Tres Leches – A brief history

Tres Leches

Being the self-described foodie and aspiring chef that I am, I could not accept that the very “Mexican” pastel de tres leches that I grew up eating in my hometown of El Paso, Texas came from within a box of conveniently premixed yellow cake mix.

I was baking a tres leches for my very own going away party at work (yes I did this by choice and with a very enthusiastic disposition) and I needed a recipe that would wow everyone. I wanted to share a little slice of my heritage with my fellow co workers because the world speaks in food. Anywhere you go, this is a truth! So I called my mother and discovered that two generations of women in my family had given in to the efficiencies of the boxed cake mix. Bummer!

I started to look for my own recipe but the internet is overflowing with tres leches recipes claiming to be Mexican, European, Nicaraguan….etc. Confusion ensued.

Theory of Origin #1: There is a very confounding theory online which traces the origins of Tres Leches, as it is know to Latin American countries, to the corporation Nestle. Nestle distributed its canned milk products throughout Latin America during WWII when it set up manufacturing plants in Mexico. A quick call to my grandmother confirmed that she did indeed use recipes from the canned milk labels., although she couldn’t confirm the tres leches recipe was one of them.

Theory of Origin #2: Other stories tell of tres leches originating in Europe (think desserts like the popular tiramisu, which is another dessert that is soaked in sweet liquid before serving).

All in all, identifying the exact origin of this popular dessert proved to be a very difficult task. So I decided to start my own version with bits and pieces taken from different sources.

The Recipe : Sponge Cake from my prized America’s Test Kitchen Baking book 

If you want to step away from the boxed cake mix, this is the perfect cake recipe to use for tres leches. Soft with a springy feel, this airy cake will not get overwhelmingly mushy when I soak it with milk. Instead, it will absorb just enough to give it a crumbly and moist texture.

  • 1/2 cup plan cake flour (I substituted with AP flour without a problem)
  • 1/4 cup unbleached AP flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3 Tablespoons milk
  • 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 5 large eggs, room temp
  • 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  1.  Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F. Grease two 8 inch cake pans and cover the bottoms with parchment paper cut into rounds.
  2. Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt  together in a large bowl. It is recommended that you sift it to break up any lumps.
  3. Heat milk with butter in saucepan, add vanilla and keep warm and away from heat.
  4. Separate 3 eggs and place the whites in a mixing bowl of a stand mixer. Place the yolks in a bowl with the other 2 whole eggs.
  5. Beat the whites at medium speed until they become foamy. Increase speed gradually and add 6 TBS of sugar until the whites form soft peaks. Move the egg whites to another bowl
  6. Add the whole egg + yolks mixture to the now empty mixing bowl, add the rest of the sugar and beat at medium high speed until they are thick and a pale color.
  7. Add these beaten eggs and sugar into the egg whites.
  8. Carefully sprinkle the flour mixture into this egg mixture and fold gently with a rubber spatula until all of the flour is thoroughly combined. The original recipe suggests 12 times but it may take slightly more.
  9. Pour the milk and butter into a well made on the side of the bowl. Mix until there is no trace of dry flour.
  10. Pour the batter into prepared cake pans and bake for approximately 20 minutes or until the top appears to be a golden color and a toothpick inserted to the center of the cake comes out clean.
  11. Run a knife along the perimeter of the cakes. This will loosen them up so that they can be turned over and removed from the pans.
  12. Place cakes on a baking rack and place in the refrigerator until fully cooled.

Three Milks – For this one I just kind of played it by ear (remember I am creating my own recipe). I used heavy cream, sweetened condensed milk, and half and half at a ratio of  1 – .50 – .50. So I used 2 cups of liquid altogether and wanted to avoid an overtly sweet milk blend. I grated a bit of cinnamon into the milk. Many people like to spike it with some kind of liquor. I will definitely do that next time.

