Thursday, March 27, 2008

Latino Dessert 2: Electric Boogaloo (Pastel de Tres Leches).

Milky white.

Hey, I said I had a problem with Mexican desserts. The origin of this thing is up for grabs.

As is their wont (Latino intermural fighting always being norm), at least three Hispanic countries (Mexico, Cuba, Nicargua) claim pastel de tres leches as their creation. I say: who cares? It exists, and when done right it is delicious - a sort of miraculous cross between a cake and a pudding, but at the same time totally unlike either.

One of my rigidly-held opinions about this dessert is that it's best when the cake base is made without butter. Butter only gums up the works, and really, isn't anything that has three milks poured over it already fatty enough? The other thing I insist upon is that it be iced with stiffly whipped cream, not the also-hotly-debated Italian or Swiss meringue (known to Americans as "7-minute" or "white mountain" frosting). For one thing, few people can do meringue well and also it's really more trouble than it's worth. Also, Porto's Cuban Bakery in Glendale does it perfectly on their tres leches, and so the rest of us mere mortals had better leave it alone if we know what's good for us.

Although tres leches is special, it is also now run-of-the-mill due to thousands of online recipes and the fact that it's on nearly every menu in Los Angeles in one form or another (chocolate, goat's milk (BLEH), cajeta/dulce de leche, etc.) . I say phooey to all that. This version approximates the Most Unbelievable Coconut Dessert On The Planet, namely, the vegan coconut ice cream at the Wheel of Life Vegetarian Restaurant in Irvine, California, which is smooth, creamy, rich and apotheosis of coconut flavor. This is a pale imitation of that lofty Platonic ideal, but it's still good.

If it were up to me I'd serve this cake slathered in fresh passion fruit pulp or at the very least passion fruit curd, but as North Americans are highly divided about passion fruit (they either really love it or really hate it), I just serve it with a bunch of diced fresh mango or pineapple. Oh, and this looks like a daunting recipe, but it's actually simple (otherwise I wouldn't make it). As Nigella says, please don't confuse "somewhat time consuming" with "difficult."

The sun is shining! Break out the bossa nova songs and cakes drenched in lactose and nut milks! Ooof, I have to have a lie down.

Coconut Pastel de Tres Leches

Serves 12

For the cake:

5 eggs, separated (make sure the whites have no yolk in them and separate them into a clean, dry, grease-free bowl)

3/4 cup AND 1/4 cup sugar (superfine is best (also known as "baker's sugar" in those milk cartons) but regular will work too - everything will just take longer to beat)

1 cup all purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/3 cup milk

1/4 teaspoon coconut extract (don't sneer; buy the quality stuff at a good market)

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

For the milk syrup:

1 13 oz. can coconut milk

1 14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk

1 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon coconut extract

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the topping:

3-4 cups heavy cream

2 tablespoons powdered sugar

Thawed frozen grated coconut or shredded sweetened coconut to garnish, optional

Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray the bottom of a 13" by 9" rectangular baking pan (don't use your Pyrex here). I lined the bottom with parchment paper so I could invert it into another 13"x9" pan, but you don't need to do this.In a medium bowl, stir together flour and baking powder and have a sieve ready. In a mixer bowl using a whisk attachment, beat yolks and 3/4 cup sugar on high speed until very light-colored and ribbon-y (a long ribbon of the mixture will fall from the beaters). Stir in 1/4 teaspoon coconut extract and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract. Transfer this mixture to another large bowl. Using a whisk, sift in flour mixture and pour in milk, folding in carefully until all the flour is incorporated. Set aside.

In a clean, dry, grease-free mixer bowl using a clean, dry, grease-free whisk attachment, beat whites and cream of tartar on medium speed until foamy. Increase speed to high and begin adding 1/4 cup sugar gradually, beating until whites are glossy and hold a stiff peak.

With a rubber or plastic spatula, quickly fold beaten whites 1/3 of a time into the yolk mixture, folding only until there is little or no trace of whites. Immediately pour into prepared pan and bake for 23 to 30 minutes, or until cake is risen, lightly browned and firm when touched in the middle (it will look a bit like an angel food cake). Remove pan from oven and with a short sharp knife sprayed with a bit of nonstick cooking spray, loosen the cake from the sides of the pan. It will deflate a bit -- this is OK.

While cake bakes, make milk syrup: in a bowl or pitcher, whisk together the coconut milk, condensed milk, cream, coconut extract and vanilla extract. When cake is done, remove from oven, poke a few holes in it with a skewer and pour the milk syrup slowly over the hot cake, letting it soak in a bit. It will look awash in milk syrup - this is fine. Let cool for about 20 minutes and then refrigerate, covered, for at least 6 hours or overnight.

When the cake is thoroughly chilled, whip cream and powdered sugar in mixer with a whisk attachment until stiff (I use an immersion blender for this - it's the best kitchen tool for whipping cream). Spread whipped cream decoratively over the surface of the chilled cake. Top with thawed fresh frozen grated coconut or sweetened shredded coconut if desired. Chill any leftovers (ha!).

© 2008 Sandy Soto Teich

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