Sunday, June 30, 2013

Moving On: Dulce de Leche Cake

All kinds of interesting things have happened over the last few weeks.  For the purposes of this blog, the only important thing is that I'm moving at the end of the month.  Since my stuff will not be delivered until the middle of August, this post will most likely be the last one until September.  That's probably how long it would have taken me to write up another entry anyways.

I decided to try something a little bit different for my last potluck out here, something besides chocolate or fruit tarts like I normally do.  Instead of a Fourth of July themed red, white, and blue dessert, I went a little south of the border and made a dulce de leche cake.

Dulce de leche is basically a very thick caramel that is made by heating sweetened milk until the water evaporates and the sugar caramelizes.  It is usually a dark tan color, and can be flavored with vanilla, cinnamon, or other spices.  It's a standard sweetening option in South and Central America, as well as Mexico.  People put it in their coffee, on muffins, in cakes, etc.

There are a couple of different ways to make dulce de leche.  The most common is to heat up a can of sweetened condensed milk.  This recipe uses the most time-consuming way: cooking it from scratch on the stove.  I'd never tried that method before so I figured I would give it a chance.  The results were just about the same as using the "put the can in boiling water" method.

This cake also has homemade buttercream frosting.  I wrote about making buttercream frosting at home in the post about checkerboard cakes.   The motor in the base of my Cuisinart heated up the frosting as it mixed so I had to put in the refrigerator for an hour or so to solidify properly.

Between the dulce de leche and the frosting, this cake was approximately two-thirds sugar.  I'm not kidding - it was so sweet that I didn't like it at all.  Ironically, several people told me that it was the best thing I've ever made.  I suggest eating a very thin sliver of cake with a nice cup of tea to balance it out.

The cake is a nice, moist vanilla cake and I will probably use the cake recipe for other projects.  The dulce de leche was a massive pain to make and took hours but it turned out nice so I may try using it again.  The frosting was just too sweet.  I dislike buttercream frosting because it's basically just butter and sugar, and there's only so much of that you can eat at one time.  If you like buttercream frosting, this recipe is definitely one of the best I've used, easy to make and has a nice consistency.

If you don't want to bother making dulce de leche and you live near a Trader Joe's, the TJ's fleur de sel caramel sauce is a very good dulce de leche substitute.

Tips: I made the dulce de leche and the frosting on Friday night, and then made the cakes and assembled them on Saturday morning.  The dulce de leche will take 2-3 hours and the frosting may need to be refrigerated.  This cake takes about 6 hours total, so plan ahead.

For the dulce de leche: make sure that the sugar is dissolved.  If it sits on the bottom of the pan, it will caramelize in hard chunks at the bottom instead of smoothly with the milk.

I used pure vanilla extract instead of a vanilla seed and it was fine.  Do not use fake vanilla extract or the dulce de leche will taste like chemicals.

The baking soda is used to thicken the milk as it heats, so be careful that there are no clumps when you mix it into the milk.

A simmer is the point where liquid is boiling but it is not a rolling boil: there aren't any big bubbles that are popping.   You want to see the surface of the liquid shifting and very small bubbles popping but that's it.  It may take a little time to figure out what heat setting you need on the stove to get a simmer.

Be careful not to let the milk achieve a rolling boil!  Milk foams up when it boils, and it will foam over the top edge of the pot and spill on the stove and floor.  It will be even harder to clean up because the milk will be sweet and sticky from the sugar.  You should check every ten minutes or so for the first hour to be sure that the milk doesn't boil over.

After the first hour, the milk will have a skin and heavier foam on the surface.  It needs to be skimmed off every 20 to 30 minutes.

The milk will take over an hour to start becoming darker in color.  Keep cooking it until it's as thick as you want it to be.

I stopped cooking the dulce de leche after 3 hours because I wanted to go to bed, so it wasn't quite as thick as it should have been.  It still tasted fine.

For the frosting: The butter need to be cooked in a pan on the stovetop and not in a microwave.  You can't cook butter in a microwave because of the way a microwave heats food up.  You will just end up with burnt butter.

