Farmhouse Tres Leches

19 Jun 2012

3 Milks

I have been burning to make this beguiling cake of three milks for some time, and when Lily Rameriz-Foran, another food loving expat living and blogging in Ireland, opened her long-awaited online Mexican food market it seemed like the perfect excuse opportunity to get an authentic recipe to make a Tres Leches cake at last.  We are colossal lovers of Mexican food in this house, and until now finding ingredients such as chipotle peppers, masa or authentic tortillas had been nearly impossible to source where we are located in the west of Ireland.

Lily was kind enough to share her special family recipe for Tres Leches cake with me. This dense and creamy dairy cake is made using three different milks. I knew that I wanted to try and use all three milks fresh from the farm, including the evaporated and condensed milk, so after doing some clandestine research, I learned how I could prepare each from scratch.

Turns out, while it does take a fair bit of time, both milks are very simple to make and the flavour is far superior to any version of the same in a tin with a supermarket shelf life of six months or more.

Interestingly, I found that the preparation for this cake is actually very similar to angel food cake, except the recipe includes the egg yolks as well. It is important to sift the flour at least three times and keep everything really airy throughout the mixing process. I have enjoyed Tres Leches cake in restaurants, but the combination of Lily’s recipe and the fresh milks have resulting in a cake that would be dangerously easy for me to tuck into every day.

If you have children, this is fun to make with the smallies as it involves poking holes in the cake with a toothpick, a skill that kids have heaps of fun doing.

I encouraged our little farmer to assist me in everything from manning the mixer to the pricking, and finally, pouring the tres leches over the cake. Let’s just say, he is very proud of “his milk cake”

Creamy, dreamy…….heavenly cake, especially on a summer day!

Lily’s Tres Leches Cake


For the cake:

2 cups/240g of all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons of baking powder

1 cup/200g of caster sugar 8 eggs (separated)

1/3 cup/80ml of full fat milk

For the Tres Leches Mix:

1 12 oz/354ml condensed milk

1 12 oz/354ml of evaporated milk

1 cup/225 ml of double cream

1 tsp of pure vanilla extract

1 tsp of Rompope or Tia Maria or Brandy ( I left the booze out in order to be kid-friendly this time)

For the Icing:

3 egg whites

1 cup/200g of caster sugar

3 tablespoons of golden syrup

1⁄4/60ml cup of water

For the Cake:

Preheat the oven at 200c/400f degrees and grease a springform cake tin, I use a round 20 cm one, but you might want your cake taller or square. Sieve the flour and baking powder 3 times (yes, 3 times! It’s important) and set aside.

Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Gradually add the sugar while still beating. Then follow with the egg yolks one at a time and beating well between additions. When the last yolk has been mixed well, put the electric mixer away and using a hand whisk, fold the flour & baking powder mix in three goes. Finish off by adding the milk again using a folding motion to keep the cake light and airy. Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake in the oven for 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. While the cake is in the oven, get on with making the Tres Leches Mix.

For the Tres Leches Mix:

Put all ingredients in the blender or food processor and blend them together. Pour them into a jug and set aside.

When the cake is cooked, take it out of the oven and using a toothpick or a thin skewer, prick the entire cake. Make loads of holes as they will be used to soak the cake with the tres leches mix. Once the cake has been pricked, take it out of the tin. Place the cake in a cake plate or tray with a bit of a lip as there will be liquid running through it.

Once the cake is in the correct plate and while it is still hot, pour the Tres Leches mixture slowly through the whole of the cake, making sure you’re gentle and that all the little holes you made earlier get saturated with this milky mixture. It is very important that the pouring of the milk is done while the cake is still hot as otherwise the cake will just go soggy. There’s a lot of milk mixture, so don’t worry about it, just pour it gently and try to cover the cake all over and down the edges. You can now leave the cake to cool completely and store it in the fridge until you’re ready to ice it.

For the Icing:

If you have a free standing electric mixer, use it to beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks and leave them ready. In a small, deep pot, put the sugar, water and honey and heat them till they start to boil. As soon as this happens, take them out of the heat and start the mixer on the egg whites again. Slowly, very slowly, pour the hot ‘honey’ you’ve just taken from the heat. Do it very gently and keep the mixer working on high speed until all the liquid has been incorporated to the whites. Switch off the mixer and get ready for icing!

Take the cake out of the fridge and cover it with the icing. Top it up with some chopped pecan nuts, fresh strawberries or a cherry. You can also drizzle some ‘cajeta’ on top of the icing (I sell it in the shop and it is dulce de leche made of goats milk) to turn your cake from 3 to 4 leches!

Farm Fresh Homemade Sweetened Condensed Milk

1 liter whole milk from your farm or local dairy (store bought is fine too)

1 cup granulated sugar (can also use brown or raw sugar)

1 tablespoon butter (optional – to thicken the milk)

In a heavy-bottomed pot, bring the milk and the sugar to a boil over medium heat.

