Orange Tres Leches Cake

This weekend we celebrated a big birthday in my family with a large Sunday dinner that I prepared.  I thought the perfect twist on “birthday cake” might be a tres leches cake with a hint of orange since it is autumn.  Tres leches means “three milks” and I can only assume the cake is called that because it contains milk/cream, evaporated milk, and condensed milk for a creamy, wet cake that is topped with a light, whipped frosting.

Mmm. This is a wonderfully rich, yet light, cake.

Mon mari and I have been celebrating milestones with tres leches cake for years now, but we usually buy it from a bakery.  We have tried both the regular, vanilla tres leches, and a chocolate variety.  When I was looking through recipes for this dinner, I came across an old clipping from the October 2006 issue of Southern Living magazine.

The original recipe uses lemon in the frosting, but the birthday boy doesn’t care for lemon, so I substituted orange.  I also added orange juice and orange zest to the cake, and more orange juice in the frosting.  Otherwise the ingredients are the same.  The cake took me two days to prepare, because I let it sit in the refrigerator overnight so that the cake could soak up all the milky goodness.  Happy Birthday, indeed.

Orange Tres Leches Cake
Makes a 9 x 13″ cake.

This recipe is adapted from “Tres Leches Cake,” Southern Living magazine, October 2006, page 154.  On the Southern Living website, I could only find issues that went back to 2008.  When I searched for “Tres Leches Cake” on the site, a link to the original recipe from the magazine clipping on popped up.  You can try the recipe yourself by clicking here.  More information on the original publication is available on the Resources page.

Cake Ingredients:
7 large eggs, separated
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup turbinado sugar
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
the zest of one orange
1 14-oz, can sweetened condensed milk
1 12-oz, can evaporated milk
3/4 cup whipping cream

Frosting Ingredients:
6 egg whites
1 cup turbinado sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice

Optional Garnish: grated orange rind

WARNING: You will use a lot of dishes in the preparation of this cake.  If you don’t like to do dishes, or are intimidated by multiple steps, this cake might not be for you.  I used both an electric mixer and a hand mixer for this cake, because this recipe calls for a lot of beating, whipping, and folding of egg whites…I just thought I would warn you, mes amies

I began this behemoth of a cake by separating 7 eggs.  Yes, seven.  Ugh, if there is one thing that annoys me, it is separating eggs, especially seven of them.  I even have one of those whimsical “egg separator” tools.  Trust me, I don’t think it makes the process much easier!

Then, I combined the dry ingredients: flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl.

Next, I creamed the egg yolks with the sugar and softened butter in my electric mixer.  Ok, so far, this is pretty standard cake making…

Time to meet the flour mixture and the milk...

When it comes time to add the flour mixture and the milk to the egg yolk mixture, I broke it up in batches like the original recipe suggests, making sure that a flour step was both first and last.  I did flour, milk, flour, milk, flour, milk, flour.  I stopped the mixer a minute or two after each addition, and then added in the next, scraping the bowl as I went.

Then came the flavorings: vanilla, orange zest, and 2 tablespoons of fresh orange juice.  Continue to mix the ingredients together slowly.  After the vanilla, orange zest, and orange juice are incorporated, set the batter aside.

Orange zest gets added to the batter...

Fresh orange juice is substituted for lemon. I wonder how ruby red grapefruit might taste?

This is the batter that results. Every so often, a fleck of orange.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.  In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until you have stiff peaks.  I broke out the hand mixer for this step.  I would say it took about 5-6 minutes of beating for me to achieve stiff peaks.  Fold the egg whites into the batter with a spatula.  Definitely an arm workout at this point in the recipe…

The egg whites are beaten and folded into the batter.

Once the egg whites are incorporated, the batter becomes fluffy and smooth.

Pour the cake batter into a greased and floured 9×13″ pan and bake at 350°F for 25 minutes or until the center is cooked.  I am not sure why, but my cake needed a few extra minutes (about 5) and when it came out, the edges were a bit firm, so I cut them off with a serrated knife.

This is the cake, just before it goes in the oven.

The resulting cake is very thick and egg-y…kind of like a cross between French toast and pound cake with a slight orange kick.  I include this observation because some bakery versions of tres leches cake tend to be more airy and crumbly.  But perhaps, not authentic?  Don’t let the texture of this cake throw you off, if you are used to a softer version in stores.

At this point, the recipe recommends allowing the cake to rest for 10 minutes, so I did.  After that, I poked holes liberally in the cake with a wooden skewer so that the upcoming milky sauce could seep right in.

The next step is downright sinful…combine the cream, the condensed milk, and the evaporated milk together in a bowl.  Pour the milk mixture over the hole-filled cake very slowly, in small spoonfuls, pushing and nudging the milk into the cake with the spoon you are using.  It is important to take your time here.  The original recipe said to wait until each new addition of milk sauce was absorbed before adding another, and even though I painstakingly tried to do that, I still feel that I could have done a better job.  For this cake, patience is your friend.  Apparently, patience makes a great tres leches.

The milk mixture is poured over the cake in slow batches, until the liquid is absorbed by the cake.

After all the milk sauce is absorbed or surrounding the cake, allow it to sit, or marinate in milkiness, for 2 hours.  Yum.

The cake sits for two hours. I got up every once and a while and spooned a little more milk from the pan over the top and let it soak in.

Then, I covered the cake and left it in the refrigerator overnight.

This morning, it was time to make the frosting.  I used a metal mixing bowl, a hand mixer, and a pot filled with some boiling water as a double boiler to combine the additional egg whites and the sugar.  You beat them together on high for what may seem like forever, until you have stiff peaks.  In reality, I think it took me 10 minutes.  (The original recipe said 5-7 minutes.)

Then, I added the orange juice, and dribbled in the corn syrup a little at a time while continuing to vigorously beat the egg white mixture.  You want to continue whipping up the frosting until you have the right consistency.  It took me another 10 minutes to achieve a good frosting and I got to skip the gym because my arms were beat!  No pun intended!

Now, when I first sampled the tres leches frosting, I thought it was too sweet.  However, the sweetness mellows out on top of the cake.  So don’t fret.

Spread the frosting over the cake, garnish with orange rind, and serve.

All frosted up.

Side-note:  I just had a second serving before writing this blog post, and this cake seems to get even better with time.  I think I’ll rest my arms and my dishwasher a bit before I try again though!