Tres Leches cake and Grandmotherly Advice
I’m sitting on the kitchen floor sniffling.
Yup, that’s a stand mixer full of egg whites. And tears. It’s like a little meteorological freak storm front hitting a low pressure system of feelings in a metal bowl. Global warming is real and it just melted the polar icecaps of my aorta.
Why is a bowl of egg whites making me sniffle? Okay, see, a friend asked me to make him a tres leches cake for his birthday. I really didn’t know what it was and the variations are rather endless though all with the same theme of cake doused in sweetened condensed milk. Also, I never make sponge cake. There are just too many ooeygooeycaramelmarshmallow things in the world to make to waste time with sponge cake. But who am I to say no to a birthday request?
I found this recipe from Ree Drummond. In her post she mentions her friend tasting the cake and bursting into tears.
Me thinking: Well, that must be some cake!
Me thinking again: It probably isn’t the cake, but that the cake had some greater cosmic significance. It was an authentic cake, for her.
But this cake needed to be special, authentic, for the birthday boy. So I puttered around on the internet some more and then asked another friend for her recipe, which, with her preferred modifications to another recipe, ended up being almost identical to Ree’s, (except using fresh berries instead of maraschino cherries)
It takes a village to make good cake. (And booze.)
ANYWAY, I’m whipping the egg whites to “snow’, as my grandmother used to say. In fact, I can hear her German/Franco accent cooing ‘make it like snow’, widening her eyes and pursing her lips, the face she’d pull to indicate surprise or revelation. As a kid, I really did believe it was snow. I’m smiling at the memory until I realize that my nose is quivering and that blurry vision is not the effect of my hangover but the waterworks welling up, about to spill over into my carefully watch egg snow. I hold back long enough to combine the batter and pop said cake in the oven. Then I sit on the floor and sniffle. I have a perfectly good couch 5 feet away.
The cake doesn’t have any cosmic significance. The cake is inconsequential. The cake is a lie. Cake is memory sweetened with frosting. It is the reward for another year of life lived well, but if we were supposed to repeat the past, we’d have a birthday kale salad or a protein shake: sustainable and sensible. Instead we get hopped up on sugar and fling ourselves into the new year with plans for awesomeness (this is the year I will start my own business, hike the Appalachian trail, eat my weight in cheese fries). Change in habit can be hard to accept at moments. The sugar haze makes it go down easy, and by the time we crash, we’re well ensconced in the new thing, halfway to Maine in hiking boots, swallowing seventy-five pounds of cheese fries with only forty more to go.
My grandmother passed away last December. It’s Sunday morning and I’m missing our Sunday morning phone calls. I have new Sunday morning habits, equally lovely but different. I barely even noticed the evolution of things until the loss of her was palpable. I’m missing the time when I thought I knew what path I was on and direction was simple. I’m missing her grandmotherly advice at a time when I would actually want to take it: I should run off with an artist. I should be a muse. I should write the story of her life. I should make cake.
The cake is delicious. But it is just cake (okay, really yummy cake).
Copied from thepioneerwoman.com, with some minor changes because that’s how we do.
Tres Leches Cake
for the cake:
- 1 cup All-purpose Flour
- 1-1/2 teaspoon Baking Powder
- 1/4 teaspoon Salt
- 5 whole Eggs
- 1 cup Sugar, Divided
- 2 teaspoons Vanilla extract
- 1/3 cup Milk
for the tres leches part:
- 1 can Evaporated Milk
- 1 can Sweetened, Condensed Milk
- 1/4 cup Heavy Cream
- 2 oz Dark Rum (optional)
for the icing:
- 1 pint Heavy Cream, For Whipping
- 4 Tablespoons Confectioners Sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of a 9 x 13 inch pan with parchment and butter parchment and sides liberally.
Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Separate eggs.
Beat egg yolks with 3/4 cup sugar on high speed until yolks are pale yellow. Stir in milk and vanilla. Pour egg yolk mixture over the flour mixture and stir very gently until combined.
