is easily made ahead of time and keeps very well. However, if the pastry cream is cold it needs to be reheated slightly in order to incorporate the gelatin for the filling. Instructions for both freshly made and cold pastry cream are included here.
2 layers coconut chiffon cake (recipe follows)
1 cup coconut milk
6 tbsp sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 ½ tsp unflavored gelatin
2 tbsp water
2 ½ cups pastry cream (recipe follows)
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup caramel (optional, recipe follows)
1 ¼ cups heavy cream
4 tsp sugar
Line the sides of an 8-inch springform pan with plastic wrap, allowing enough overhang to cover the top of the cake completely when it is assembled.
To make the coconut syrup, in a small bowl stir together the coconut milk, sugar, vanilla, and salt and stir until the sugar dissolves. Set aside.
To make the filling, sprinkle the gelatin over the water in a small dish and stir it until the gelatin is covered completely. Let it stand for a few minutes to soften.
If using freshly made pastry cream that is still hot: whisk the gelatin into the entire amount of pastry cream and then place the bowl in the refrigerator to cool before continuing.
If using pastry cream that is cold: pour water to a depth of about 2 inches into a saucepan, place over medium heat, and bring to a simmer. Place ½ cup of the pastry cream in a stainless-steel bowl that will rest securely in the rim of the saucepan over, not touching, the water. Heat the pastry cream, whisking often, until it is very hot to the touch, 4-5 minutes. Whisk in the gelatin until smooth. Remove from the water bath and whisk in half of the remaining cold pastry cream, then whisk in the rest.
Whip the cream until it holds medium-soft peaks. Working quickly, gently fold the whipped cream into the pastry cream mixture with a rubber spatula. The cold cream will make the gelatin begin to set up at this point, so be sure you have all of your cake components (syrup, cake layers, and caramel if using) ready.
Place 1 cake layer in the bottom of the prepared springform pan. Using a pastry brush, moisten the layer evenly with half of the coconut syrup. If using caramel, drizzle half of it over the cake layer. Pour the pastry cream filling over the layer and spread it evenly. Place the second layer over the filling, pressing down gently with even pressure. Moisten this layer with the remaining coconut syrup, and then drizzle over the remaining caramel, if using. Fold the overhanging plastic wrap over the top of the cake, covering completely. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or preferably overnight.
When you are ready to finish the cake, release and lift off the pan sides and peel away the plastic wrap. Transfer the cake to a serving plate, if using, or leave it on the cake base.
To make the topping, whip the cream until thickened. Add the sugar and whip until the cream holds stiff peaks. Frost the top of the cake with the whipped cream. The cake can be served immediately or kept cold in the refrigerator until ready to serve. It will keep for up to 5 days.
Coconut chiffon cake:
1 ½ cups sugar
1 1/3 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
7 large eggs, 2 whole, 5 separated, at room temperature
¾ cup water
½ cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup finely chopped coconut
½ teaspoon cream of tartar
Adjust the oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 325 degrees. Fit parchment paper into the bottom of two 8-inch springform pans, or two 8-inch cake pans. Whisk the sugar, flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon together in a large bowl. Whisk in the 2 whole eggs, 5 egg yolks (reserve the whites), water, oil and extracts until the batter is just smooth. Mix in the chopped coconut.
Pour the reserved egg whites into the bowl of a stand mixer; beat at low speed until foamy, about 1 minute. Add the cream of tartar, gradually increase the speed to medium-high, and beat the whites until very thick and stiff, just short of dry (as little as 7 minutes in a standing mixer and as long as 10 minutes with a handheld mixer). With a large rubber spatula, fold the whites into the batter, smearing in any blobs of white that resist lending with the flat side of the spatula.
Pour the batter into the prepared pans. Rap the pans against the countertop to rupture any large air pockets. Bake the cakes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 30 minutes for an 8-inch cake pan, and 35-40 minutes for an 8-inch springform pan.
Let the cakes cool completely in the pans before removing. Trim the cake layers so that they are even using a large serrated knife or a cake layer tool.
Note: this pastry cream is amazing, and it takes incredible willpower to not lick the bowl clean when I’m done with it. Just thought I would let you know that.
2 cups whole milk
½ vanilla bean
¼ tsp salt
4 tbsp cornstarch
½ cup + 1 tbsp sugar
2 large eggs
4 tbsp unsalted butter
Have a bowl ready for cooling the pastry cream with a fine-mesh sieve resting in the rim.
Pour the milk into a heavy saucepan. Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and use the tip of a sharp knife to scrape the seeds from the pod halves into the milk. Add the salt, place over medium-high heat, and bring to just under a boil, stirring occasionally and making sure that the milk solids are not sticking to the bottom of the pan.
Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, whisk together the cornstarch and sugar. Add the eggs and whisk until smooth.
When the milk is just under a boil, slowly ladle about 1/3 of the milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Pour the egg-milk mixture back into the hot milk and continue whisking over medium heat until the custard is as thick as lightly whipped cream, about 2 minutes. In order for the cornstarch to cook and thicken fully, the mixture must come just to the boiling point. You want to see a few slow bubbles. However, if the cream is allowed to boil vigorously it will curdle.
Remove from heat and immediately pour through the sieve into the bowl. Let cool for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to release the heat an prevent a skim from forming on top.
Cut the butter into 1-tablespoon pieces. When the pastry cream is ready (it should be about 140 degrees), whisk the butter into the pastry cream 1 tablespoon at a time, always whisking until smooth before adding the next tablespoon.
To cool the cream, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, pressing the wrap directly onto the top of the cream, and refrigerate.
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups sugar
¼ cup water
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
¾ tsp lemon juice
4 tbsp unsalted butter
Pour the cream and vanilla into a small heavy saucepan. Place over medium-high heat and bring to just under a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to low to keep the cream warm.
In a medium, heavy saucepan, combine the sugar, water, salt and corn syrup. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Then cook, without stirring, until the mixture is amber colored, 5 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat.
The mixture will continue to cook off the heat and become darker, so make sure to have your cream close by. Carefully and slowly add the cream to the sugar syrup. The mixture will boil vigorously at first. Let the mixture simmer down, and then whisk until smooth. Add the lemon juice. Let cool for 10 minutes.
Cut the butter into 1-inch chunks and add them to the caramel one at a time, whisking constantly after each addition. Then whisk the caramel periodically as it continues to cool.
The caramel will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.