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Got Milk?

Carolynn Carreno last wrote for the magazine about rhubarb.

I’ve never been much of a cake person. Sure, I appreciate the role it plays in weddings and birthdays, and on those occasions I always have a slice. But all too often, the cake is too dry, too one-dimensional and, well, just too cakey. With one exception, pastel de tres leches, which means “cake of three milks” in Spanish.

And that’s exactly what it is: a buttery yellow cake that, upon being removed from the oven, is thoroughly drenched with a mixture of evaporated, sweetened condensed, and regular whole milk. As if that’s not enough, once the cake has absorbed all the milk, it is coated with a layer of light, snowy whipped cream. The result is a dense, milky-sweet cloud of a cake that looks and tastes like the stuff of angels.

Nobody knows for sure where or when tres leches was first served. Some sources say it was invented in Nicaragua, but ask any descendant of Mexico or Central America and they’re likely to tell you its theirs. Four years ago, just after I was introduced to tres leches, I asked Diana Kennedy, the doyenne of Mexican cooking, what she knew about the origin of this dessert. She dismissed it as something new that Nestle invented to sell more of their canned milks. This goes along with what my Aunt Mardi says. She is an avid baker who has lived in Tijuana since the early 1960s, and she didn’t discover tres leches until about 20 years ago. But another Mexican cooking expert, Billy Cross, believes tres leches is an amalgam of Spanish and French culinary influences dating back to the days of Emperor Maximilian and Carlota, who brought their French chefs with them to Mexico. Cross’ mentors in the Mexican kitchen are of French ancestry and claim their families have been making tres leches for more than one hundred years.

Whatever its origins, for people like myself for whom cake is nothing but a vehicle to carry icing to the mouth, tres leches is a divine invention. Consider that the primary problem with all cake is that it tends to be so dry. Instead of drinking a tall glass of cold milk with the cake, why not pour a few cups of milk over it at the outset. Not that moistening an already baked cake is altogether new. My mother, for one, used to make a popular cake from decades past where lemon cake mix is combined with lemon pudding, baked, and then drenched with a “lemonade glaze.” Professional bakers often moisten a cake by brushing each layer with simple syrup.

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But with tres leches, the moistening of the cake is taken to a whole new level. A successful version has so much milk poured over it that the cake oozes, and an individual slice sits in a shallow puddle of the sweet milk. When you’re sitting in front of something like that, the who’s and when’s lose significance. What matters is that you have your cake.

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(LA)Pastel de Tres Leches

Serves 15-20

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1 stick (8 ounces) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature, plus extra for greasing pan

6 large eggs, separated

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 cups sugar, sifted

1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted

2 cups milk

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1 12-ounce can evaporated milk

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Smear a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with butter. Place the egg whites in a large mixing bowl. Add baking soda and salt and beat with an electric mixer on medium-high speed with whisk attachment until soft peaks form. Add egg yolks and vanilla and beat until incorporated. Stir in 1 cup of sugar (reserving 1/4 cup for the whipped cream). Fold in melted butter.

Add flour to wet ingredients in three or four stages, gently folding it in until none is visible before adding more. Pour batter into cake pan, place in oven and bake for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted deep into the center comes out clean. Remove cake pan from the oven and transfer to wire rack. Pierce cake in about 8 places with the tines of a fork.

Whisk three milks (not including the cream) together and pour over the still-warm cake. Let cake sit in the pan until completely cool. Refrigerate, covered, until ready to serve.

Just before serving, beat cream with the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until soft peaks form. Spoon cream over the top of the cake. Serve chilled.

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