Sunday, February 20, 2011

Of goddaughters and tres leches cake

We just adopted a goddaughter Chinese style.  While Western adoptions of this sort take place in the church at the time of baptism, taking on a gannuer (or even a ganerzi, or godson) is something that's often done when the adoptee is able to make the decision, so it's a lovely way for both sides to say, "Yes! I want you as part of my family!" Which is what happened with us.

We've known Jennifer Cheng for ages and watched as she grew up into a stunning young poet and all-around wonderful young lady.  (That's her on the left with her sister Tiffany.)

Over the past couple of years, Jen and the two of us have become closer and closer until it occurred to us all (including - in an amazing instance of perfect Vulcan mind meld - her mom Samantha) that joining families was exactly what we should do, and so we did.  Yesterday we had the perfect party with the perfect friends, and it was like adopting the ideal daughter as our own.

This ceremony is taken quite seriously among traditional Chinese, and so everyone dressed up to the nines.  We held the ceremony and party at our home, and Dr. Yuanzhi Li acted as the m.c., since he has a godmother (ganma) and so knew what he was doing. First, Jen's father and mother addressed everyone, then Jen, and then J.H. and myself, telling them why we were linking our lives.  Jen kowtowed to us three times, we presented her with welcome gifts, she and her family gave us gifts in return, and then the party began!

Now, Jen had served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay, so what better way to celebrate than with a traditional Latin American cake, dulce de tres leches.  And I had the perfect recipe:  my friend Flo Braker's fantastic new cookbook, Baking for All Occasions, included what looked to be the most delicious cake of any in my collection of cookbooks, and now that I've made it, I have to declare that it was without a doubt the best dulce de tres leches that I have ever tasted!  Flo wisely offers a stunning berry sauce on the side for color and taste contrast, but it's the cake that takes, well, the cake.

 It's not a difficult cake to make at all, the steps are numerous but not that complicated, and the directions are clear and well-written.  What we have here is nothing more than a delicious genoise slathered in a caramel cream sauce until the cake soaks up every bit of the liquid like a sponge.  At the last minute it is frosted with a lightly sweetened whipped cream, and that's it!  If you have never made a cake from scratch before, you could do worse than start with this one.  In fact, having this genoise under your belt will make you pretty fearless when it comes to future cakes.

I doubled the recipe to make a sheet cake, and very little was left.  In fact, although I was pleased that everyone like it so much, I was stunned that only a tiny bit remained, because while most of the Chinese folks that I know like the idea of a frosted cake, they find most American confections way too sweet.  But nobody daintily pecked at the cake this time.  In fact, even the sveltest of the ladies polished their plates, making this a definite winner.

With Flo's generous permission, here is her recipe just as it appears in her cookbook, with my own personal observations added in [brackets].  You'll notice that her recipe has you use only half of the caramelized dulce de leche cream, which to my mind is an excellent reason to double it and make enough to freeze and/or share. Flo suggests that you "Bake the cake at least 1 day ahead so that it dries out slightly to make it thirsty for the filling."

Dulce de tres leches fiesta cake with red fruit sauce
Latin America
8 to 12 servings
[Double this recipe for a 9 by 13 inch sheet cake and increase the baking time, of course]

The Huangs & Chengs
Yellow genoise:
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons (3½ oz / 100 g) cake flour
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon (4 oz / 115g)  granulated sugar, divided
teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Dulce de leche cream:
One 14-ounce (400 g) can sweetened condensed milk [or a 14-ounce (or so) can of ready-made dulce de leche, in which case skip the directions for making the dulce de leche cream]

Dulce de leche filling:
½ recipe (½ c / 4¾ oz / 135 g) dulce de leche cream [above]
¾ cup plus 3 tablespoons (7½ fl oz / 215 ml) heavy cream
¾ cup plus 7 tablespoons (7 fl oz / 210 ml) whole milk
teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons dark rum [I used Malibu Coconut Rum]
Simply berry sauce:
1 cup (5 oz / 140 g) strawberries, hulled and cut in half if large
½ cup ( 2½ to 3 oz) red raspberries, picked over for stems [I used a bag of frozen mixed berries here instead of the fresh strawberries and raspberries since the berries weren't in season yet, and they worked out perfectly; just let the berries partially thaw before processing them.]
¼ cup (2½ oz / 70 g) strawberry jam [I used my cousin Leigh's homemade berry jam, the best there is!]
    Jen cutting the cake while we look on
Whipped cream topping:
1 cup (8 fl oz / 240 ml) heavy cream
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon dark rum, optional [I used another glug of that coconut rum]
1. Before baking: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly coat only the sides of an 8 by 2-inch round cake pan with nonstick spray, then flour the sides, tapping out the excess flour. Line the bottom with parchment paper.

2. To make the Yellow Genoise:  Sift together the flour, 1 tablespoon of the sugar, and salt onto a sheet of waxed paper; set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together by hand the eggs and the remaining 1/2 cup (3 1/2 oz / 100 g) sugar. Place the bowl in a shallow pan, such as a 10-inch skillet,and add water hot to the touch (120 to 130 F) to the skillet to a depth of 1 1/2 inches.  To prevent the eggs from setting, whisk them continuously until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is close to body temperature, about 100 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer or tested with a fingertip, 30 to 60 seconds.