Divide the milk into two equal portions. Poke holes throughout the cakes with a fork and slowly drizzle the milk blend into each cake. Pause while the cake absorbs most of it, then come back and continue to drizzle more in. You will find that the milk will start to ooze out of the bottom as the sponge becomes more and more saturated. You could  probably take that milk and reuse it if you wanted to.

Decoration  – This calls for a standard whipped heavy cream topping. I grated some lemon zest (1/2 tsp) and added honey to taste until it was sweet enough for me. Whipped the cream to stiff peaks on a stand  mixer.

Before spreading it on the cake, I spread a thin layer of raspberry jam on top of one cake, then topped it with the other cake layer of equal size. Then once this was set in place, I spread the whipped cream evenly throughout until smooth. This is a blank canvas now, ready to be decorated with fresh fruits, pecans, almonds, or anything else that you may have available!

What I learned from baking a loaf of bread in 2013

I baked this

I baked this

For me, the process begins very randomly. On any given day, the sudden urge to create will overwhelm me and I am instantly urged to search the pantries, bookcases, and the refrigerator for  baking opportunities. I have three cats that lay on my cookbooks, against their will, they are pushed away so that I can be in search of my next creation. They hate it.

I have never been a professional baker, but I HAVE dabbled into the bread making realm with many disastrous outcomes.  I try to look beyond the failures….. There will always be another loaf.

Baking demands a very high degree of patience. Without it, a magnificent loaf will instead become a hockey puck. With it, an otherwise plain loaf will radiate with flavor and a hearty texture. Patience, which I begin to notice applies to all things in life, is the very first ingredient needed to make bread.  It helps that I am now the proud mother – ahem – owner of a beautiful sky blue Le Cruset that is probably the best baking vessel that I have ever used for bread. I don’t like to admit that I love some things; My Le Cruset is one of them…..but I digress….

I usually make a starter for my bread. This is a spongy gray-like blob that sits on my counter for at least an entire day and bubbles and ferments. If you know what the fermentation process does to food, then you are probably pretty grossed out at the fact that this gooey blob sits in my Florida kitchen for a precariously long period of time. However, if you know anything about how amazing fermented food begins to taste the longer it sits there, then, like me, you are probably jumping with joy at the anticipation of a delicious loaf of tangy sourdoughy bread.

Time is key when baking bread. Time for the dough to rise, time for the flavor to develop, time to pre heat the oven. Without time, the final product suffers. Then, the greatest lesson to be learned from bread is that having the will to start is just the beginning. Investment in time and a big portion of love are two ingredients that will pay off when the aroma of freshly baked bread emerges from the oven.

In 2014, at the foot of a new year full of unknowns, maybes, ifs, and perhaps, only one thing is for sure; I’ve got to have the will, and invest the time, this I learned from baking bread in 2013.

Eating Boston: Food notes of a temporary Bostonian

Flour bakery + cafe holds the coveted title and prestige of being one of Boston’s best bakery. In fact, pastry chef/owner, Joanne Chang, is herself an iconic presence in the world of female entrepreneurs. A trained mathematician from one of the most prestigious schools in the country, Harvard, Chang is to be truly admired for following her dreams of baking professionally and pursuing a career that does not guarantee financial security at all times. Then again, what is secure in this life? Nothing is a guarantee and one must work very hard to become an accomplished person. In Flour’s case, Chang demonstrated that she had what it took to build an iconic culinary empire that exemplifies dedication and excellence.

During a trip to the original Flour on Washington st. in the South End, I basked in the glory of the egg breakfast sandwich. Something as common as an egg sandwich remained imprinted in my tastebud’s memory because the dijonnaise spread mingled so harmoniously with the crispy bacon in my mouth. The spread, with its pungent and assertive mustardy nature was subdued by a bite of fatty bacon. The creamy egg patty between the two created a canvas with a mellow eggy flavor that married all of the ingredients together. The sandwich was held together by two slices of freshly baked ciabatta bread with wonderful flavor and a rustic aroma. I washed everything down with the perfect cup of coffee and cream and a small bite size tart. While not overwhelmingly sweet, it served its sweet ending purpose.
Everyone who comes to Boston should definitely stop by and grab something to eat. I know I will definitely come back for Chang’s famous sticky buns, I just need someone to share with!

