Recipe: Cuatro Leches Cake

A Birthday Story about Loosening My Grip

I have this thing about kids and sugar. I don't think they make such a great combination and I grip to this conviction, hard. When she was much younger, I used to tell my daughter that she could have sweets when she was five. Five seemed like a safe and far-away target, but as it approached, I knew I had to keep my promise.

So last weekend, as we said goodbye to four and hello to five, I let go of my no-sugar rule and made her what she really wanted: a sugary sweet birthday cake complete with edible pink glitter.

It was a transformational moment for us both.

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When she turned three I gave Ursula a "cheese cake" — a giant wheel of Cypress Grove's Truffle Tremor. Already, she knew this was an odd choice. For her fourth birthday I made two rock-hard, cardboard-dry poached apple cakes; she wasn't psyched.

This year, I went all out. I invented a cuatro leches cake, a riff on the traditional tres leches cake, the spongy chiffon cake doused in condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream. For my cuarta leche (fourth milk) I added coconut milk, then blasted the thing with shaved fresh coconut and a vial of edible pink glitter.

It may not seem like a big deal, but for me, this fifth birthday was a real exercise in loosening my grip and my sense of control. We all have our food issues — tah-dah — there's mine.

No one levitated on a sugar-high, no teeth fell out, but I can say that since that day I've noticed more hugs and "I love you mama" moments with her. Sometimes you can buy a little love. Not with money, but with food, because food is what makes people feel they're being heard, being loved.

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Cuatro Leches Cake

makes one double-layer 9-inch cake

For the cake:
1 1/2 cups cake flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar, divided
4 large eggs, separated
1/3 cup evaporated milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For the leche glaze:
1 cup coconut mlk
1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
1/4 cup evaporated milk
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For the topping:
2 cups heavy cream
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 fresh coconut, flesh removed and shredded, about 1 cup

Preheat oven to 350° F.

Grease and flour a 9-inch x 2-inch round cake pan and line with a circle of parchment paper.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the cake flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

Using either a stand mixer, electric mixer, or a wooden spoon, cream the butter and 3/4 cup of the sugar. Beat in the egg yolks until mixture is uniform in texture and pale yellow. Stir in the evaporated milk and vanilla until well-combined.

In another clean, dry bowl (if using a stand mixer you will need to use a clean bowl or transfer the egg mixture to a separate large mixing bowl) beat the egg whites to soft peaks. Gradually add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and beat until glossy and stiff.

Fold in one third of the egg white mixture into the egg yolk mixture, then fold in one third of the dry mixture. Alternate in this manner until the ingredients are combined.

Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking pan. Bake 35-45 minutes, until the top is golden brown and the cake springs back when touched lightly across the middle. Remove from oven and cool 10 minutes on a cooling rack then remove the cake from the pan and allow to cool completely.

Meanwhile, while the cake is baking, prepare the leche glaze. Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan and heat over medium until bubbling, stirring constantly. Remove the glaze from the heat and allow to cool slightly.

When the cake is cooled completely, slice it horizontally into 2 even layers. Place each layer on a large plate and spoon the leche sauce evenly over the cake layers, 1/4 cup at a time, waiting about 5 minutes between pours to allow the cake to absorb the glaze. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or overnight if possible.

When layers are chilled, prepare the topping. In a small mixing bowl, beat the cream, sugar, and vanilla extract until stiff peaks form.

Assemble the cake by carefully peeling each layer off their respective plates. Place three strips of parchment in a triangle on a cake platter. The triangle should be large enough for the cake to rest on top without sections of the plate showing between the cake and the parchment. Place the original bottom layer, cut side up, on a cake platter. Using an offset spatula or a wide knife, spread a thin layer of the topping across the cut side. Then dump about a cup of topping in the middle and spread evenly across the top right up to the sides. Carefully place the second layer, cut side down, on top and top the rest of the cake with the remaining topping, pushing the cream across the top and down the sides.

Decorate the tops and or side of the cake with the shaved coconut, pressing it carefully into the topping.

Carefully pull away the parchment strips, leaving a clean plate.

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Related: Birthday Cake Two Ways

(Images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan)

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