Reduce the heat to low and simmer very gently for about two hours until the volume is reduced by half. The mixture should be barely simmering and never bubbling at any point. Stir every 15 minutes or so to keep the milk from burning on the bottom.

After 2 hours, stir in butter (optional)

Remove the pot from heat and let the milk cool. The mixture will thicken further after it has cooled.

Will keep in refrigerator for 2 weeks or more.

(This milk is perfect (no butter version) for making Vietnamese iced coffee too!)

Farm Fresh Homemade Evaporated Milk

2 litres whole milk from your farm or local dairy (from the store is fine as well)

In a heavy-bottomed pot, bring the milk to a boil over medium heat.

Reduce the heat to low and simmer very gently for about two hours until the volume is reduced by 60%. The milk should be barely simmering and never bubbling at any point. Stir every 15 minutes or so to keep the milk from burning on the bottom.

Remove the pot from heat and let the milk cool. The milk will thicken further after it has cooled.

Will keep in refrigerator for 2 weeks or more.

I hope you enjoy this cake as much as we do! Thanks again Lily! xx

Slan Abhaile,


Photos and styling by Imen McDonnell and Geoffrey McDonnell 2012

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Stinging Nettle Tea

10 May 2012


They sting.

Yeah, me and nettles haven’t exactly been fast friends over the past few years, but that is changing. If you will allow me to get a bit metaphorical, I will explain.

When I first moved to Ireland, I didn’t know what to expect. I was head over heels in love and braying-like-a-donkey-excited to embark on this new chapter of my life. As anyone who knows me personally will attest, my most profound challenge after relocating to Ireland was obviously not “marrying a farmer.”  It’s pretty easy to be married to my husband, no matter how rough things have gotten, we’ve managed to stay in love (no small feat). No, the hardest part was something I naively never anticipated: losing the stubborn identity that went along with a career that, for better or worse, defined me.

It’s not like I had a six-figure job, nor was I the president or CEO of a Fortune 500 company. When I moved to Ireland, I was working in the wacky world of advertising, producing television commercials that shlepped global beauty, fashion and food brands. The work often involved collaborating with talented directors and took me around the world. Before that, I was at the Rosie O’Donnell Show in NYC. But, don’t get too excited; I was very young and merely a serf who spent a whole lotta time buying Christmas pressies on behalf of Ms. O’Donnell. Memories of maniacally running around the west village in search of rare redcoat army figures for Tom Hanks, or toy shopping for Cruise-Kidman clan will forever more be imprinting on my brain.

Still, I was passionate about my work because I got to be creative and work with people who inspired me on a daily basis. The work was very social and there was always something new on the horizon. Of course, this was before the recession when clients still had bottomless pockets of money to be spent on hefty advertising budgets (yes, somewhat Mad Men-esque despite being the noughties).  I lived, breathed, ate, and drank work. I was so consumed by it that there was room for little else in my life (ahem, like farmers). Sure, at times, I would become keenly aware that I needed more balance. And, those days became more frequent as Richard and I became serious about our relationship.

When we decided it would be best for me to be the one to move, I genuinely assumed I would still be able to work as a producer. If not for the agency I had been with for 5 years, then in a freelance capacity in Ireland. I was excited to experience new opportunities.

Suffice to say, those options didn’t really pan out. I became a mommy. CEO and chief nappy changer of the house. When Geoffrey was still a baby, I designed a line of infant one-pieces that fell through when I discovered my BABY EIRE branding was not acceptable in Ireland (There are still 300 of them sitting in the attic, if you want one). I worked on one television series, and also some small food-related production projects on a gratis basis. I help out on the farm. I am paid a small salary to write a country living column in a national newspaper. I am trying to restore a period thatched farm, whose potential is not seen as clearly to others than to I. I have done a handful of cookery demonstrations at events around the country. I started this blog, which has evolved into so much more than I anticipated…but, as much as I am committed, a blog alone is not a career.

Which brings me to why I’ll never forget my first nettle sting. I was working in the garden. My first garden ever, I might add. Somehow summer Sundays had always been for shopping at Sephora or sitting by a pool, not gardening. Anyway, I accidentally brushed up against a nettle. What the hell was a nettle anyway? The sting was painful, but didn’t warrant my reaction. I swore at that blasted nettle. I damned it.

Then, oddly, I began to cry.
One of those horrendous heaving cries.
I cried about the hurt of the damn nettle sting.
I cried for my father.
I cried about the bloody Irish weather.
I cried that Geoffrey would never play Little League.
I even cried about not getting Rosie her tuna fish on poppyseed bagel anymore.
I cried the kind of cry that keeps your cheeks a slappy shade of red for the rest of the day.
Then, I rang Richard and screamed at him for the nettle abuse.
Nettles were just one more reason why we should move to America in my mind.
America, my imaginary land of opportunity, where I could have fulfilling work again. Where I could be me.
It was ridiculous.

