The people of the countries of Latin America love all things sweet – which you might expect, considering their land is where cane sugar originated, and that Brazil is the world’s leading sugar producer. The amazing range of desserts and cakes of this region reflects this passion for sweetness, as well as another staple of the region – milk and its beautiful by-products.
One of the most popular and well-known cakes is pastel de tres leches. Enjoyed in South America and the Caribbean, including Cuba, and in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua, its name translates to ‘three milks cake’. It is a wonderfully moist sponge (or sometimes a butter cake) that has been drenched with, as the name implies, a combination of three milks – regular milk, sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk. Sweet, moist and deliciously milky, its popularity is largely due to a recipe appearing on the Nestlé sweetened condensed milk label in the 1940s.
Another cake adorned by sweetened condensed milk is pastel de elote, or Mexican corn cake. In Mexico it is traditionally made with fresh white corn (which is more dry and less sweet than our typical yellow sweet corn), but don’t confuse it with the common American cornbread – this one, in true Latin American style, is sweet, rich and dense, with a texture similar to a bread pudding.
The Mexican chocoflan is also known as pastel impossible (impossible cake), thanks to its incredible ability to change the order of its layers during baking – the rich chocolate cake swaps places with the silky smooth custard but both manage to stay as two completely separate layers. Magic, really! Topped with a layer of caramel (usually Mexico’s sugary goat’s milk caramel, cajeta), this cake makes regular appearances at Mexican parties, especially birthday celebrations, and a little goes a long way.
Down in Uruguay, the postre chajá, or peach meringue cake, is a happy combination of sponge, cream, meringue, peaches and dulce de leche invented in 1927 by Orlando Castellano in Paysandú. It is said that it was named when a friend of the chef regularly ordered it by the name Chajá, alluding to the similarities between the cake and the white feathers of the Uruguayan native bird of the same name.
And we wouldn’t be talking Latin America without a touch of coconut and rum. The Venezuelan coconut cream cake bien me sabe, which translates as ‘tastes good to me’, certainly lives up to its name. Moist, rich and sweet (but of course!), it is made from layers of rum-soaked butter cake and creamy coconut custard, and topped with soft meringue – just think Latin American tiramisu.
Now, meet the misfit of the Latin American cake family – Colombia’s torta negra (black cake). With no sweetened condensed milk, no cream, no caramel, no custard and no meringue, what’s going on? This Colombian take on fruitcake is dense with prunes, figs and raisins, and is spiked heavily with rum and port, making it a welcome guest at every celebration.
So, summon your sweet tooth and prepare for some seriously satisfying baked sensations.
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Anneka's mission is to connect home cooks with the magic of baking, and through this, with those they love. Read our interview with her or for hands-on baking classes and baking tips, visit her at BakeClub. Don't miss what's coming out of her oven via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.
Photography by Alan Benson. Styling by Sarah O’Brien. Food preparation by Kerrie Ray.
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