3. Remove the bowl from the water bath, attach the bowl to the mixer, and fit the mixer with the whisk attachment. Whip on medium speed until the mixture has cooled, increased in volume (tripled or more), and appears light in texture and almost white, 3 to 4 minutes. To test if the mixture is ready, lift the whisk. The mixture should fall back into the bowl in a ribbon that rests softly on the surface and remains there for at least 15 to 20 seconds. If it sinks into the batter right away, continue whipping for a few more minutes until it has the desired consistency. Add the vanilla during the final moments of whipping.

4. Detach the whisk and the bowl from the mixer, and tap the whisk against the side of the bowl to free the excess egg mixture.  Using a long metal spatula, scoop up one-third of the flour mixture and scatter it over the egg mixture. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold in the flour mixture until just incorporated. Repeat with the remaining flour mixture in two additions, folding just until all of the flour has been absorbed. 

4. Gently pour the mixture into the prepared pan. With the rubber spatula, spread the batter from the center outward, creating a slightly raised ridge around the outside rim. (Since heat is conducted faster near the metal rim, mounding the batter around the edges ensures the cake will bake more evenly and will be more level.) [Also, genoise batter doesn't rise a whole lot more as it bakes, so if your pan is full, don't be too concerned about it overflowing. I like to place a baking sheet under the cake pan, though, to not only catch any drips, but also to protect the bottom of the cake from burning. If you're using a glass pan, this is especially important.]

5. Bake the cake until the top springs back slightly when lightly touched, sounds spongy when tapped, and the sides are beginning to come away from the pan, 25 to 27 minutes. An aroma reminiscent of freshly scrambled eggs should pervade your kitchen when the cake is done. [Pure poetry!] Transfer to a wire rack and let cool in the pan for 5 to 10 minutes.
At the side of the master: Flo

6. Tilt and rotate the pan while gently tapping it on a counter to release the cake sides. Invert a rack on top of the cake, invert the cake onto it, and lift off the pan. Slowly peel off the parchment liner, turn it over so that the sticky side faces up, and reposition it on top of the cake. Invert another rack on top, invert the cake so it is right side up, and remove the original rack. Let cool completely. The cake may remain on the rack, unwrapped, at room temperature for up to 36 hours before assembling the dessert. [You don't need to worry about it drying out because of all the cream it is going to sponge up.]

7. To make the Dulce de Leche Cream: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Open the can of condensed milk and pour the contents into a 9-inch pie dish. Cover the dish with aluminum foul and place the dish in a shallow roasting pan. Pour very hot (130 degrees F) water into the pan to come halfway up the sides of the pie dish. Bake the milk until it turns caramel brown and thick, 1 to 1½ hours. Refill the roasting pan with hot water as needed during the baking to maintain the level. 

8. Remove the pan from the oven and remove the pie dish from the water bath. Discard the foil and let the caramelized milk cool completely at room temperature. Use half of the caramelized cream right away, or cover the dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 4 days. [Leftover dulce de leche is great drizzled over vanilla ice cream, baked in a flan, or just spooned into your waiting mouth.] 

9. To assemble the cake: Transfer the cake to a shallow plate with a rim and proceed to make the Dulce de Leche Filling. [I returned the cake to the pan in which it had been baked - cleaned of course - and found that this allowed the cake to absorb the cream more quickly with no puddles around it.] In a small, heavy saucepan over low heat, stir together the Dulce de Leche Cream, 2 tablespoons of the milk, and the salt until smooth and warm. Remove from the heat and pour into a large bowl or medium pitcher. Stir in the remaining ¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon ( 6½ fl oz / 195 ml) cream, the remaining ¾ cup (6 fl oz / 180 ml) milk, and the rum until well blended. Slowly pour the mixture over the cake so the cake absorbs the filling. Pause briefly, if necessary, to give the cake time to absorb what has been poured. Refrigerate the cake, loosely covered with plastic wrap, for several hours to allow the flavors to blend and the texture to set. 

Celebrating our extended family
10. To make the Simply Berry Sauce: In a food processor, combine the berries and jam and process until pureed. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve placed over a small bowl to remove any seeds. Cover lightly and refrigerate until serving. You should have about 1 cup (87 fl oz / 240 ml).

11. To make the Whipped Cream Topping: Just before serving, combine the cream, sugar, vanilla, and rum, (if using) in a deep, medium bowl. Using a whisk or a handheld mixer, whip until soft peaks form. Using an offset spatula, spread the whipped cream evenly over the top of the cake.

12. Using a sharp knife, cut the cake into slices. Drizzle some of the berry sauce decoratively over each plate, or pass the sauce at the table. Cover any leftover cake loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to one day. [Freeze any leftovers in a plastic container with enough headway that the whipped cream doesn't get squashed. Defrost in the fridge overnight.]

(All party photos courtesy of John Liu, copyright 2011.)


  1. A dream- meaning the occasion, company and cake!

    Godmother, you created a beautiful balance of sugar and cream, after tasting many a dulce de leche made sickly sweet. The berry sauce added a bright tartness and punch of color to play with on the plate.

  2. Thanks, gannuer! Praise for the cake should be directed at Flo, my own personal Queen of Hearts. And thank you again for becoming our goddaughter... I can't think of anything that could have made us happier!