Pastel Tres Leches is one of my favourite cakes of all time. Who could resist a cake that’s been soaked in three kinds of milk, then slathered with whipped cream? Each bite releases a burst of sweet milky liquid from the spongecake, that’s followed by a lingering vanilla cream flavour.
I’ve decided to to throw tradition to the wind here, improving on the Mexican classic by using a flour that the Aztecs used far before Europeans showed up on these shores, while at the same time applying a decidedly French technique in making the cake.
Before I go into the details about what I did, let me tell you a bit about what I was trying to accomplish. I wanted a cake that had a firm crumb that wouldn’t turn into mush when doused with the tres leches syrup, but that wasn’t tough. I’m not a huge fan of chemical leavening like baking soda and baking powder in cakes because they impart a distinctly bitter minerally flavour that I don’t much care for. I also didn’t want to add more fat than necessary since I’d be adding plenty of that later with the tres leches syrup and whipped cream.
A basic génoise batter seemed like the perfect base for this cake. I wanted to give the cake a slightly irregular texture with some corn notes, so I substituted a combo of cornmeal and masa harina for the flour. If you want a more delicate texture, just use all masa harina. As a happy consequence of using corn based flours, this tres leches cake is also gluten free!
The génoise may sound a bit involved, but this is really quite a simple cake to make, especially if you have a stand mixer with a metal bowl. The only thing you really need to pay attention to is the amount of time you beat the egg mixture for. There’s no butter in this cake, which means that’s one less thing to think about and since there is no wheat flour, there’s no need to worry about over mixing when you’re incorporating the flour. Just be gentle when folding in the flour as you need the tiny air bubbles in the egg mixture to make the cake rise properly.
Unlike most cakes, this one benefits from a day or two in the fridge, so it’s a great make ahead cake for a birthday or tea party. On the day of the event just slice up some fruit and put it on top. I’ve used strawberries and kiwi berries for this one, but it’s also fantastic with mangoes or passion fruit.
3 whole eggs
3 egg yolks
3/4 C sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 C masa harina
1/4 C fine ground cornmeal
for tres leches syrup
14oz can sweetened condensed milk
12oz can evaporated milk
1 C half and half
for whipped cream
1/2 pt heavy cream
1/4 C powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
Setup a double boiler by filling a pot large enough to hold your mixer bowl and bring the water to a simmer. Move your oven rack to the middle position and preheat to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 9″ cake pan to prevent the finished cake from sticking.
Put the whole eggs, yolks, sugar, salt, and vanilla in a metal mixer bowl and whisk to combine. Put the bowl in your double boiler and whisk, heating until the mixture reaches 100 degrees F (luke warm). Mount the bowl on the mixer and beat with the whisk attachment for at least 5 minutes. It may look ready before then, but it really needs to go this long to get enough air integrated. The volume will triple and pale yellow ribbons of egg will flow off the whisk.
Sift the masa harina and cornmeal into a bowl though a fine double mesh strainer. When the egg mixture is ready, add 1/3 of the flour mixture into the eggs and fold together. Repeat twice more, folding between each addition until you can’t see any more clumps of flour. Since we’re using corn based flours, there’s no need to worry about gluten formation in the batter (which would make it tough). Be gentle while folding though as it will not rise properly if the egg mixture deflates. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake until a skewer comes out clean (about 20-25 minutes). Put the cake pan on a rack and allow to cool.
To make the tres leches syrup, just whisk the three ingredients together in a bowl. You only need half the mixture, so you can either double the batter and make 2 cakes, or you can store the extra syrup in a sealed container for the next cake you make.
Use a toothpick to poke holes all over the cake, this will help the cake absorb the tres leches syrup. When the cake cools to room temperature, pour half the syrup mixture over the cake, making sure to evenly saturate the edges. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
For the whipped cream, put the cream, sugar and vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat until you see peaks form in the cream. Spread the whipped cream evenly over the top of the cake. Slice and serve with fruit.