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Kitchen Mailbox: Latin American-inspired Three-Milk Cake a saucy, sweet dessert

Thursday, September 16, 1999

By Arlene Burnett, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Today we're featuring a Latin American favorite, Tres Leches Cake or Three Milk Cake. After the sponge-like cake is baked, three milks are whisked together and poured over the warm cake. We were amazed as the cake absorbed all the milk (about 4 cups). As the cake sits, some of the milk mixture seeps from the cake and forms a sauce that can be spooned over the cake before serving. Or you can make the Fluffy White Frosting. The cake can be made in either a 9-inch-round cake pan or a 9-by-13-inch oblong pan.

We found at least six recipes for Tres Leches Cake. Most of the recipes were similar with a few minor differences: One added 1 teaspoon of rum to the milk mixture; another recipe called for a layer of fresh peaches or other fruit placed over the frosting.

Tres Leches Cake is a moist, sweet cake that makes a grand presentation with the sweet sauce oozing from the sides of the cake. Serve it turned out on a platter ordirect from the baking pan.

Tres Leches Cake calls for evaporated milk, sweetened milk and heavy cream. If you've ever wondered what the difference is between these milks, read on:

Evaporated milk is unsweetened homogenized milk with 60 percent of the water removed. Vitamin D is added for extra nutritional value. It comes in whole, low-fat and skim forms; we used the whole milk form.

Sweetened condensed milk is a mixture of whole milk and sugar, with 40 to 45 percent of this mixture being sugar. The mixture is heated until 60 percent of the water evaporates -- the results are a sticky, sweet mixture known as sweetened condensed milk.

Heavy cream or whipping cream has a milk fat content between 36 and 40 percent. When whipped, it doubles in volume. Heavy cream can be found in any large grocery store.

Source: "Food Lover's Companion" by Sharon Tyler Herbst.

Tres Leches cake was requested by Carmela Polito of Squirrel Hill.

Tres Leches Cake or Three Milk Cake

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 eggs, at room temperature, separated and yolks lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon finely grated or minced fresh lime zest
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/3 cup whole milk, at room temperature
1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup whipping (also known as heavy) cream

Fluffy White Frosting

Position racks so that the cake will bake in the middle of oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch-round cake pan or a 9-by-13-inch cake pan. Do not line or flour the pan. Set aside.

Place the flour, baking powder and salt together in a strainer or sifter and sift into a bowl. Repeat the process two more times. Whisk to mix well and set aside.

In the metal bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a wire whip, or in a metal bowl with a hand mixer, beat the egg whites at low speed until frothy bubbles cover the surface. Add the cream of tartar, increasing the speed to medium-high, and beat until soft peaks form when the beater is slowly raised. With the mixer running, gradually add the sugar and beat until the whites form peaks that are stiff but still moist when the beater is raised. Slowly drizzle in the egg yolks and beat well; stop at least once to scrape the sides of the bowl. Add the lime zest and vanilla and blend well.

Using the mixer on low speed or a rubber spatula, fold in about one third of the flour mixture, then half of the whole milk, scraping the sides of the bowl and folding just until the ingredients are incorporated. In the same manner, fold in half of the remaining flour mixture, then the remaining whole milk, and finally the remaining flour mixture.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface with a rubber spatula. Bake until the cake springs back when lightly touched in the center with your fingertip and wooden skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Remove the pan to a wire rack to cool for 5 to 10 minutes.

Whisk the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and heavy cream together. Using a skewer or tines of a fork, poke holes over the still warm cake. Slowly pour whisked milks over the cake. As we've said, some of the milk will seep from the cake. Use a large spoon to scoop the seeping milk and pour the milk over the cake again. Do this until most of the milk is absorbed (this will take about 1 hour). Let cake cool completely before frosting. Makes 8 servings.

Fluffy White Frosting

1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup egg whites (from about 2 eggs), at room temperature, see note
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Pour water into a large skillet to a depth of 1 inch. Place over high heat and bring to a simmer, then adjust the heat to maintain a simmer.

In a metal bowl, combine 5 tablespoons cold water, the sugar, egg whites, corn syrup, cream of tartar and salt. Set the bowl directly into the simmering water. Immediately begin to beat with a hand mixer at low speed until the mixture is foamy, then increase the speed to high and continue beating until firm, shiny peaks form, about 5 minutes. Remove the bowl from the heat, add the vanilla, and continue beating until the frosting is cool and billowy, 2 to 3 minutes.

Note: The county Health Department recommends not consuming raw eggs. In an alternate test, we used dry egg whites found at the baking section at Giant Eagle. The label reads Just Whites, Pasteurized All Natural Egg Whites. It comes in a 3-ounce container. When using dry egg whites, skip the boiling water. We combined all ingredients except the vanilla, and beat for 5 minutes. Then we added the vanilla and set the mixer on high speed for 20 minutes.

Sizing it up

You've probably come across this problem -- we all have -- of not having the correct pan size called for in the recipe.

The rule of thumb -- for the best results -- is to always use the specified pan size, but in a pinch the following substitutions may be used:

If the recipe calls for one 8-by-4-by-2-inch loaf pan, substitute two 5 1/2-by-3 1/4-inch loaf pans.

One 8-inch-square pan for one 9-inch-round cake pan.

If you don't have two 9-inch-round cake pans, substitute three 8-inch-round cake pans.

Substitute a 10-inch tube pan or two 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pans for a one 12-cup fluted tube pan.

Substitute two 9-inch-round cake pans for a 13-by-9-by-2-inch pan.


Does anyone have a recipe for Butter Dream Cookies? These cookies are made with almond flavoring and a cherry on top. Margaret Trunzo of Canonsburg lost her recipe for this cookie and hopes someone will have it.

If you want to answer a recipe request from a reader or are looking for a recipe yourself, please write to Kitchen Mailbox, c/o Arlene Burnett, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh 15222, or e-mail to aburnett@post-gazette.com. Please include a name, neighborhood and a daytime phone number. All recipes are kitchen-tested by the Post-Gazette.

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