Consider Beets

Moist, vegan, delightful

There aren’t many words that can describe the earthy sweet taste that beets have to offer. I am often reminded of rainy summer afternoons as I start to smell their caramelizing sugars emit a candy-like aroma into the air, just as they are ready to come out of the oven. And just like that, beets are ready to be enjoyed with pretty much anything that you can imagine.

While it’s easy to dismiss beets because they are too hard, too messy, or too healthy for some people, most condemn beets to a lifetime of juicing duty where they never have an opportunity to showcase their vibrant flavors.  Well, I give beets an opportunity to be anything they want to be in my kitchen, so long as the end result is delicious. I am up for any adventure.

It took a bit more than a few tantalizing adjectives to convince most to try this chocolate beet breakfast bread. For most, the fat-kid factor was just not there..”too healthy” , they dismissed….. And yet, less than a week after it was baked, the whole damn thing has been eaten. It is gone. Finito!

Baking this bread has taught me a couple things; that chocolate and beets are very good friends, and that perhaps they should just be married and live happily ever after in a far away land where they can be eaten by unsuspecting people who have no clue how delicious they will be but will then be blown away by their deliciousness. OK, enough, I’ll just share the recipe and let anyone interested in giving beets a chance judge for themselves.

CHOCOLATE + BEET BREAKFAST BREAD

  • 15 oz beets (roasted until soft, then pureed) Note: if you’re short on time, you may use canned beets (not pickled) However, roasting them in the oven caramelizes their natural sugars and creates a multidimensional sweetness that is hard to match with canned beets.
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup flavorless oil (canola, grapeseed, light olive oil)
  • 3 eggs
  • Zest from 1 lemon 
  • 1 1/2 cups  all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

PROCEDURE (Preheat oven to 325  degrees fahrenheit)

  1. Drain beets of all juice, puree beets and slowly add juice until a smooth consistency is reached. Similar to applesauce. ( My Ninja blender pureed my beets well but left them with a strange chunky consistency. This tricked my friend into thinking they were chocolate chips. Definite WIN!
  2. Using a stand mixer, mix beet puree, eggs, sugar, oil, and lemon zest on medium.  Mix for 5-10 minutes, this will allow air to incorporate into the eggs and will create a fluffier end result.
  3. In another mixing bowl, while wet ingredients are mixing, mix all dry ingredients.
  4. Incorporate dry ingredients into wet ingredients. Make sure dry ingredients are completely incorporated into wet ingredients. Careful not to over mix
  5. Pour batter into a 9 inch loaf pan that has been greased.
  6. Bake for 30 minutes or until it passes the toothpick test, in which a wooden toothpick inserted in the center of the pan comes out with moist  crumbly-looking crumbs on it.) The center of the loaf should feel hard and slightly hollow when tapped.
  7. Enjoy with soft goat cheese, a nice spin on the ever so popular goat cheese and beets!! 

WHY YOU NEED TO BE EATING THIS NOW!!!

  1. Because beets are extremely healthy and they promote lots of constipation-free days =) 
  2. Because beets rock! Like applesauce tends to do with baked goods, beets will add a desirable moisture to the bread.

Food for Fall

Florida weather has finally dipped into the 60’s, it happened late last night as we slept. As a result, the morning welcomed us with a crisp breeze and a sunny (yet not humid) start to what we hope to be the beginning of autum. That is to say, the start of a season for baking nice buttery pastries and pies. And in the land of eternal heat waves, a little break is always celebrated with something warm and carby. Because we still have late summer eggplants in our markets down here, I decided to stock up and make a savory gallette. For those who have never heard of a gallette, it is a simple, rustic style tart that is made with a buttery and flaky crust. The dough is rolled out into a circle and the filling is placed in the middle, leaving about 1 1/2 inches of exposed dough, which just gets folded over the filling. It is perfect for a quick dinner.

