This is a recipe with a convoluted and conflicting history. Mexico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and other South and Central American countries claim it as their own. Basically it is a light, spongy cake soaked with a citrus-perfumed mixture of evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and cream. Sometimes it is topped with meringue, other times with whipped cream. According to my friend Roberto Santibanez, culinary director of the Rosa Mexicano restaurant group here in New York, during the late nineteenth century there appeared several written recipes for a cake called Pastel de Leche (Milk Cake) in the Tabasco state of central Mexico. This was a cake cooked in a lidded iron pan in which a sponge cake batter was poured into heated milk scented with cinnamon and lime zest, then baked in the embers with hot coals both on top of and underneath the pan. The resulting cake absorbed most of the milk and had a creamy, pudding-like texture. Cooks in some Mexican homes that cling to old-fashioned and classic cooking traditions still make a similar cake. The present version of the cake probably evolved in the 1940s when canned milk was available for the first time in Mexico. Roberto suggested that one reason for the cake’s wild popularity might be due to the fact that the recipe was printed in a pamphlet that was available from one of the companies that marketed evaporated milk in Mexico. Though several researchers are in hot pursuit of the exact origin of the cake, no one has thus far turned up conclusive evidence of it.

The version here is a thoroughly up-to-date one. On Roberto’s suggestion, I tried baking a traditional American chiffon cake, then soaking it with the hot milk mixture after the cake was baked and cooled—it works perfectly. This version may not be as strictly authentic as a classic Mexican torta de leche, but it’s the best one I have encountered in many tastes of this illusive dessert. Besides, I don’t have a fireplace.

Makes one 9 x 13 x 2-inch cake, about twenty-four 2-inch squares

Cake Batter

1 1/2 cups cake flour (spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off)
1 cup sugar, divided
2 teaspoons baking powder
3 large egg yolks
1/3 cup vegetable oil, such as corn or canola
1/2 cup water
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2/3 cup (about 5 large) egg whites
Pinch of salt

Milk Mixture

1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 cinnamon stick
Three 3-inch strips orange zest removed with a vegetable peeler
Three 2-inch strips lime zest removed with a vegetable peeler

Whipped Cream

1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
1/2 teaspoon grated lime zest

One 9 x 13 x 2-inch Pyrex pan, ungreased, plus 4 cups or glasses for inverting the cake pan after baking

  1. Set a rack in the middle level of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees.
  2. Sift the cake flour into the bowl of an electric mixer. Stir in 3/4 cup of the sugar and the baking powder.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks to break them up. Whisk in the oil, water, and vanilla, one at a time. Thoroughly fold this mixture into the flour and sugar mixture. Place the bowl on the mixer and beat the batter with the paddle on medium speed for about 1 minute to aerate it slightly.
  4. In a clean, dry mixer bowl combine the egg whites and salt. Place on the mixer with the whisk attachment and whip the egg whites on medium speed until they are very white, opaque, and beginning to hold a very soft peak. Increase the speed to medium high and add the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar in a slow stream. Continue whipping the egg whites until they hold a firm peak.
  5. With a large rubber spatula, fold the egg whites into the batter.
  6. Scrape the batter into the pan and smooth the top. Bake the cake about 35 minutes, or until it is well risen, deep golden and a toothpick inserted in the center emerges dry.
  7. Invert the cups or glasses on the work surface and invert the cake pan onto them, positioning one in each corner of the pan. A chiffon cake needs to hang upside down to cool or it may collapse and fall.
  8. After the cake has cooled, prepare the milk soaking liquid. Combine all the ingredients in a large saucepan and stir well to mix. If the mixture is not well mixed, the sweetened condensed milk will fall to the bottom and burn. Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer, about 180 degrees.
  9. Turn the cake right side up and use a flexible metal spatula to loosen it, sides and bottom, from the pan. Poke holes in the cake with a skewer or the point of a paring knife at 1/2-inch intervals. Strain the hot milk mixture evenly all over the top of the cooled cake. Allow it to soak in and cool for at least 1 hour at room temperature. Refrigerate the cake and chill it well before serving.
  10. For the whipped cream, combine all ingredients and whip by machine with the whisk attachment on medium speed until soft peaks form.

Serving: Cut the cake into 2- to 3-inch squares and serve it with a spoonful of whipped cream on top.

Storage: Cover the cake with plastic wrap and keep it in the refrigerator before and after serving it.