Cake soothes as it satisfies Milky way: After a spicy meal, Latin Americans cool things down with a sweet and creamy tres leches (three milks) cake.

April 17, 1996|By Susan Taylor | Susan Taylor,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

Rich with the creamy flavor of sweetened caramelized milk, the "tres leches" (three milks) cake has made its way from the kitchens of Latin American housewives to such venerable dining establishments as Patria, Manhattan's celebrated Nuevo Latino restaurant.

White cake is soaked with a combination of evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and cream, and crowned with meringue.

At Patria, the dessert remains true to its Latin American origins despite the restaurant's use of non-tradi- tional flavors and artful presentation.

Latin American culinary heritage blends Indian techniques and indigenous ingredients with the techniques and ingredients introduced by Europeans. The Spaniards and the Portuguese taught the Indians how to preserve milk by cooking it with sugar until it caramelized. Latin Americans also believe milk mixes well with their spicy diet and is good for the stomach. So it follows that sweets made from sugar and milk have become a Latin American staple.

Most of the desserts Patria chef-owner Douglas Rodriguez serves are sweet milk-based. His most popular is the Banana Tres Leches Cake.

He also makes chocolate, peach and apple tres leches.

Mr. Rodriguez's versions of the cake incorporate indigenous ingredients, such as bananas, vanilla and chocolate.

The most important feature of a tres leches cake, Patria Chef Douglas Rodriguez says, is that it be wet and moist throughout -- like "an explosion in your mouth of liquid." That means the cake must be very light and airy to absorb the three milks, which are simply mixed together and poured over the cake. But they're never completely absorbed, leaving a creamy puddle at the bottom of the cake.

Rodriguez's banana tres leches cake

Makes 12 servings

meringue (recipe follows)

1 cup cake flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

pinch salt

5 eggs, room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup water

milk topping (recipe follows)

sweet whipped cream (recipe follows)

banana slices for garnish

Make meringue "twigs" first; set aside.

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a 13-by-9-inch cake pan. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

Place eggs in a medium bowl. Add sugar and mix with electric beater on high. Add the water and continue beating until mixture is fluffy and pale yellow.

Add the dry ingredients by hand, mixing thoroughly and quickly so eggs do not lose their volume. Pour batter into cake pan; tap pan firmly on counter once or twice to remove any air bubbles. Bake 10 to 13 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool.

Meanwhile, make milk topping and, using a toothpick, poke holes in the top of the cake. Pour milk topping over top and refrigerate.

At serving time, make sweet whipped cream. To assemble dessert, cut cake in pieces. Place a dollop of sweet whipped cream on each slice. Garnish with meringue twigs and banana slices.

Meringue: Heat oven to 250 degrees. Warm bowl and beaters in warm water, then dry thoroughly. Beat 3 egg whites (room temperature) with 1/3 cup granulated sugar and 1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract until stiff peaks form. Add 3/4 cup confectioners' sugar and blend in quickly and gently by hand.

Transfer meringue to pastry bag (or plastic zip-top bag with 1/2 inch snipped off one corner) and pipe strips of meringue onto a baking sheet. Bake about 1 hour or until meringue is dry. Break meringue into pieces; set aside.

Milk topping: Whisk together 1 14 1/2 -ounce can sweetened, condensed milk, 1 12-ounce can evaporated milk, 1 1/2 cups heavy cream and 1/2 cup banana liqueur.

Sweet whipped cream: In a well-chilled bowl using chilled beaters, beat 1 cup heavy whipping cream, 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extra and 1/4 cup granulated sugar until stiff peaks form.

Per serving: 618 calories; 28 g fat; 184 mg cholesterol; 201 mg sodium; 40 percent calories from fat.

Cake mix method: You can also make a good tres leches cake using a cake mix. We adapted a Duncan Hines yellow cake, adding 2 more eggs, well-beaten; omitting the oil; and cutting the water from 1 1/4 cups to 1 cup. The result is a larger, denser cake that doesn't soak up the milk topping quite as readily, but still produces an acceptable dessert. Omit the banana liqueur from the milk topping or use another flavor.

Pub Date: 4/17/96

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