The Battle for Tres Leches / Rebeca Monzo

Among the reasons for the government’s move to increase the number of licenses for self-employment is the need to provide employment opportunities in the private sector for the large number of workers who have lost their jobs due to the massive reduction in national labor force. As a result paladares, or private restaurants, have sprung up and with them a new trend heretofore unknown in our country’s food scene: the dulce de tres leches.*

For many years the lack of  information and reference sources in almost all sectors of the economy and society led Cubans into a type of “creative hibernation.” Often someone would copy something, the idea for which had come “from outside.” If it turned out well, everyone would then want to copy it too.

Gastronomy has not been completely immune from this phenomenon. These days every paladar has a dessert menu featuring “French pastry.” This in a country which for many years had seen this specialty slowly “dying out” due to the rise of private businesses and low productivity of state enterprises. Milk, butter, cheese, even sugar – essential ingredients for this type of cooking – have been rationed little by little almost to the point of extinction.

There are very few paladares – we could say almost none – that offer homemade baked goods. They seem to have been forgotten amid the guava, grapefruit and orange shells poached in syrup, the jams, custards, puddings… in other words the whole long list of sweet delicacies. Certainly, fruits and other ingredients for baking have also gone through long periods when they were in short supply, so these could well have served as alternatives.

One day a restaurant owner decided to offer a tall glass (the kind used for sundaes) filled with a small portion of sponge cake, a bit of condensed milk and a lot of meringue, and called it tres leches. Soon there were imitators. Some used sponge cake, also covered with meringue, but with the milk component barely noticeable. In more “creative” versions almonds and chocolate were added. Ultimately, everyone came up with his own version, but none came close to the original dessert from Nicaragua, which has become famous throughout all of Latin America.

This type of confection is expensive, sometimes costing more than an order of cannelloni or lasagna. For this reason it is, of course, not in great demand. I cannot understand why at this point restaurant owners have not been able to find solutions more in line with the range of possibilities and their customers’ budgets. This is the main weakness of almost all these successful businesses.

That is why I have allowed myself to make this brief analysis. For the benefit of those interested, I am also providing the original recipe for this contentious confection as well as the costs to produce it in this country.

Ingredients for one cake: 6 eggs, 2 cups sugar, 2 cups all-purpose flour, 3 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 cup whole milk and 1 teaspoon vanilla.

Instructions: Reserve two tablespoons of sugar and set aside. Beat the egg yolks until light and lemon colored. Gradually add the remaining sugar and vanilla, and beat until incorporated. Add flour and baking powder and beat until incorporated. Gradually add milk, and beat until incorporated. In a separate bowl beat the egg whites until frothy. Add reserved sugar and continue beating until stiff peaks form. Gently fold egg whites into the egg yolk mixture. Turn batter into a prepared cake pan and bake in a pre-heated oven at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

Assembly: To finish the tres leches, mix one and a half cans of the condensed milk with an equal amount of evaporated milk. Add one container of cream. Poke holes in the top of the cake with a skewer and pour the mixture on top. To make the meringue topping, beat six egg whites to form stiff peaks. In a saucepan add two cups of sugar and one cup of water. Bring to boil and heat to the soft-ball stage. Gradually pour the hot syrup into the egg whites, beating constantly. Beat the meringue until cool. Spread meringue over the cake. Cut and serve.

Prices for the main ingredients in Cuba, where the average monthly salary is 20.00 CUC,** are as follows:

A can of condensed milk, 1.20 CUC

A can of evaporated milk, 1.30 CUC

A small container of cream, 1.50 CUC

1 kilo of flour, 1.20 CUC

Eggs, 1.50 Cuban pesos (the so-called national currency) apiece.

Note: 1 CUC = US$0.85

*Translator’s note: Literally, a three-milk cake, so-called because it is made with three different milk products: whole milk or cream, evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk.

**Cuba has two currencies in circulation: the Cuba peso, or moneda nacional, in which salaries are paid, and the CUC, a convertible currency pegged to the U.S. dollar. Increasingly, essential consumer goods can often only be purchased at government-run hard currency stores with CUCs. Most Cubans with access to hard currency obtain it through cash remittances from relatives overseas.

30 June 2013