Tres leches with cardamom and kumquats  

Cardamom tres leches cake

I turn the ripe age of 31 today. I kind of hate that number. It doesn’t sound very appealing. It doesn’t even look very good when written out. But maybe it’s just became having a birthday is kind of weird after 30. It seems that from here on out, unless you’re celebrating the beginning of a new decade — or, if you’re lucky, a half decade — all those years in between don’t really matter that much. It’s just you, another year older, dealing with all the hardships that come along with being an adult while still trying to figure out what you want to be when you grow up.  

But despite the outward insignificance of this age, I think (I hope) this year will actually be a pretty significant one for me. It’s the one in which I’m trying to figure out how to work independently of anyone else and what I have to give. It’s the year that I have to figure out how to be a present parent to a baby who is growing into a real person with a real person understanding of the world. It’s the year that I have to figure out how to give back to my husband, who is giving (and has given) so much for me. It’s the year I get to go back to Mexico to see my family and celebrate Lulu’s second birthday. It’s the year my brother-in-law is getting married. It’s the year my best friend from college and two of my dear friends from a post-college stint in D.C. are getting married. It’s the year I’m trying to make waves.

So, I’ll start with cake.

Making cake is kind of a big deal for me, because — while I know it’s weird — I’m in the minority of people who don’t actually like cake. Never have. And I probably never will. I admire the beautifully decorated cakes from people like Molly Yeh and Joy the Baker. And of course, I love cheesecake and ice cream cake, but there have been some pretty heated discussions lately over whether those things actually count as cake. The only cake that’s traditionally defined as cake that I really love is Mexican tres leches. Maybe I love it because it somehow reminds me of my childhood in Mexico. Or maybe I love it because it’s soaked in sweet condensed milk and a touch of alcohol. Whatever the reason, tres leches — no matter who’s grandmother’s recipe you make — is a cake worth making for yourself.

Tres leches cake
Tres leches cake with whipped cream
Tres leches cake decorating
Cardamom tres leches cake with kumquats
Birthday tres leches cake

While I didn’t want to stray too far from most traditional recipes, I did some minor tweaking to represent the grownup version of me who still really loves this cake. The base of this recipe is adapted from Margarita Carrillo Arronte's Mexico: The Cookbook, which is gorgeous and full of delicious classics. I added kumquats because I’m in California and it’s kumquat season everywhere. (I popped one in my mouth at the farmer’s market, and found myself back home with a small brown bag filled with enough kumquats to last me through the month.) I also poured in a little Kahlua for an adult-like coffee kick (and much-needed caffeine). Then I added cardamom and replaced one of the tres leches with coconut milk to bring in some of those Indian flavors that have recently been dominating my life


When making the cake batter, follow the directions carefully, as overbearing or over mixing this cake could make it a little on the tough side. Also, when whipping the egg whites, make sure to use a very clean, dry bowl so that it actually works. If you've never whipped egg whites before, this does take a while. That’s all!



For the cake
Butter, for greasing
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
8 eggs, separated
1 1/2 cups fine sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
4 tablespoons milk
For the cream
1 14-ounce can condensed milk
1 13-ounce can coconut milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
3 egg yolks
2 tablespoons Kahlua
For the filling and topping
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
2 cups kumquats, thinly sliced


Heat the oven to 350°F and grease and 11-inch round spring cake pan. 

In a large bowl, sift together the flour,  baking powder and ground cardamom. In another bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar and vanilla extract until combined and little ribbons form. Very gently fold in the flour mixture and milk. In yet another bowl (sorry) whisk the egg whites until this form stiff peaks. Gently fold those into the four mixture.

Pour the cake batter into the greased pan and transfer to the oven. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

While that's cooking, make the cream. In a large bowl, stir all the cream ingredients together until combined. Set aside. 

Remove the pan from the oven and let the cake cool slightly. While it's cooling, make the filling. Whip the cream, vanilla, lemon juice and sugar together until soft peaks form. Set aside.

Removed the cake from the pan and carefully slice in half, making two layers. With a fork, poke holes all over both halves of the cake. Spread about 1/4 of the whipped cream over one layer of cake and top with a layer of 1/2 the kumquats. Place the other half of the cake on top. Pour the cream over the cake slowly, a little bit at a time, to allow it all to absorb. 

Once all the cream is absorbed, top the cake and side with the remained whipped cream. Top that with the remaining layer of kumquats.