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Pastel de Tres Leches

We've been living as dictated by our calendar lately.

Of course, food writers tend to live by the calendar, but in a fast-forward kind of way. We have to start thinking about Christmas and Hanukkah in October, and we do our Fourth of July grilling in May. From what I understand, food writers for magazines think even further in advance.

But what I really meant from my first sentence is that we're a bit overscheduled at the moment. In addition to the usual springtime rush of events, weddings, and cookbook-related business, John and I are moving across the country, trying to sell my car and find a good home for our outdoor cat, and making plans to see friends before we move.

Which is why we both completely forgot about Cinco de Mayo until approximately yesterday.

Back in college, it seemed to me that Cinco de Mayo was a convenient excuse, much like Mardi Gras, for frat boys to get drunk. And as I've never been particularly interested in inebriation for the sake of inebriation, I never celebrated Cinco de Mayo.

However, in the years since, Cinco de Mayo has made a lot more sense to me thanks to Mexico's deliciously varied culinary traditions. And really, this, along with Mexican heritage and culture in a larger sense, is what Cinco de Mayo is actually about. In a country with well over 30 million people of Mexican origin or descent, it only makes sense to celebrate the tremendous diversity and culture brought to the United States by our neighbors to the South.

One of the best ways to celebrate anything, in my opinion, is with dessert. And this particular dessert is almost worth a celebration all on its own.

Pastel de Tres Leches (literally, "three milks cake") is a dairy delight. It's almost like cake infused with ice cream. The cake base is pretty simple--a straightforward yellow cake layer. Things start to get interesting after you bake the cake.

You make a soak from three different kinds of "milk"--heavy cream, evaporated milk, and sweetened condensed milk, and pour this over the still-warm cake. Finally, you make a meringue topping. This is traditional, but I almost always opt for a simpler whipped cream topping, as it tends to be less sweet than meringue.

I've used JOY's recipe here but added some things of my own. The orange zest in the batter gives the dessert some much-needed acidity and, well, zest. I also like to add some liquor to the soak--I usually go for rum, but an orange-flavored liqueur such as Triple Sec or Cointreau would be equally delicious. Finally, I like to add some cinnamon to the whipped cream topping. Use Mexican canela if you can find it.

Other articles you might enjoy: Salsa Fresca with Corn, Green Rice, Homemade Chipotles en Adobo

Pastel de Tres Leches ("Three Milks" Cake)
Makes one 9-inch square or round cake, or one 11x7 inch cake

Have all ingredients at room temperature, about 70 degrees F. Preheat the oven to 350°F (325°F if you use a glass baking pan). Grease a 9-inch square or round pan or an 11 x 7-inch baking pan.
Sift together:
     1 cup all-purpose flour
     2 teaspoons baking powder
Beat in a large bowl on medium speed until soft peaks form:
     3 large egg whites
     1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
Gradually add. beating on high speed:
     1 cup sugar
Beat in one at a time:
     3 large egg yolks
     Zest of one orange
Add one quarter of the flour mixture at a time, beating on low speed or stirring with a rubber spatula just until incorporated and scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary.
Add and beat just until the mixture is smooth and evenly mixed:
     1/4 cup milk or coconut milk
Scrape the batter into the pan and spread evenly. Bake until the top springs back when lightly pressed and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine:
     1/2 cup heavy cream or coconut milk
     3/4 cup evaporated milk
     3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sweetened condensed milk
     (2 tablespoons dark rum)
Leaving the cake in the pan, prick it with a toothpick all over. Pour the milk mixture slowly over the cake, including the edges and the corners. Let cool, then refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight, before serving.
For topping, beat in a medium bowl until it begins to thicken:
     1 cup heavy cream
Add slowly, with the mixer running:
     1/4 cup sugar
     (1/2 teaspoon cinnamon or canela)
Continue beating until soft peaks form. You want the whipped cream to be lightly whipped and delicate. Invert the cake onto a serving plate. Spread the whipped cream on top. Garnish with:
     (Orange peel)
     (Toasted coconut flakes)
Alternately, top with meringue (see below). Use the cake within 24 hours and be advised that because the meringue is not cooked, there is more of a risk of foodborne illness.

Soft Meringue Topping

Beat in a clean, grease-free glass or metal bowl on medium speed until foamy:
     4 large egg whites, at room temperature
Add and beat until soft peaks form:
     1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Very gradually, beat in:
     1/2 cup sugar
Beat on high speed until the peaks are stiff and glossy but not dry. Beat in:
     1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Use immediately.

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