Layers of lightened-up coconut cake have been soaked in tres leches, or "three milks." Inspired by the Latin American dessert, this layer cake version is frosted in clouds of whipped cream sweetened with condensed milk and then garnished with toasted coconut for added flavor and texture.
Living in California, most everything thing “Spanish” growing up was associated with Mexico. I remember my high school Spanish teacher giving lessons on Latin and Hispanic culture, beyond just the language and Mexico. She explained to the very Caucasian, suburban co-eds in my class that in Spain, some Spaniards even have light eyes/hair and could even look like some of us (as she gestured right toward me). I replied, that in fact, I am part Hispanic. Puerto Rican, in fact, with roots all the way back to Barcelona and Madrid.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am pretty pale. Living in Canada and using a liberal amount of sunscreen doesn’t help, but I’ve spent most of my life with people assuming that I am just white. To be fair, I look just like my dad (who is 100% German) so it is hard to tell until I talk about my family or you spot me with my mother. My mom is Filipino and Puerto Rican. I’ve shared stories about my Filipino family from Hawaii and my island-inspired recipes many times before, but not many from my grandmother's side until now...
Long ago, my great great grandmother Amelia (my middle-namesake) grew up in Barcelona, but eventually migrated to Puerto Rico where she met and married my great great grandfather from Madrid. Once they started a family, they found themselves in New York before eventually settling down in Arizona, where my grandmother was born. My grandma used to joke about getting the raw end of the deal and not getting to grow up in Spanish Harlem like most Puerto Rican immigrants at the time – assuming that living in New York City would have been much more fun than working in the agricultural fields of Arizona.
At one point, my grandma lived with her own grandmother who spoke only Spanish. In the end, my grandmother was fluent in both Spanish and English and turned this skill into her career. She taught at the elementary school for years, helping the ESL students learn to read and write in English. I would love to be fluent in Spanish too, but I remember her teaching me some basics in the car ride down to Southern California to visit great great grandma Amelia when I was a child. I remember this actually coming in handy with Amelia when hanging out and watching game shows together in her late 90’s. She would end up living to the age of 103!
The Puerto Rican branch of my family tree is a mixed bag. I have aunts with red hair and other relatives that are even paler than I am. Some have darker features, but it really goes to show that you never really know what someone’s background is sometimes. Take me and my brother - I look just like our dad and my bro a bit more European. One thing is for sure though, I got my crazy, unruly curls from my Puerto Rican side!
Like I mentioned before, we sadly didn’t celebrate this part of our heritage as much growing up. However, the parts I do remember were always full of music and dancing. My grandmother LOVED all types of music. It must run in the family, as her grandmother was always playing music as does my own mom, typically accompanied by dancing all around the living room. Without sounding horribly stereotypical, but maybe all Puerto Ricans enjoy music? Perhaps that is why West Side Story and In the Heights are soooo good, hehe. I guess I’ll have to bring Ev down to Salsa Sundays in Robson Square and teach him the merengue.
One piece of our culture that I really wish I knew more about is the food. We ate paella in Barcelona when we took my grandmother to visit when I was a teenager, but beyond that, I am pretty unfamiliar. Luckily, that’s where this Coconut Tres Leches comes into play. Although not necessarily native to Puerto Rico, this creamy, dreamy cake hails from Latin America and is becoming increasingly more popular by all.
I made this recipe for The Cake Blog. Here is a bit more of what I have to say about it:
Tres leches is typically baked in a sheet pan, but you know I had to go and give a layer cake twist! Instead of an airy sponge laden with three types of cream, I used a lightened-up butter cake for a bit more structure but paired it with clouds of freshly whipped cream. A bit of leftover condensed milk from the soak helps sweeten up and stabilize the cream.
Find the recipe on The Cake Blog!