Wednesday, November 9, 2011

My kind of normal

The first time I had tres leches cake, I was in a Mexican restaurant in Santa Fe called Adelita's, which my boyfriend at the time adored. I remember not being such a big fan of the place, but the tres leches cake was milky and sweet and cold and delicious, and it more than made up for anything that may have been lacking in the way of savory dishes. Now that I think of it, it was probably my first introduction to Latin American sweets. If you had told me at the time that I would end up spending years of my life in South America, I would probably have told you that you were smoking craack-y, as the Brazilians say. 

I moved away from Santa Fe, and years of my life passed without another appearance (or, strangely, given how much I liked it, much thought) of tres leches cake. And then the first time I was in Colombia a couple of years ago, I was out to dinner with my friend Carolina and for dessert one of the options was tres leches. ¿La torta? I asked. -¿Como asi?  El postre de tres leches no es torta, es frio y cremoso, de leches... (which shows my pretty low level of Spanish at the time...postre normally refers to a cold, creamy dessert.) I was confused and disappointed, especially because I had a vague but hopeful notion that tres leches cake wasn't a specifically Mexican thing, but pretty common all over Latin America.

Lucky for me, I wasn't completely wrong, I just didn't know it yet. Back in Colombia this past year, a friend's birthday was coming up and I had promised to bring the cake for the party. What kind of cake does she like? I asked her cousin. -Just make her a normal cake, was his answer. Now, if you're like me, you probably never gave much thought to something like what a "normal" birthday cake might mean outside of the states, but I had already been out of the country long enough to know that it's much better to ask (cause you know what happens when you assume...and I've done that plenty) What's a normal birthday cake? -You know, torta genovesa. -Which is...? -You know, it's like, fluffy and wet. That didn't ring any bells, and no one seemed to know how the torta was made, so I made her something else. At the local bakery awhile later, though, a suspiciously tres leches-looking cake caught my eye. What kind of cake is that?  -Genovesa. Ordering a slice confirmed my suspicions. It also reminded me that I find many desserts in Latin America way too sweet, which prompted several reformulations of the recipes I came across (and which also prompts a lot of the posts on this blog). The resulting cake is milky, cold and still quite sweet, but not tooth-achingly so. You won't taste the cocoa powder on top, but it's a traditional touch, in Colombia at least. It's the kind of cake that immediately evokes childhood memories for those who grew up with it, and instantly hooks people who haven't had it before. As far as I'm concerned, that's about as good of a "normal" as I could ask for in a cake, or anything else for that matter.

P.S. Speaking of normal, my sister, in her typical, direct fashion, gchatted (not a verb, I know, ridiculous) me to say that the photo of the cake "looked gross"...and she's kind of right. This cake is not going to win any beauty contests, at least not in sheet-cake form, and in this particular case I was in a rush so not all of the milk got completely absorbed into the cake, making it weep on the sides into the frosting. Thus the grossness. BUT I hope that won't deter anyone from making it, that would be very sad, just, you know, do as I say and not as I do and don't rush this cake. Go for style and substance, I say...or at the very least, try to avoid grossness, because people have to actually want to try the cake in order to experience its wild deliciousness.

UPDATE: way less gross picture here; this round version makes a cake that serves 8-10 people. Halve the ingredients for the cake and milks, and bake the cake a 9-in. cake pan. Unmold the cake before soaking it, and use the same amount of ingredients for the frosting as below (4 egg whites etc.)

Tres Leches Cake

For the cake:
2 c. flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 3/4 c. sugar
6 eggs, separated
1/2 c. whole milk

For the soaking mixture:
27 oz. (800 ml.) sweetened condensed milk
13.5 oz. (400 ml.) heavy cream
13.5 oz. (400 ml.) whole milk
2 Tbsp. dark rum
half a vanilla bean, scraped

For the frosting:
4 Tbsp. water
1 c. sugar
4 egg whites
pinch salt
1 Tbsp. dark rum

cocoa powder for sifting over the top (optional)