I have made many pies and tarts before, but this time I wanted to try a new recipe. As I perused through the usual list of food blogs, I came upon a pie crust that required sour cream. This was a recipe adapted from the smittenkitchen.com food blog. I had nothing but greek plain yogurt, so I took the risk and decided to use it as a substitute.

The result was a lovely crust that crumbled at first bite. The flaky morsels of crust that were left behind on the plate were almost eaten immediately because it would have been a crime to leave all the buttery, golden goodness behind.

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Caramelized Eggplant Gallette

The crust is actually the star of this dish. The filling, the supporting actors. You can throw in any veggies that you have in the fridge and make a nice hearty filling. In my case, I had eggplants, shallots, red peppers, and garlic.

The Crust
Like I mentioned before, i adapted this recipe from the smittenkitchen.com blog. This is the flaky crust recipe as it appears in their site. I ommited the sour cream and subbed with yogurt.

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into
pieces
1/4 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup ice water

1. Cube the butter and chill. Scale all ingredients and chill for atleast 30 minutes. The cold ingredients will make for a flakier crust.
2. Combine your salt and flour, add the butter and start to disentigrate with your hands until the butter is the size of small peas. You can also use a food processor for this step but I don’t like to was all the extra dishes : )
3. Mix the water, yogurt, and lemon together. Add half of the wet mixture into the dry and start to form a dough ball. Add the rest of the wet mixture as needed to form a cohesive ball. Once the ball is formed, place it on a large piece of plastic wrap, then place another piece of equal size wrap over the top and start to form the dough into a small disk as you press down. Chill for 30 minutes.
4. Preheat the oven at 350 degrees during this time.
5. Once your dough is chilled, pull it out and with a rolling pin start to flatten it out until it is only 1/4 of an inch thick. Make sure you keep a semi round form. remove the top plastic. Now, with some ninja chef skills, grab the corners of the bottom plastic film and flip the dough over onto a sheet tray.
6. Spoon the filling of your choice onto the center of the dough and work your way out, leaving a 1 1/2 inch thick border. Fold the border over the filling and bake until the crust gets golden brown. You will begin to smell the aroma of browned butter.

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I grated some aged parm cheese onto my pie to make things a little more interesting. As it turns out, I have not been the first to use substitute yogurt for cream. Apparently the yogurt acts as a binder for the dough. Several sites, including Foodandwine.com feature pie crust recipes that include yogurt. The main reason as to why yogurt has made such a visible difference in the taste and texture of my pie remains a mystery. I will surely investigate and return with answers soon. Meanwhile, I’ll be eating my pie! Happy baking!

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On a rainy day I bake

On a rainy day I bake to fill my heart with the warmth of the aromatic nutmeg. Its subtle sweetness and delicate aroma invade my senses as I sprinkle it into a bowl of freshly cut granny smith apples.

On a rainy day I bake to create a symphony of flavors that send my taste buds into a whirling craze.

I bake to send myself on a journey where patience and understanding is key. Because baking is an art form with a final act which culminates as you bite into the carefully crafted art piece and sends happiness to your heart!

On a rainy day I bake to share with friends.

Spiced Apple Crostata

This recipe is very easy to make when you have a surplus of apples. Use tangy granny smiths and balance their strong flavor with the sweet brown sugar.

To make the crust you will need 1 1/2 cups of AP flour, a pinch of salt, a stick of chilled butter, 5 TBS of chilled water. Mix the salt and flour and cut the butter into cubes. Rub the butter into the flour mix until the butter is pea sized. Finally add the chilled water only until the dough comes together. Flatten into 5 disks and refrigerate.

