As you may or may not know, today happens to be Three Kings Day, and Three Kings Day means cake. Ok, we’re lapsed Catholics and we’re not from Louisiana, so I’m not talking about King Cake; it’s because it’s my mother-in-law’s birthday; Reyna’s name comes from the holiday she was born on (Reina is Queen in Spanish… aaaaand now you get the title).
My in-laws, being from South America, love the traditional kinds of desserts that come from the homeland: tropical fruits, flans, and Tres Leches Cake. Buying a tres leches (“three milks”) cake from a market can be kind of a crap shoot–sometimes it’s overly sweet with a grainy cake and sometimes it’s perfectly rich and creamy, with the cake almost pudding-like, but still standing up to the long soak in the milk mixture.
My first experiences with Tres Leches Cakes were sad affairs: mass-produced pieces bought off taco trucks or slices of store-bought birthday cakes at parties thrown by the family, and I wasn’t particularly fond of it. Then, came the day I sampled the Tres Leches Cake at Border Grill, and all of a sudden, I was a convert.
I wanted to keep it simple and traditional, but with a twist that I knew my mother-in-law would love: the addition of coconut. Coconut works perfectly with a creamy dessert, and it was the absolute right amount of tropical flavor that the whole family loved.
So, let’s break down the three components needed for a Tres Leches Cake: the cake, the milk mixture, and the topping.
The proper cake to use would be a sponge cake; to tell you the truth, I’m not a fan of the stuff on its own–it’s dry and bland–but, that’s what makes it perfect for other uses, such as being sliced and soaked with liqueur-spiked syrups and layered with jams or pastry creams. Or, in this case, being soaked in milk. A traditional sponge cake is simply eggs, sugar, and flour–no extra fats, no chemical leavening, maybe a bit of vanilla; the rise comes from the eggs being separated, whipped full of air, and gently folded together with the flour.
Once the cake is baked and fully cooled, the edges are trimmed (I find them a bit too hard). I line a cake pan with plastic wrap with plenty of overlap, poke the cake full of holes, and begin to pour my mixture of condensed milk, coconut milk, and half & half onto the cake.
When I start pouring the milk mixture onto the cake, I go slow and steady, taking about a third of the mixture and lightly covering the cake. After about 2-3 minutes, it’s been mostly absorbed, so I repeat the process two more times with the rest. With the overlap of the plastic wrap, I just lightly cover the cake, and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, the cake gets turned out on a platter; lightly sweetened heavy cream is whipped and spread on top, and a good solid dusting of toasted coconut to finish off the cake.
(Yeah, I know, that’s not a “dusting”… we like coconut, okay?)
Ah, there’s the glamor shot.
Coconut Tres Leches Cake
6 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup vanilla sugar (or, 1 cup sugar and 1 tsp. vanilla extract)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 14-ounce can light coconut milk
1/2 cup half & half
2 Tablespoons Coconut Rum
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
3 Tablespoons sugar
2 cups shredded sweetened coconut
- Preheat oven to 350°. Line a 13 x 9 metal cake pan with parchment paper and lightly spray with non-stick spray.
- Separate eggs; beat yolks with 3/4 cup of sugar (add vanilla if needed) until pale yellow and leaves a ribbon when the whisk is pulled from yolks.
- In a separate bowl (or transfer yolks to another bowl and wash mixer bowl, if using a KitchenAid), beat egg whites until just frothy, then add 1/4 cup of sugar and whip egg whites to a stiff peak.
- Gently fold egg whites into yolks until streaky, then sift in flour. Continue to gently fold in flour and egg whites until flour is absorbed into batter.
- Spread batter into prepared pan and smooth top. Bake until golden, approximately 22-28 minutes.
- Cool in pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto wire rack and cool completely.
- Line a clean 13 x 9 cake pan with plastic wrap, leaving plenty of overlap (enough to gently fold extra plastic over cake, but well-lined so all the milk stays with the cake). Trim edges from cake and set into pan. With a fork or skewer, poke plenty of holes over the surface of the cake.
- In a pitcher, whisk together the condensed milk, coconut milk, half & half, and coconut rum. Pour mixture over entire cake in thirds, waiting 2-3 minutes between each pouring to let the cake soak up the milks. Fold over the plastic wrap to lightly cover the cake and refrigerate for at least 3 hours, up to overnight.
- When close to serving, toast coconut in a 350° oven for 7-10 minutes, stirring every few minutes, until golden brown.
- Unwrap cake and gently turn out onto a platter. Whip heavy cream with sugar and spread on top of cake, and sprinkle the coconut on top of cream.
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