Preheat the oven to 325ºF. Sift the flour and baking powder together. In a separate, large bowl, beat the egg whites with the salt until soft peaks form, then gradually add in the sugar, beating until you have stiff, glossy peaks. Whisk the egg yolks together in a small bowl, then fold them just to mix into the egg white-sugar mixture. Fold in a third of the flour mixture, then half the milk, then alternate again with the flour, then the milk, then end with the flour.
Scrape the batter into an ungreased 9 in. x 13 in. pan and smooth the top. Bake until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean, ~45 min. 
Whisk all of the ingredients for the soaking mixture except for the vanilla together. Scrape the seeds of the vanilla bean into the mixture and mix well so they don't clump together. 
Prick the cake all over with a fork, then begin to pour the soaking mixture all over the cake, distributing as evenly as possible. When the pan won't hold any more soaking mixture without it spilling over the sides, let the cake rest, covered, for an hour, then pour over the rest of the milk. Chill the cake in the fridge for a couple of hours or overnight, well covered.
Once the cake is chilled, make the frosting. Boil the water and sugar together until you have a syrup at the soft ball stage. While the syrups boils, beat the egg whites and salt (on medium speed if using an electric beater) until you have soft peaks that droop when you pull the beaters out of the bowl. Continue to beat the egg whites while you add in the hot syrup, beating until the mixture has cooled and is fluffy and glossy. Stir in the rum. Spread evenly over the chilled cake. Sift a bit of cocoa powder over the top, if you like. Serve cold. Makes 16-20 servings.

En vez de la cobertura de merengue, también se puede hace una cobertura de crema chantilly. Para hacer una torta redonda más pequeña (que sirve 8-10 personas), haz la mitad de la receta para la torta y leches. Saca la torta del molde a un plato antes de echarle las leches. Para la cobertura, utiliza las mismas cantidades detalladas abajo (4 claras etc.)

Torta Genovesa (Torta de Tres Leches)

Para la masa:
2 tazas de harina (tipo 000) 
1.75 tazas de azúcar blanca
6 huevos, claras y yemas separados
2 cucharita de polvo de hornear
1/2 taza de leche entera
1/2 cucharita de sal

Para las leches:
27 oz. (800 ml.) leche condensada
13.5 oz. (400 ml.) crema de leche
13.5 oz. (400 ml.) leche entera
la mitad de una vaina de vainilla 
2 cucharadas de rón

Para la cobertura:
4 cucharadas de agua
1 taza de azúcar
4 claras de huevo
pizca de sal
1 cucharada de rón

cacao en polvo para salpicar encima (opcional)

Precalienta el horno a 160ºC. Tamiza la harina y polvo de hornear juntos. En otro bol grande, bate las claras con la sal hasta que empiece dar punto de nieve, después ve agregando el azúcar, batiendo hasta que tengas picos brillantes. Bate las yemas en un bol pequeño, después incorporarlas a la mezcla de claras y azúcar. Incorpora un tercio de la mezcla de harina, después la mitad de la leche, alterna otra vez con la harina, después la leche y termina con la harina, revolviendo suavemente para incorporar cada adición.
Echa la masa a un molde de 23 x 33 cm. y nivela la superficie. Hornea hasta que un cuchillo metido en el centro salga limpio, ~45 min. 
Revuelve todos los ingredientes para las leches menos la vainilla juntos. Raspa las semillas de la vaina de vainilla y echales a la mezcla, batiendo bien para que no se queden en grumos.
Con un tenedor, perfora la torta por todos lados y echale la mezcla de leches, distribuyendola lo más uniformemente posible. Cuando el molde no retenga más leche sin que se riege, deja la torta reposar una hora, tapada, después echale el resto de la leche. Mete la torta a la nevera a enfriar, tapada, por unas horas o por toda la noche. 
Cuando la torta esté fria, haz la cubierta. Hierve el agua con el azúcar hasta que tengas un almibar a punto de bola floja. Mientras el almibar hierve, bate las claras y sal hasta casi punto de nieve. Sigue batiendo las claras mientras vas agregando el almibar caliente, batiendo hasta que la mezcla se haya enfriado y esté brillante. Incorpora el rón. Unta el merengue sobre la torta. Tamiza un poco de cacao en polvo encima, si quieres. Sirve fria. Rinde 16-20 porciones.

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