Beat egg whites on high speed until soft peaks form. With the mixer on, pour in remaining 1/4 cup sugar and beat until egg whites are stiff but not dry.
Fold egg white mixture into the batter very gently until just combined. Pour into prepared pan and spread to even out the surface.
Bake for 35 to 45 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Turn cake out onto a rimmed platter and allow to cool.
Combine condensed milk, evaporated milk, and heavy cream in a small pitcher. When cake is cool, pierce the surface with a fork several times. Slowly drizzle all but about 1 cup of the milk mixture—try to get as much around the edges of the cake as you can.
Allow the cake to absorb the milk mixture for 30 minutes. To ice the cake, whip 1 pint heavy cream with confections sugar and vanilla until thick and spreadable.
Spread over the surface of the cake. Decorate cake with fresh berries. Cut into squares and serve.
Once, in another lifetime, I spent one night lying on the floor with 31 other similarly minded people. It was one of those times when crying, hugging, and declarations of never ending love are normal modes of expression. The rest of the world doesn’t function like that: unbridled expression of comaraderie, brotherhood, family. Only small children lie in a puddle of bodies, taking comfort in the closeness of the many, just breathing next to them. It was the end of three months of theater school, and the intensity of the experience left us all, I think, trying to cling to the magic just a little bit longer. One set of arms is not long enough to hug 31 other people. Instead, we lay on a floor in a haphazard pile. I have a photograph of this, taken from a balcony above, and looking at it recently, I am shocked at the stories it tells in a multicolor blur of scarves and leg warmers and collegiate hoodies and ancient sweatpants, through a filter of fuzz from 35mm color fast film taken flashless in low lighting. Somehow, it does not smack of poor photography, only of joy, and love, and family.
At the time, we were eating bourbon balls, brought straight from Kentucky by someone’s parent. My friend turned 30 this weekend. I promised to bring cupcakes to the bar we were to surprise him at. I had one of those weeks where I just wanted to stretch my arms around my New York family and take comfort in their nearness. But, my arms aren’t long enough. And only theater nerds think it is normal to lie on the floor in a puddle of people. So I made some bourbon ball cupcakes, my typical food-as-feelings way of saying you are my joy, you are my love, and you are my family.
Bourbon Ball Cupcakes
Makes 1 dozen
For the cupcakes:
- 1 1/4 cups plus 2 Tbs all-purpose flour, sifted
- 1 1/2 teas baking powder
- 1/8 teas salt
- 1/2 teas ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teas ground nutmeg
- 1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
- 3/4 cups sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup milk
- 3/4 cup pecans, chopped medium-fine
For the filling:
- 2 oz semi sweet chocolate
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 2 oz bourbon
- 1 teas vanilla extract
For the frosting:
- 12 Tbs (1 1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
- 6 cups confections sugar
- 2 Tbs vanilla extract
- 1/4 c bourbon
- 1 Tbs heavy cream
- chocolate sprinkles (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 12 cup standard size cupcake tin with paper liners.
In a medium bowl, mix together flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat butter on medium high until fluffy about 3 minutes. Add sugar and mix for about 5 minutes more. Mix in eggs and vanilla. With the mixer on low, alternate add flour mixture in 3 parts, alternating with the milk, beginning and ending with the flour. Stir in pecans. Divide batter evenly among the cupcake tins. Bake for 18-20 minutes. Let cool completely before coring out centers or frosting.
Meanwhile, heat the cream to a simmer. Remove from heat and add chocolate, bourbon, and vanilla. Stir until chocolate is completely melted. Transfer to a large mixing bowl. Refrigerate for about 20-30 minutes until mixture is cool and slightly firm. Beat with an electric hand mixer until fluffy and color lightens.
