This is day 7 of a series celebrating local Toronto businesses! Recent events have put many local businesses in a difficult position and unfortunately, it’s not clear when this situation will come to an end. For ten days I’ll be posting recipes inspired by some of my favourite local businesses as my own way of celebrating what they bring to our communities. While we may not be able to visit our local bakeries, cafes and restaurants right now, this is a way of keeping them in mind, and a reminder to support them again once there is a chance.
Ave Maria Latin Cafe is a café that dominates the back of a tiny Latin grocery store. Small tables and vinyl chairs in pastel green cozy up alongside grocery shelves lined with imported coffee, flour and guava paste. It’s cluttered in the best sort of way, which is to say, with food. To order at the counter you peer between the empanada warming case, a tray of snacks, and propped up menus.
They serve sandwiches, tamales, empanadas, and a slate of arepas. The first time I tried the Columbian arepas, I was surprised – made of white corn, they are a bit denser and drier than their bready Venezuelan counterparts, but just as delicious. The lady at the counter, who I suspect is the owner, is a lovely advocate for her foods, helping me pronounce arepa de chocolo, the sweeter yellow arepa encasing more melted cheese, correctly. Another time I was in, she spent fifteen minutes helping a customer pick out candy for his Columbian girlfriend.
If I am in for a meal, I love the simplicity of a salty arepa folded onto melty white cheese – and it comes alive when eaten with spoonfuls of the small dish of acidic spicy sauce that accompanies it. But it comes to dessert, I was floored when I tried the tres leches cake. It’s a towering square of sponge cake that somehow manages to be light and structured, while still fully saturated with milk. It’s the furthest thing from sodden or soggy. I don’t usually think of a milk as being a dominant flavour, but in this cake, which yields easily against a fork and leaves a small pool of milk behind, it makes perfect sense.
“Last time I tried making this, it was completely dry in the middle.” I confided in the lady at the counter. “It completely missed the point of being a tres leches cake!” With a laugh, she told me now I know what to aim for.
I’ve managed to get there – a couple key points being to use a very light sponge cake, and being very, very thorough with poking the cake. In this version I’ve infused the milks with lemongrass and included plenty of coconut milk.
Lemongrass is like someone took a lemon, gave it an herbal aroma, and smoothed out all its sharp points, a flavour that just melts into anything milky, and is lovely in combination with the mixture of milks. It is one of my favourite flavours, but its fibrous form requires infusion and its gentle flavour does not lend itself well to coming out in baked goods such as cakes. However, given the sheer quantity of milk with which a tres leches cake is soaked with, this is absolutely a lemongrass cake.
A lemongrass-infused tres leches is something I’ve tried before, but without cake saturation, the lemongrass flavour doesn’t saturate the cake either! This time around, by using a very light sponge cake and lots and lots of poking, the cake somehow absorbed 700mL of liquid – landing at that balance point of saturated but not soggy.
There are many ways to make a sponge cake. In all of them, the eggs and flour do come together in the end, but can do so in different ways – the eggs can be separated or beaten together; flour can be mixed in all at once or alternated with egg whites. Regardless of the method, and at this point I have tried many of them, I tend to make the stodgiest sponge cakes. The last one I made, while alternating between folding flour and whipped whites into the yolks, I somehow folded away the egg whites away into oblivion. Or there have been times when, due to a thick paste-like batter, instead of aerating with egg whites, I deflate them. Or there have been times I keep folding and folding to try to smooth out lumps of sifted flour until the batter is a puddle. At this point stodgy spongecakes have happened so often I know that it’s not to do with any of the recipes – it’s really just me!
The recipe I’ve shared is one of few sponge cake recipes that I have never had problems with. The method is straightforwards and the ingredient list is just the essentials: eggs, sugar and flour, with no milk or melted butter. This is a bit of a departure, as most tres leches recipes I saw used at least milk if not also butter in their sponge cakes – thus if you’re not me and can actually make sponge cakes, feel free to use your own preferred recipe. But if you’re a bit more sponge cake adverse, I recommend this one – it is so light, and suitably lean such that 700mL of mixed milks is just what it needs to become moist and rich.
lemongrass & coconut tres leches cake
- 80mL condensed milk (or more, depending on how sweet you want it)
- 340mL coconut milk
- 280mL evaporated milk
- 1 stalk lemongrass
- 4 eggs
- 50g sugar
- 85g flour
- pinch salt
- 1/4 tsp baking powder
- whipping cream
- toasted coconut flakes
Combine the condensed milk, coconut milk and evaporated milk in a small saucepan. Taste and add more condensed milk if desired – I’ve sweetened it to my own tastes. Cut the lemongrass in half lengthwise and into 4 segments. Take the pieces of lemongrass and and bend them in order in order to crack and release the aroma. Add to the milk, heat until it comes to a simmer. Then cover and set aside to steep for a couple of hours.
Preheat the oven to 350F. Very lightly butter an 8″ square pan – I buttered it, then wiped over the pan with a tissue to leave only a trace of butter. Line the bottom of the pan with a piece of parchment paper.
Place the eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat until frothy, sprinkle in the sugar, and then continue whipping until very light and fluffy. They are done when you can draw a figure-eight with a ribbon of batter flowing from the whisk, and it stays on the surface of the batter for at least 10 seconds.
Stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Sift a third of the flour over the egg whites and fold in until no streaks or lumps of flour remain. Repeat twice more until all the flour is incorporated.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth out with a small offset spatula. Bake the cake for around 25 minutes or until browned and an inserted skewer is removed clean. Let cool around 15 minutes or until warm. Loosen the edges of the cake with a butter knife. Poke the cake all over with a skewer right down to the bottom of the pan (I did some serious all-over poking – like every 2cm poking).
Strain the milk and transfer to a measuring cup with a pouring spout. Slowly pour over the cake, being sure to get the sides and middle, adding more milk as it is absorbed. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
When ready to serve, whip the cream (sweeten if desired – I prefer it unsweetened!) and sprinkle with toasted coconut.