By Rebecca Lindamood
---- — A little while back I was speaking with my friend, Katie. "I am in a terrible mood," she said. "I have people coming over for dinner to celebrate my grandmother's birthday, I still have to clean, I told everyone that I would make Tres Leches cake and I should've known better. I am cursed with these Tres Leches cakes. I can't make a sponge cake to save my life. Every. Single. Time. I ruin it."
She continued, "This time was no different. I don't know what I was thinking. It didn't rise at all and when I poured the milks on it it turned to pudding. Tres Leches pudding. Happy birthday, Grandma!"
To say she was exasperated doesn't begin to describe it. And lest you think Katie just doesn't know how to bake, I promise you she's no slouch in the kitchen. She's a well-respected food blogger. I told her there was no such thing as a kitchen curse. I giggled while encouraging her to try again. She said, "I don't know if I can take the disappointment if I try and fail again. This is bad for my ego!"
Meanwhile, the idea of a Tres Leches cake took firm hold of my brain. As I carried on talking to Katie, I broke out the most well-rounded baking resource on my shelves (King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion) and let it fall open.
You know what's coming right?
It fell open to a recipe for Tres Leches cake. I shared the recipe with her. She had written off that evening's cake and resigned herself to purchasing a bakery Tres Leches cake. I, on the other hand, went to the kitchen to make a cake. In my brain, I scoffed at Katie's curse.
"Cursed cakes? Please. It's all in her head!"
This is what I thought to myself as I flicked the power on my stand mixer and egg whites went flying everywhere. And I do mean everywhere.
"Get it together, Rebecca. Concentrate on not messing up the kitchen, OK?"
This is what I thought just before my hand twitched and I dropped a whisk covered in sugar and egg yolks on the counter and watched it spray sugar sticky thickened yellow goo in very interesting and unpredictable patterns on the counter, then on the cabinets, then on my thigh as it careened off the cabinets and down my leg, and finally onto the floor.
"Alright. That was just unnecessary. Curse my rear. Let's get baking!"
I said this aloud not moments before I knocked the entire canister of superfine sugar off the counter with my elbow. The sugar instantly adhered to what appeared to be hundreds of places that egg had splashed and splattered seconds before.
"Seriously? I need this today? Come on! I can make a sponge cake in my sleep! What is going on?"
This little thought had not finished fully forming in my pea-sized brain before I realized that I had very carefully scraped and leveled my gorgeous cake batter into a pan that I had forgotten to grease.
"ACK! These cakes are cursed!"
I called Katie and apologized.
And then I anxiously awaited the cake's exit from the oven to see what I had wrought.
It was a Mary Poppins cake; practically perfect in every way. It was worth every egg splotch and sugar crystal I had to sweep, scrape and wash out of my kitchen.
Just in case you're wondering, Katie tried the recipe on my enthusiastic recommendation and her cake was perfect, too. The sponge cake demon had been conquered. Hallelujah! The curse was lifted!
If you've never encountered a Tres Leches cake before, you may be wondering why two relatively sane women would go to so much trouble just for a cake. Let me clue you in. The mild sponge cake is doused with a trio of milks; hence the 'tres' in Tres Leches. The sweet mixture of condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream is poured over the cake and allowed to soak in before being topped by mounds of whipped cream and fresh berries resulting in a ultra moist, crave-able dessert.
Tres Leches Cake
Lightly adapted from The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion
Ingredients for the cake:
1½ c. (6 ¼ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 t. baking powder
½ t. salt
6 large eggs, separated
½ t. cream of tartar or ¼ t. lemon juice
1 ½ c. (10 ½ ounces) sugar
1/3 c. (2 5/8 ounces) cold water
3 t. vanilla extract
Ingredients for the Tres Leches:
1 c. (8 ounces) heavy cream
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
1 small can (5 ounces) evaporated milk
1 T. brandy or golden rum or 2. vanilla extract
Ingredients for the toppings:
2 ½ c. heavy whipping cream
3 T. confectioner's sugar
To make the cake:
Grease and flour a 9-inch by 13-inch baking pan and set aside. Preheat the oven to 350° F.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and set aside.
Beat together the egg whites and cream of tartar (or lemon juice) in a large mixing bowl (or stand mixer) until soft peaks form. Set aside.
In a separate bowl (or scrupulously cleaned mixer bowl) beat the egg yolks until pale in color and airy. Add the sugar and beat the mixture until it is thickened a great deal and falls like ribbons from the beaters when the beaters are lifted.
Add the cold water and vanilla to the egg yolk mixture then stir in the dry ingredients. Add 1/3 of the egg whites to the mixture and whisk vigorously until the mixture is even in color and texture. Add the remaining egg whites and gently whisk in to the mixture.
Spoon the cake batter into the prepared pan and level it. Bake the cake for 28-30 minutes or until it tests done. This is when a straw, toothpick or cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 20 minutes.
You can either turn the cake onto a rimmed platter or keep it in the pan. If moving to a rimmed platter, loosen the edges with a knife and turn out directly onto the platter. Either way, use a fork to poke the cake all over and allow the cake to cool an additional 30 minutes.
To make the Tres Leches:
Whisk together the heavy cream, condensed milk, evaporated milk and vanilla or brandy in a bowl with a spout or large liquid measuring cup while the cake is cooling. When the 30 minutes are up, slowly pour the mixture over the cake taking occasional breaks to let the liquids soak in thoroughly. When all the tres leches have been poured over the cake, cover lightly and refrigerate for at least 2 hours prior to serving.
To top the cake:
Beat together the whipping cream and confectioner's sugar until thick and fluffy and firm peaks form. Use a spatula to spread over the cake. Scatter generous amounts of fresh berries over the cake, slice and serve.