My mother has always been my number one cooking inspiration. One of the earliest memories I have of my mother is her cooking in the kitchen preparing for guests to arrive in her floral dress, with hair perfectly curled (thanks to hair rollers), along with reddish re-applied lipstick.
My mom is known throughout the family for being an amazing host. She never orders catered food, no matter how much company we have, and always makes sure there is food on the table throughout the day. She lights up any room with her big smile while going around our filled house asking guests if they need anything. And when she’s not around entertaining, you can always find her in the kitchen, along with my aunts and grandma. Because of my mother, I believe a party isn’t a real party unless there is food being served. Not having food at a get together is something we will never understand.
My mama has been in the kitchen for as long as she can remember. She remembers watching her mother in the kitchen at a young age, chopping vegetables and baking bread. She was twelve years old when she made her first official meal. As a young girl living in Nicaragua, she was raised domestically with the intention of being taught to be a proper housewife. At her all girls’ school, she was required to take a cooking class where she learned basics, like how to make potato salad and how to cook rice. She thought she would grow up to be a good housewife, like her mother, and cook and clean for her children and husband in Nicaragua. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.
My grandmother and grandfather moved to San Francisco in 1979 to a one-bedroom apartment on 24th and mission with their four children, including my mother, to escape the civil war in Nicaragua. My grandfather went from being a respected engineer to a dishwasher and my mamita (grandmother) a housewife to a factory worker sewing clothes. My mother describes her move to the US as a big slap in the face. She quickly realized that she wasn’t going to be the housewife she always sought out to be.
With their new move to the US, cooking was adapted differently to their new lifestyle. Suddenly, my grandma was working full-time and after a long day, she would still come home to cook for her family. My mom would feel bad for her so she began to take cooking a bit more seriously by helping her mom prepare food and cook. And although as a younger girl she cooked to relieve some of her mother’s stress, she still enjoyed it.
My mom adapted to the part-time worker/housewife lifestyle in her early 20s. Because my mother grew up with an obligation to cook, she stuck with it. Over the years my mom has improved her cooking skills and accumulated a bunch of recipes. Some of my favorites being sopa de cola (ox tail soup), gallo pinto (rice and beans), bajo (cured meat with yucca and plantains), and of course tres leches (three milks).
Tres leches has been around for as long as I can remember. My mom originally obtained the recipe from my godmother’s mother, Lejia. My godmother, Lourdes, is also one of my mama’s best friends. My mama said when she was younger she had the cake for the first time at one of their parties. Unlike previous tres leches’ she’s tasted, she loved this recipe so much that she wrote it down. Since than, she has re-written this recipe more than once due to lack of readability, but has still managed to keep the original.
My mom made the unique cake for the first time on my fourth birthday. It was a beautiful cake, with a decorated image of snow-white hand drawn by my mother. This was the beginning of the tres leches chronicles.
I have early memories of hearing my mother baking in the kitchen late at night or early in the morning. As a little girl, I could only imagine what my mom was doing in there. When I would wake up and enter the kitchen, there, sitting on the table would be a completed tres leches cake. The cake never failed to have rainbow sprinkles with three maraschino cherries in the middle.
My mom’s tres leches became a hit shortly after my fourth birthday. Every time she brought the cake to a party people would scramble to the table to get a taste before it disappeared. Family and friends loved the cake so much that they were willing to pay my mother to make a cake appearance at their parties. She would bake tres leches for birthday’s, anniversaries, and the holidays. And when people would come to parties and see the cake, before it was even cut and served, family members would ask “Can I take some home to my grandma,” or “Can I save a slice for my aunt,” even though everyone knew it was for themselves.
When my mom would bring the cake to a potluck, if there was another tres leches at the event, my mama’s cake would always quickly vanish while the other tres leches was left half eaten. And when we would arrive at a party featuring another tres leches cake, after it was served, people would come up and whisper to her, “Yours is the best Maria Elena.” She would just laugh it off.
Having family members and friends come up to me raving about how amazing the tres leches and how nice it was for my mother to make it is a reoccurring conversation in my life. This past weekend (Sunday) my mama, along with my sister and dad, visited in Union City to celebrate my godmother’s birthday. My mom, being the good friend everyone claims she is, baked her a tres leches cake, and cooked her a Nicaraguan style dinner too. I talked to my godmother Lourdes later that night and she told how grateful she is for my mother and that she loves her dearly. I asked my mom how successful the cake was this time and she said my godmother had to hide the cake in the refrigerator before it was all gone. This is a common story.
For years people have told me how much they love my mother’s cake and no one can make it the way she does. I myself have tried other tres leches; store-bought, homemade and bakery made, but it’s true, nothing compares to my mother’s cake.
So I asked my mother to come over and make tres leches again with me for the first time since I’ve been in college. She wasn’t sure if she was going to make it but luckily for me she did. She came to San Francisco, along with my dad and little sister with all the ingredients and her own baking dishes at hand. Every time I see my family, especially my mom, I tell her all the exciting things happening in my life at the time. I tell her about occupy events; times I’ve almost fallen off my bike and days I work at gardens/farms. She always supports me but usually responds to me as being the little “rebelde” or rebellious.
While my mama and I were preparing the cake, she watched me very closely. When I separated the egg whites from the yolk, when I sifted the flour etc. She showed me how to get egg whites to the right consistency for the frosting and how to add sugar to the mix, little by little. At age 21, I felt like a kid again.
“Postre las tres leches”
Two cups of sugar (1 ½)
2 Cups of sifted flour
Three teaspoons of baking powder
Half a cup of milk
Vanilla to taste
Separate the yolks from the whites, beat the egg whites until that they form firm peaks. Gradually add the sugar, adding the following when the previous is well mix. When finish, add the sugar, add the egg yolks one at a time mixing well. After add the flour sifted with the baking powder, alternating with the milk and aromatized with vanilla to taste. Pour in a greased high round or rectangle mold and placed it in the middle of the oven, preheated to 350. It is baked without opening the oven for 45 minutes. (Cook time depends on your oven) When bread is removed from the oven, make to the cake holes here and there with a fork so that the milk penetrates well in the bread.
Mixed Tin and a half of milk condensed with Tin and half of evaporated milk and Cup and a half of thick cream. It is gradually poured over the cake and you leave it until the milk filters the bread.
The following frosting (meringue) is prepared to cover the cake:
2 Cups of sugar, 1 cup of water and a quarter of a teaspoon of cream of tartar is poured into a saucepan. Cook under moderate heat until the syrup has point, strand. Beat the egg whites when the syrup begins to take point, up to form firm peaks. Point to the syrup is missing the forming of thread mixing well until the meringue this cold. Cover the cake with this meringue.
I admire my mother for keeping certain traditional values in our lives when she could’ve easily taken a path full of assimilated influences. Even as a working mother, she still had the energy to cook, clean and take care of her children. I am now so grateful of all the times my mom cooked for my family and I. Every day I would come home after school and there on the stove would be a hot meal prepared right before my mama had to go to work. If I were lucky, I would sometimes see her rushing out the door at the same time I was coming home from school.
I personally feel the need to continue the tres leches legacy. Although my mother’s little rebel can be radical at times, she really does want to cook for everyone and be a good party host, just like her mom. And now that I know how to make the cake, I too can be the talk of the party.