We’re smack-dab in the middle of Hispanic Heritage Month and do you know what that means for my Puerto Rican family? Absolutely nothing. That’s right. Since we celebrate our “hispanicness” on a daily basis, this weirdly-dated pseudo-holiday holds no importance to us. But, that’s just us. I do have a Hispanic recipe I want to share with you, though. This Tres Leches Chocolate Cake with Cajeta Drizzle is about as controversial as the month “made for Latinos”. Because no one knows its true origins, it’s a polarizing dessert. As a result, I can’t tell you which Latin-American country came up with it. So I’ll just tell you how to make my decadent version of it.
What is Tres Leches?
Welp, quite simply, tres leches (Spanish for “three milks”) is a sponge cake that’s been soaked in a bath of whole milk, evaporated milk, and condensed milk. Some go all out and add a fourth or fifth “milk” in the form of heavy cream and/or half-and-half. But we’re going to stick with the original by using milk. Chocolate milk instead of white milk, but milk, nonetheless.
As I mentioned before, no one knows exactly where tres leches originated. Everyone claims their country created the dessert, but I have yet to find solid evidence that convinces me. I mean, who really cares? Make it sweet, make it moist, and make it now. That’s all that’s important.
One thing I find, which is something that really bothers me, is that tres leches cakes have turned into a sopping-wet mess of a dessert. Your cake should weep the milk mixture, not leak it. Only when you bite into your piece of cake should the milk flow. Tres leches definitely shouldn’t be a soggy mess. I think most recipes lose the opportunity to make a truly spot-on tres leches by not using a sponge cake as their base. That ends right here, right now!
What do you need to make Tres Leches Chocolate?
First, know that we’re pronouncing it cho-CO-la-tay, not chocolate. It’s Hispanic Heritage Month, afterall.
Next, grab cocoa powder, cake flour, granulated sugar and salt from the pantry. Head over to the fridge and pull out some large eggs. Later, you’ll need to grab some evaporated milk, condensed milk, and whole chocolate milk for the tres leches mix. You are going to top the soaked cake with lightly sweetened whipped cream and drizzle some cajeta (caramel or dulce de leche) over it, too.
Cake flour is a must when making this recipe because you need a cake that is light and absorbent. Because of its low protein content, it doesn’t develop gluten as much as regular, all-purpose flour does.
Take care of the easy stuff first
Get the simple stuff out of the way so the rest of the cake prep goes quickly and smoothly. Use a tablespoon of softened, unsalted butter to lightly grease only the bottom of a 9x13x3 cake pan. Try not to get any butter on the sides. The cake will need something to hold on to during the baking process.
Combine the cake flour and cocoa powder, then use a sifter to sift them together. Now sift again. You’re going to end up sifting the dry ingredients together three times (the third is later). Each time you sift you’re aerating them, which creates more volume in the baked cake. This translates to maximum soaking up of the milk bath. When you pierce your fork into your piece of cake, the oozing tres leches will take your breath away. No, I’m not at all dramatic. Yes, I am.
Beat the eggs separately
First you need to make sure you’re using warm eggs. In a pinch, you can let the egg (still in the shell) sit in warm water. Warm eggs also adds to creating the volume we want.
Separate the egg yolks from the whites. Combine the yolks, vanilla bean paste, and the first quantity of sugar in large stainless steel bowl. You’ll need to whip these in the larger bowl because you’ll finish the cake batter in it.
Whip the egg yolks on high for 5-7 minutes, or until they are a very pale yellow and the beaters leave ribbons in the mixture.
Fold in the warm water. If you want a really decadent cake, use espresso instead of water.
Set this aside while you whip the egg whites.
Whip the egg whites
If you have a stand mixer and are good at multi-tasking, you can whip the egg whites at the same time as the yolks.
Whip the egg whites on low to get them foamy. Increase the mixer’s speed to medium-high and shake in the remaining sugar and salt. Increase the speed once more to high and whip for another 6-8 minutes.
You’re going to beat the egg whites until they hold a stiff peak when the beaters are lifted from the bowl.
Here’s a great tutorial on how to beat egg whites. Once you’ve finished the egg whites, you’ll need to pull together the rest of cake batter pretty quickly.
Finish the cake batter
As soon as you’ve finished whipping your eggs, sift half of the dry ingredients into the bowl of yolks. Use a large rubber spatula to gently fold the flour mixture into the eggs.
Once the flour is absorbed add half of the egg whites to the flour-yolk bowl. Again, fold gently, until the mixture is well-mixed.
Fold in the remaining flour, followed by the rest of the whites- folding each in just until everything is blended. Overworking the batter will deflate the eggs and we need that volume to help the cake rise.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake in a 400°F oven for 20 minutes- or until the cake offers a bit of resistance when you press its surface. It may feel a bit softer than your normal cake, but that’s only because it’s a sponge cake.