In a large mixing bowl, beat butter with an electric hand mixer until fluffy. Beat in 1 cup confectioners sugar. Add vanilla and bourbon. Mix. Add remaining sugar, 1 cup at a time. When combined, beat in cream. If the frosting seems a little soft, add more sugar as desired.
When cupcakes are cool, core them using a cupcake corer (an apple corer works okay too). Using a frosting bag with a plain tip fill centers with chocolate filling. Frost with butter cream. Decorate with chocolate sprinkles (optional).
Not a real turtle. but once when ponder “what animal would you be if you were an animal” in college I decided my friend be would a turtle. Turtles make great friends. They’re cautious and cheeky and sage and can bite off your finger or munch passively on a leaf. Turtles hang around. In cartoons they are depicted as grumpy or really chill or plucky and cute. They carry their home with them. Turtles are awesome.
This particular turtle has a favorite cocktail: Makers and ginger. So when my turtle was turning 28, I brought some Makers and ginger cupcakes to the park to celebrate, decorated with, well, turtles. But delicious turtles. Turtle, turtle, turtle.
Makers Mark and Ginger Ale Cupcakes
For the cupcakes (makes 1 dozen) If you prefer to use cake mix, make sure you purchase a dark chocolate variety, make according to recipe with addition of ground ginger. Substitute 2 oz water with bourbon if you like them extra boozy.
- 3/4 cups unsweetened dutch process cocoa powder (I prefer King Arthur’s Double Dutch Dark Cocoa, your chocolate cake comes out close to black in color and tastes fudgy rich. This is not some weak Hershey’s mess. This is real cocoa for the chocolate lover.)
- 3/4 cups all purpose flour (no specific endorsement here)
- 1 teas espresso powder (optional)
- 1 teas ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
- 1 cup sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup sour cream
For the glaze
- 2 oz semi sweet chocolate
- 2 oz bittersweet chocolate
- 2 Tbs corn syrup
- 1 Tbs butter
- 2 oz Markers Mark
- 1 teas ground ginger
- lime zest
For the frosting
- 1 8oz block of cream cheese
- 1 stick (4 oz) butter, softened
- 4-5 cups confectioner’s sugar
- 1 oz Maker’s Mark
- 1 teas vanilla extract
- candied ginger and marzipan tutles for garnish (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line standard cupcake tin with cupcake papers. Place cocoa, flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Mix well and set aside. In a stand mixer, cream together butter and sugar on medium speed until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, mixing with each addition one. Add vanilla. Reduce mixer speed to low. Spoon in the flour mixture in 3 parts, alternating with sour cream, starting and ending with the flour mixture.
Fill cupcake tins 3/4 full. Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until toothpick inserted in the cupcake comes out clean. Let cupcakes cool in pan for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack. You can glaze the cupcakes warm, but let cool completely before frosting.
Make the glaze: melt chocolate, butter, corn syrup, ginger and lime together over low heat in a heavy bottomed sauce pan. If you have bad luck scorching chocolate, use a double boiler. Whisk in Maker’s Mark. Poke holes in cupcakes with a skewer or fork. Spoon glaze over cupcakes, using the back of the spoon to spread the glaze into all the nooks and crannies. Let cool.
While the glaze cools, make the frosting. Using a hand mixer, combine cream cheese and butter in a large bowl. Add 1 cup confections sugar and mix well. Add Maker’s Mark, ginger, and vanilla. Mix in remaining sugar, adding more in necessary to reach desired consistency.
- Dye one pea sized ball of marzipan white
- Dye one pea sized ball of marzipan black
- Dye one ping pong sized ball of marzipan green.
- Leave remaining marzipan natural color.
Shape four small balls of marzipan together to form feet. Roll a log of marzipan to form body and head, rounding the head end and curving it upward at a cute, expressive angle. shape small amount of green marzipan into a disc to drape over naked turtle to form a shell. Flatten tiny discs of white marzipan to form eyeballs. Add an even tinier disc of black on top of each to form pupils. Using a toothpick, lift eyes and place on head of turtle.