If you don't want to wait for the butter to cool down, you can put in the refrigerator and stir it every 3-5 minutes.  It won't solidify for hours because of how hot it will get on the stove.  After 20 minutes or so, it will be warm but not hot, which is okay for making the frosting.  You will need to refrigerate the frosting for a couple of hours.  This is fine because the dulce de leche and the cakes need several hours to cook as well.

I sifted the confectioner's sugar even though the recipe didn't call for it.  This will help keep lumps out of the frosting and make the frosting more even.  The volume of the sugar will be larger than the volume of the resulting frosting, so make sure that whatever machine you use to make the frosting can hold all of the confectioner's sugar.

I also added some vanilla and almond extract to the frosting to emphasize the vanilla flavor of the cakes.

For the cakes: Use parchment paper to prepare the cake pan.  A round of parchment paper on the bottom of a pan makes it easy to get a cake out of a pan and helps a cake bake evenly.  You can buy parchment paper rounds, but they're usually quite a bit more expensive that a roll of parchment paper.  Cut the paper round, butter the bottom and sides of the pan, and press the round into the bottom of the pan.  The butter will hold the round in place.

Don't forget to sift the dry ingredients!  This is an important step to get rid of clumps, mix the dry ingredients together, and add air to the cake batter to make a lighter cake.

Beating the butter "until light" isn't a reference to texture, it's a reference to the color of the butter.  Butter becomes paler when it's creamed.  The butter must be room temperature for the electric beater to properly cream it, but if you've forgotten to take the butter out of the freezer, you can use the microwave to melt it a little bit.  You need the butter to be soft enough that you can push a fork into it.

This recipe alternates adding dry and wet ingredients in three batches.  This approach reduces the amount of lumps that would show up in the batter if all of the dry ingredients and then all of the wet ingredients were mixed in.  It's worth it to take a little extra time and follow the instructions for this.

Either figure out what to do with five egg yolks, or buy egg whites specifically for this.

I also doubled the amount of almond extract just because I like the taste of vanilla with almond.

Egg whites have stiff peaks when the peaks stay up after the beaters are turned off.   In the picture below, you can see the two circles left from lifting the beaters.  This is also called beating egg whites until they're dry.  The term "dry" means that when you tilt the bowl, the beaten egg whites slide as if they were one solid mass and they don't leave any liquid behind on the side of the bowl.  Egg whites have soft peaks and aren't dry if they don't move like one big solid.

Assembly: Because my dulce de leche wasn't as thick as it should have been, I knew that it would sink into the cake like melted butter on toast instead of spreading like thick jam.  This wasn't a problem and the cakes stacked fine without a thick wedge of dulce de leche in between the layers.

When stacking cake layers, you want to look at how evenly you cut the cakes.  It's very difficult to cut completely flat layers and usually one side of a cake layer is thicker than the other.  You want to match up thin sides with thick sides so they cancel each other out and the cake looks flat when you stack the top layer.  I was in a rush and wasn't careful so my cake ended up lopsided.  Nobody cared except me.

When you frost a cake, you should put on two layers of frosting.  The first layer is called a crumb coat.  This cake needs a crumb coat.  A crumb coat is a essentially a primer layer before you really frost the cake.  You thin out the frosting a little bit with water so it spreads easier on the cake, and the frosting holds all of the crumbs that are usually in the frosting when you smooth on the first layer.  You let this layer dry so it becomes solid, and then you do the second layer.  The second layer is nice and smooth and pretty and doesn't have any crumbs in it.  Because the frosting is white and the cake is darker, it will show through the first coat and you will need to do a second coat.

To get the crumb coat to dry quicker, put the cake in the fridge for about 30 minutes after you've done the crumb coat.

Homemade buttercream frosting melts when store-bought frosting doesn't.  This is because the store-bought stuff has lots of chemical preservatives in it.  You will see and feel the frosting getting softer as you frost the cake.  Put the cake and the frosting in the fridge between coats and before you eat it.  My frosting melted a bit on the way to the potluck because my car was hot.