Cool, poke, then soak
Once the cake is baked, remove it from the oven and allow it to cool completely in the pan. Use a sharp knife to separate the cake from the sides of the pan.
We’re going to serve the cake straight from this pan, which means less mess for us.
After the cake has had a chance to cool, use a toothpick to poke small holes all over the cake. These holes help speed up the soaking process.
Now that the cake is primed and ready to get wet, combine the chocolate, evaporated, and condensed milk in a large pitcher. Whisk them together until the condensed milk is fully incorporated.
Slowly pour the tres leches over the surface of the cake. Pour in stages- waiting about a minute between pours- to allow the cake time to absorb the milk. It will seem like there’s too much milk, but, fear not! The sponge cake is created to absorb it all!
Cover the cake with plastic wrap and- carefully- put it in the fridge. Allow the cake to soak for at least 4 hours. Any less than that and you’re going to have cake and milk. Seriously. I usually allow my tres leches to soak overnight. By the time you’re ready to decorate the cake, all of that milk will have sucked up by the sponge cake.
See!?!? It even looks chocolate-ier!
Top and decorate the Tres Leches
An hour prior to serving the tres leches, whip 4 cups of heavy cream and 1/4 cup of powdered sugar to stiff peaks. I put a minimal amount of sugar in my whipped cream because the cake is sweet enough on its own. Spread a generous heaping of the whipped cream onto the cake.
Now drizzle a liberal amount of cajeta- about a cup- on top of the whipped cream. Return the tres leches to the fridge and allow the whipped cream to settle on the cake. Doing this creates a wicked-good, pudding-esque topping for the cake.
When you’re ready to serve the tres leches, cut a big ol’ slice and enjoy!
Because it is a milk-cake, you will need to keep the cake in the fridge. Enjoy it within 48 hours, too. Let me know what you think of this spin on the classic of unknown origins! Don’t forget to share it with your friends, too!
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Tres Leches Chocolate with Cajeta Drizzle
- hand mixer or stand mixer
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, for greasing the cake pan
- 6 ounces (170g) cake flour
- 1 ounce (29g) non-alkalized cocoa powder
- 6 large room temperature eggs, yolks and whites separated
- 7 ounces (199g) granulated sugar, divided
- 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
- 1 1/2 ounces (3 tbsp) warm water
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 14 ounce can condensed milk
- 1 1/2 cups whole chocolate milk
- 12 ounce evaporated milk
Whipped Cream Topping
- 4 cups heavy cream
- 1/4 cup powdered sugar
- Preheat your oven to 400°F. Lightly grease just the bottom of a 9x13x3 cake pan.
- Sift the cake flour and cocoa powder together two times. Set the dry ingredients aside.
- In a large mixing bowl combine the yolks, vanilla bean paste, and 4 ounces (114g) of the sugar. Whip this mixture on high for 5-7 minutes, or until they are a very pale yellow and the beaters leave ribbons in the mixture. Gently fold the warm water into the egg yolks. Set this aside while you whip the egg whites.
- Whip the egg whites until they begin to foam. Increase the mixer's speed to medium-high and shake in the remaining sugar and the salt. Increase the speed once more to high and whip for another 6-8 minutes.Beat the egg whites until they hold a stiff peak when the beaters are lifted from the bowl.
Mix and Bake the Cake Batter
- Immediately sift half of the dry ingredients into the bowl of yolks. Use a large rubber spatula to gently fold the flour mixture into the eggs.Once the flour is absorbed add half of the egg whites to the flour-yolk bowl. Again, fold gently, until the mixture is well-mixed.Fold in the remaining flour, followed by the rest of the whites- folding each in just until everything is blended.
- Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 20 minutes- or until the cake offers a bit of resistance when you press its surface.
- Remove the baked cake from the oven and allow it to cool in the pan. Use a sharp knife to separate the cake from the sides of the pan.Once the cake is cool, use a toothpick to poke small holes in it.
Combine the Tres Leches
- In a pitcher, whisk the chocolate, evaporated, and condensed milk until the condensed milk is fully incorporated.
- Slowly pour the tres leches over the surface of the cake. Pour in stages to allow the cake time to absorb the milk. Cover the cake with plastic wrap and- carefully- put it in the fridge. Allow the cake to soak for 4-12 hours (or overnight).
Decorate and Garnish the Tres Leches
- An hour prior to serving the tres leches, whip the heavy cream and powdered sugar to stiff peaks.Spread a generous heaping of the whipped cream onto the cake.
- Drizzle the cajeta over the cake. Return the tres leches to the fridge and allow the whipped cream to settle on the cake for at least an hour.
- Keep the cake refrigerated. Enjoy your tres leches within 48 hours.
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