To make the filling simply peel and core 3 granny smith apples. Dice the apples and toss them in a bowl with spices (nutmeg, cinammon, 1/3 cup of brown sugar. Allow to sit for 30 minutes so the flavors can develop.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. on a floured surface roll out the disks until they are about 1/4 of an inch thick. Scoop apple filling into the center, leaving an inch sized border. fold the border into the center and bake until golden brown. Sprinkle with coarse sugar. Enjoy!

Epic Baking Fail

What went wrong? That was the first thought that crossed my mind. Followed, of course, by a tsunami of details that could have caused my baking disaster. By the way, this is not the first baking disaster that I’ve had. I actually suck quite a bit at baking, yet my love for it and the relaxation that I get from it make me enjoy it so much that I just keep trying and trying in hopes of someday becoming a baking diva of some sort. That’s why I was so dissappointed to see the shapeless blob that was supposed to be a vibrantly flavored zucchini raisin bread loaf take a life of its own as the crumbs avalanched all over my counter top. Yep, disaster had stricken my kitchen. I would like to toss the damn blob into the trash and never see it again, but I am weird. I keep my baking disasters on the counter for three main reasons. 1, I hate seeing food and energy go to waste. 2, Maybe it will taste better the next day, or the hubby might eat it out of pity, I know I won’t eat it. And 3, as a constant reminder of my failure and a motivation to hit the books and find out what I did wrong. The third is exactly what I am going to do today, for I am getting tired of having this zuchinni blob take up counter space. Oh and for the record, I have made delicious zuchinni bread before.

I adapted this recipe from Wayne Gisslen’s Proffesional Baking 5th ed.

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I did not use bran, but added 120g pf extra pastry flour. I used raisins instead of the coconut or walnuts. I doubled the zuchinni since I was not using carrot. I used brown sugar instead of regular sugar.

The results:

I used a mini cupcake mold ( those 9 mini cupcakes came out great) and a 9inch loaf pan for the rest of the batter. I only made half the recipe. The resulting loaf of bread ( if it can be called bread), was extremely dense, which leads me to believe that I should have only filled the loaf pan half way up to give it room to rise. I filled it up 3/4 of the way. I inserted a toothpick into the loaf, when I saw that it was clean, I removed the loaf from the oven and let it cool only to find out the batter was still under cooked inside. I looked through the pages of ” The Pastry Chef’s Companion” for answers because it has a very informative section on ” What Went Wrong and Why”.

What is a quickbread?

A quickbread is a simple bread that is leavened with rapid rising chemicals. It contains very little fat so it should be eaten as soon as possible as it will get stale. Various nuts and vegetables can be added to the bread mix.

A main concern when baking quickbreads is the developement of glutten. Unlike yeast breads which have a chewy texture, quickbreads should have a tender crumbly texture. Because they are leavened with baking soda and or baking powder, these chemical leaveners do not have the strenght to hold up to any glutten that may develop in the bread. So the result of excessive glutten developement will be a dense and hard loaf that can probably knock someone out. Nope, not delicious. As I read through my baing books, I discovered the creaming method.

Creaming method
1: combine fat, sugar, salt spice, in a mixer bowl. Use paddle attachment.
2: cream ingredients until light
3: add egg product in 2 or three stages. Stir together liquid ingredients until done
4: in another mixing bowl sift four and dry ingredients
5: Add 1/4 of dry ingredients into wet ingedients, mix until just blended. Then add some more of dry into wet until all ingredients are used up. The final batter should not be smooth but just barely blended and moist.

This method is used when thie bread recipe calls for higher fat and sugar content. These two ingredients will inhibit the development of glutten.
It is also very important that the oven temperature is not too high as the outside of the bread will become crustyand the inside will be undercooked.

So, another attempt at zucchinni bread is in the near future. I will be adopting a lot of the tips listed here and hopefully I can take beautiful pictures and enjoy it with my morning coffee. Until then, I hope these quickbread mixing tips will help you avert baking disaster!