Glorious Dulce de Leche Cake
Recipe from Popsugar foodoriginal recipes from Williams Sonoma (can't find the original recipe), Martha Stewart, and Emeril Lagasse


For the dulce de leche:
  • 1 quart whole milk
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean, split in half and seeds scraped
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 tbsp. water
For the cake:
  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 tbsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 12 tbsp. (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1-1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp. almond extract
  • 1 cup milk
  • 5 egg whites, at room temperature
For the frosting:
  • 12 tbsp. (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 1 package (16 oz.) confectioners sugar
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream, plus more if needed
  • 1 tbsp. pure vanilla extract
  • pinch of salt


Dulce de leche:

In a large heavy saucepan, combine the milk, sugar, vanilla bean, and seeds and bring to a gentle simmer over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. When the milk begins to get foamy on top, stir to incorporate the foam.

In a small bowl, dissolve the baking soda in the water, and add to the milk mixture.

Reduce the heat to low and cook uncovered at a bare simmer. Let cook, stirring occasionally without working the foam into the milk. After 1 hour remove the vanilla bean.

Continue cooking, skimming occasionally, until tan, very thick, and reduced to about 1 cup, 1-1/2 to 3 hours depending on the heat of your stove. The milk will continue to darken as it cooks. Strain into a clean container and let cool. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. The dulce de leche will thicken as it cools, and will keep refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.


Position a rack in the middle of an oven and preheat to 350ºF. Butter and flour two round cake pans each 9 inches in diameter and 1-1/2 inches deep.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer set on medium-high speed, beat the butter until light.

Gradually add the sugar, beating until well blended. Beat in the vanilla and almond extracts.

Reduce the speed to low and, dividing the flour mixture into three batches, beat the flour mixture into the butter mixture alternately with the milk just until combined.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer fitted with clean, dry beaters and set on high speed, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form.

Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the beaten whites into the batter just until incorporated. Divide the batter between the prepared pans; smooth with the spatula.

Bake until a toothpick inserted into the centers comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Transfer to racks and let cool in the pans for 10 minutes. Run a sharp knife around the pan sides to loosen the cakes. Invert onto racks and let cool completely.


In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium-high heat until nut-brown in color, about 8 minutes. Remove pan from heat and pour butter into a bowl, leaving any burned sediment behind; let cool.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, add confectioners sugar, vanilla, salt, and butter. With the mixer on low, slowly add cream; beat until smooth. If frosting seems too thick, stir another tablespoon cream into the mixture.


Carefully slice each of the two cooled cakes in half to make four layers. Set one layer on the cake plate. Generously spread about 1/3 cup of the dulce de leche on top. Top with another cake layer and spread with another 1/3 cup of the dulce de leche. Repeat with another cake layer and top with the final forth cake layer. Set dulce de leche aside.

Frost the top and sides of the cake with the frosting. If using the sliced almonds, press into the sides of the cake. Drizzle with remaining dulce de leche. Refrigerate until serving.

Serves 8–12.

Heating up the milk and sugar: this will be cooked down to about 1 cup of dulce de leche.

Melting the butter for the frosting.

Cooking the butter.  It needs to get hot enough that the fats start to separate.

Cooked butter.  It's not quite "nut brown" but it's darker than before.
This is a 13 cup Cuisinart that is completely full of powdered sugar.

The frosting right before I put it in the fridge.

Getting ready to make the cakes.

The lightened butter after being creamed with the hand mixer.

After the sugar is added.  The butter is still getting lighter.

With the dry ingredients and the milk added.  The consistency of the batter will already be light.

Egg whites with stiff peaks.  You can still see the two circles where the beaters were.

The finished batter.

I have two cakes pans, and one is thicker.  That pan distributed heat more evenly and the cake baked faster.  It's on the bottom.  The thinner cake pan took 5 minutes longer and the edges were over-baked.

Sliced cakes.

Two layers of cake with dulce de leche spread on top.  It is sinking into the cake layer.

Staring the crumb coat.

Finished frosting the second layer.  You can see that the cake isn't even.

Finished cake.

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