After coming to our senses about our dream of a Friendsgiving dinner party last month versus the reality of life with two kids, two full-time jobs, a small oven and a worrisomely low inventory of forks (seriously, where do they go?) we decided instead to have a Taco Dinner Party last weekend. Among our friends, in a tacos vs. turkey throwdown, tacos will always win. This might be why we get along so well.
The menu* is one of my favorites and it’s incredibly simple: A big brisket goes in the slow-cooker the night before and in the morning is transferred to the fridge where it can rest for the day so it can be easily de-fatted and gently rewarmed and shredded before dinner. [Recipe here.] A pot of black beans, which can also be handed off to the slow-cooker, is essential. [I use the Black Bean Ragout from the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, but this soup with less liquid isn’t a bad place to start.] I make a giant batch of Lazy Taco Slaw and Pickled Red Onions [recipes outlined at the bottom of this post]. My friend Ang brought over tomatillo salsa from her deck garden [but this one is a great place to start]. I raided the Mexican bodega in my neighborhood for corn tortillas, extra hot sauce, pickled jalapenos and crema, although the grocery store varieties of each work just as well. We juice a lot of limes and make a pitcher or two my go-to 3:2:1 margarita (3 parts tequila, 2 parts lime juice and 1 part Cointreau) [but if you can get blood oranges where you are, do yourself a favor and make these]. And then we made a lot of queso, because I sometimes delight in making food snobs clutch their pearls.
And then, because everyone lies when they say they don’t need dessert, I made a Tres Leches Cake and it was decidedly mediocre. Not “went uneaten” mediocre, but absolutely not what I had in mind. I used what is probably the most popular recipe for it on the internet, and ended up with a hard too-sweet cake that didn’t absorb the liquid and left me Monday Morning Quarterbacking (look honey, I used a football reference!) over how to make it better. I reviewed 100 recipes online, I hunted through all of my cookbooks, and then I turned to one of my secret favorite sources for authentic cooking lessons — YouTube videos with fairly low production values, preferably not in English. After watching a few Mexican grandmothers make theirs from what seemed to be memory, a few themes emerged: all of them use a classic sponge cake (soft and light, with almost all of its texture and volume from whipped eggs), and almost none use the kind with butter in it; buttery cakes won’t absorb all that liquid as well. While 90 percent of them whip their egg whites and yolks separately and then fold them together, after seeing one or two make a go of it as almost a one-bowl cake, I did just this and will never go back. Finally, just about everyone seems to agree that because the cake is exceptionally sweet, as it should be, the whipped topping doesn’t need to be. From here, I made the tres leches cake that will be my forever go-to, which means it’s time for the next dinner party, right?
* More Dinner Party Menus: In this new section, I’m building out some of my tried-and-tested dinner party menus from the archives. Included so far: Taco Party, Winter Dinner Party, A Little Fancy (with vegetarian swaps below), a Hanukah Party, Mussels and Fries (my go-to for inviting people over for that very night), and our summer favorite, a Ribs Fest. Check it out! [Dinner Party Menus]
My Favorite Hosting Tips: I wrote a short piece for New York Magazine’s The Cut about my entertaining “rules,” which also includes a second Moules Frites menu, the one from my cookbook. Check it out! [Smitten Kitchen’s Dinner Party Menu on The Cut]
One year ago: Decadent Hot Chocolate Mix and Gingerbread Biscotti
Two years ago: Cigarettes Russes Cookies
Three years ago: Cashew Butter Balls
Four years ago: Nutmeg Maple Butter Cookies and Caesar Salad Deviled Eggs
Five years ago: Roasted Chestnut Cookies
Six years ago: Balsamic Braised Brussels with Pancetta, Cream Biscuits and Coffee Toffee
Seven years ago: Cabbage Apple and Walnut Salad and Dark Chocolate Tart with Gingersnap Crust
Eight years ago: Rugelach Pinwheels, Fennel Ice Cream and Ratatouille Tart
Nine years ago: Chocolate Chip Sour Cream Coffee Cake, Wild Mushroom Pirogis, Bourbon Pumpkin Cheesecake and Blondies, Infinitely Adaptable
And for the other side of the world:
Six Months Ago: Picnic Pink Lemonade and Crispy Frizzled Artichokes
1.5 Years Ago: Nancy’s Chopped Salad and Coconut Brown Butter Cookies
2.5 Years Ago: Rhubarb Cream Cheese Hand Pies
3.5 Years Ago: Asparagus and Almonds with Yogurt Dressing and Strawberries and Cream Biscuits
4.5 Years Ago: Fudge Popsicles
Tres Leches Cake [Pastel de Tres Leches or Three Milk’s Cake]
This easily the most popular cake in Mexico, a vanilla sponge cake soaked with a mixture of three “milks” (sweetened condensed, evaporated and heavy or light cream) and topped with whipped cream. While sponge cakes can be made with or without butter, the butter-free ones that might be less enjoyable to eat plain (see: spongy and butterless) are perfect here because they drink the milks and become, IMHO, the highest calling of a sponge cake. Although tres leches cakes are supposed to be very sweet — it is tradition! — I cannot resist dialing back the sugar in the cake just a little. My two other tweaks are optional; if you have a fresh vanilla bean around, it’s exceptional in here. And, when I’m making this cake for a grown-up dinner party, I love adding 1 to 2 tablespoons dark rum to the three mix mixture. Want to fiddle even more with tradition? Replace the cream with coconut milk or eggnog, for a holiday riff. Some people like to add a little cinnamon or nutmeg to the whipped topping, but I never do.
Butter and flour for cake pan
1 3/4 cups (230 grams) all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (30 grams) cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
6 large eggs, separated
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped from pods or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups (250 grams) granulated sugar
1/4 cup (60 ml) whole milk
1 (12-ounce or 340 grams) can evaporated milk
1 (14-ounce or 400 grams) can sweetened condensed milk
1 1/2 cups (355 ml) heavy or light cream (half-and-half)
1 to 2 tablespoons (15 to 30 ml) rum (optional)
2 cups (475 ml) heavy cream (for whipped topping)
2 tablespoons (15 grams) powdered or granulated sugar (for whipped topping)
Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour a 9×13 baking pan, or coat it with a nonstick cooking spray.
In a small bowl, whisk together flour, cornstarch (together, these make “cake flour” without you having to buy it), salt and baking powder. If using a fresh vanilla bean, rub seeds into 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar to disperse them and help release the most flavor. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat egg whites on medium speed until soft peaks form. With the machine still running, gradually add the sugar (vanilla bean-infused or plain) and beat on medium-high until stiff peaks form. If you haven’t used a vanilla bean, now add your vanilla extract and beat to combine.
Add yolks one at at time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Add milk and beat just to combine. Add flour mixture, one-third at at time, folding in each addition gently by hand.
Pour batter in prepared pan and smooth top. Bake for 18 to 24 minutes, or until a tester inserted into cake comes out clean. Let completely cool in pan on a rack.
In a large bowl, preferably one with a pouring spout, whisk together evaporated milk, condensed milk and 1 1/2 cups heavy or light cream. Add rum, if using. Use a wooden skewer to poke holes all over cake. Pour all but 1/2 cup milk mixture over cake and transfer to fridge, giving the cake several hours but ideally overnight to soak it up. (Save last bit of milk mixture for serving.)
Before serving, beat 2 cups heavy cream with 2 tablespoons powdered or granulated sugar until soft peaks form. Spread over top of cake.
Serve cake in squares, first pouring a little puddle of reserved three-milk mixture at the bottom of plate.