Coffee Infused Tres Leches Cake

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There are three things that make a dessert experience truly great:
1. The occasion
2. The company who helps you eat it
3. The number of leches involved

This particular dessert experience was one I will always remember.  My friend, Becky came into town for a few short days and because of her husband’s nomadic ways, they have traveled far away from Lubbock, I fear, never to return.  I cherish the times she comes back into town and actually spends some good, quality time over at our house.  I shot Becky and Trevor’s wedding four years ago and we became fast friends, immediately glued together by our love of food and cooking.  I was elated when she said she’s spend the better part of the day with me, so the first question we naturally discussed was, “What are we going to bake?!”

Becky is one of those people who knows how to cook.  It’s in her soul – she was taught from a very early age how to work her way around a kitchen, learning from her father and grandmother.  Becky’s happy place is in the kitchen, and so naturally, we both had a zen-like afternoon baking together.  We shared stories, we complained about bad food and we ATE our creation with gusto and silent, head-nodding approval between bites.  It was perfect.

We decided to do Rick Bayless’ Coffee Infused Tres Leches Cake that I’d recently seen on his show, Mexico, One Plate at a Time.  Rick Bayless is one of those safe names in the cooking world.  If the recipe is from his show, or from one of his many restaurants, or amazing cookbooks, you can rest assured the recipe will work, and will become one of your favorites to return to again and again.  This has happened to me many times and this cake happily joins the ranks.

This cake is intense.  It should be paired with a strong cup of black coffee and nothing else.  The addition of the coffee in the milk mixture is pure genius.  It cuts the richness just right and adds depth where there might just be a generic sweetness.  It has this incredibly creamy texture with hints of cinnamon and coffee.  It’s the best tres leches cake I’ve ever had.  (And I grew up around here – I’ve had plenty.)  It made me think of the wonderful flavors of horchata, and I think next time I make this, I’ll replace horchata for the heavy cream.

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Coffee Tres Leches Cake*
serves 6

For the cake:
1 cup all purpose flour
¾ cup sugar
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
Salt
4 eggs at room temperature
¼ cup vegetable oil
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract, preferably Mexican
½ teaspoon cream of tartar

For the milk mixture:
1 cup heavy cream
1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
½ cup freshly brewed espresso or strongly brewed coffee
1 teaspoon vanilla extract, preferably Mexican
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup sugar
5 egg whites at room temperature
½ teaspoon cream of tartar
extra cinnamon for dusting (or cocoa powder – or espresso powder would be good, too!)

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a muffin pan that makes 6 large muffins with muffin papers. Or, I don’t have a huge muffin pan, so I used little ramekins and lined the bottom of each with parchment.  Just do it and you won’t be sad, scraping your cake off the bottom of the dish.
Place the flour, 6 tablespoons of the sugar, the baking powder and a pinch of salt in a large bowl and whisk to combine. Separate the eggs, dropping the whites into the bowl of a mixer and the yolks into a medium bowl.  Add the oil, vanilla and 2 tablespoons of water to the yolks and mix well. Beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until they start to thicken and form soft peaks.  Gradually add the remaining 6 tablespoons of sugar and continue to beat until stiff peaks form.
Add 1/3 of the flour mixture to the egg yolks and mix well. Gently fold in 1/3 of the beaten egg whites. Repeat, alternating the flour mixture and egg whites until everything is thoroughly combined.  Scoop the fluffy batter into the prepared muffin tins, place in the hot oven and bake until the tops spring back when touched, 20 to 22 minutes. Allow to cool slightly, then take the individual cakes out of the dishes and invert them into a deep 13×9 inch baking dish.

Combine the heavy cream, evaporated milk, condensed milk, coffee, vanilla, cinnamon and a pinch of salt in a bowl and mix well. Slowly pour the mixture over the cakes, soaking them thoroughly. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour to allow the milks to be absorbed into the cakes.  It actually took longer than that for mine to absorb.  We spooned the mixture over the cakes and poked extra holes in them so they’d soak up more milk.  In the end, I still had some leftover, so don’t worry about that.

Combine the sugar with 1/3 cup water in a small (2-quart) saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat, swirling the pan gently until all the sugar is dissolved.  Dip a brush in water and use it to clean the sides of the pan so no sugar crystals remain.  (This is an important step in keeping the syrup from recrystallizing.) Lower the heat to medium and boil the syrup until it reaches soft ball stage (about 240 degrees).
While the syrup is boiling, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar and a pinch of salt until the whites form soft peaks.  Drizzle in the hot sugar syrup very slowly while the mixer is running.  Continue to beat until the bottom of the bowl is cool.  This takes forever, so do what Becky does and place ice packs on the outside of your bowl.  Or peas.
To serve, place each soaked cake on a plate, decorate with a big dollop of meringue, toasting the peaks with a kitchen torch.  Sprinkle with the cinnamon or cocoa and eat with great gusto!

*only slightly adapted from the original recipe

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Thank you for that afternoon, Becky.  It will sustain me for months to come.  Until next time!  XOXO

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