Yes, life had a bit of a sting to it at the time.

This is why me and nettles haven’t been on the greatest terms. But, this is changing. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been bravely experimenting with nettles. We’ve had a few good natters, the two of us. We’ve made a deal: if I wear gloves and blanch them in hot water, they won’t make me cry. In fact, I discovered that if you put them in hot water for long enough, you will create a most flavourful and completing cup of tea, especially with a tiny drip of honey. Perfect for the wintery weather we can’t seem to shake here.

I’m now embarking on a special new film project, Food Island. I get to take everything I’ve come to learn here on my food-and-farming-filled Irish adventure, and combine it with those good old production skills. For me, this feels like a match made in heaven. Next week, two wonderful friends will arrive from America; one a producer and one a cinematographer. We will be journeying around the country as I direct a short film about Ireland’s exciting new food culture. Not quite a new career, but definitely a good start.

That sting is history.

Slan Abhaile,


Photos by Imen McDonnell 2012

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It’s official. I’ve lost the plot.  Or, as one might say in Ireland: I’ve gone mad as a brush, a bit doolally, cracked as a cricket, bonkers, a bit touched…. and, in all likelihood--away with the fairies.

You see, the cake pictured above is not your average-ordinary cake. It is NOT a gorgeous vanilla sponge slathered with tangy Meyer lemon icing, nor is it a secret red velvet covered in velvety cream cheese frosting. No, no, no. It is a cake made out of four layers of homemade bread, filled with savoury, creamy goodness and spackled with chilled mayonnaise. Oh, and by savoury, creamy goodness, I mean stick to the ribs, wholesome, rich, Irish-style sandwich fillings. {Ahem, mad as a bag of cats}

I’ve had a notion for quite some time that I needed to share a post about the beauty of Irish Sandwichery with you. I suppose I am taking a bit of liberty with the term Irish Sandwichery, but I believe it serves it well. The art of the Irish sandwich or “roll” is a craft to be reckoned with.

However, it did take me a bit of time to adjust to sandwiches in Ireland. I say this because sandwiches were kind of my ‘thang’ for a long time. I felt intimately close with sandwiches as they comforted me on days when I worked through lunch (more often than not) crunching production numbers or screening through buckets of directors.

I treasured my weekly stiletto sprints to the deli to choose my special sandwich, grab a bag of chips (crisps) and a spritzy lemonade before heading back to my office. I had a bit of a system in place, whereby I would alternate rare roast beef with cheddar on a braided roll with corned beef and Swiss on Kaiser. The odd day I would splash out for chicken salad with grapes and almonds on croissant.  If it was cold out, perhaps a gooey tuna melt and some soup too. Chicken and stuffing had not yet entered my universe.

It is possible that my sandwich affinity started when I was a small girl. I remember my mother making up platters of tuna sandwiches or fluffer-nutters for us when I was still young enough to run around topless on a hot summer sprinkler kind of day. We would eat sandwich after sandwich washed down with tumblers of Country Time lemonade. The picture of health.

So, when I saw my first sandwich board at a popular Irish café, I was stumped. Egg mayonnaise? Ham and salad? Cheese and Onion? Chicken and Stuffing? Tuna and Sweetcorn? Ploughman’s? Bacon and Boiled Egg? Not one turkey pastrami on rye. Wha? Despite the obvious carbtasticness of Chicken and Stuffing, I went for it. And, umm, never looked back.

I have tried each and every one of these traditional Irish sandwich fillings and they are all some kind of wonderful. We often have just sandwiches for evening tea on the farm. Now, these are not the only choices you will find in Ireland, but without a doubt, you will find most of these options in every deli, grocery store, filling station, pubs and casual cafes around this fair country. (*Oh, and for early morning sandwich lovers, try the famous Irish breakfast roll: sausage, rasher, egg, hash brown, puddings, onion, butter and sauce on baguette)

For this post, I really wanted to celebrate Irish sandwich fillings and was trying to think of how to go about it when I was struck by a tasty memory of eating a cake made out of sandwiches years ago. Growing up in the Midwestern part of the USA, you will find plenty of Scandinavian influence in cooking and baking. I distinctly remember a friend’s Scandi mother making these massive sandwich cakes from time to time, and online research tells me that they were likely called Smörgåstårta.

And, so it was decided: I would make a sandwich cake layered with Irish-style fillings. Serendipity!

First, using Rachel Allen’s recipe, I baked my bread layers in springform baking tins, just like you would a sweet layer cake.

Then, I made up the fillings; I chose to do three fillings, which makes it a gorgeous tower of a cake, but to be honest, a bit too much trouble to cut into. If you decide to make this, I would go with two thick layers for the ease of it. I went with tuna + sweetcorn, cheese + onion, and chicken + stuffing (with a bit of rocket). I “iced” the cake with chilled mayonnaise and adorned the top with wild garlic flowers and sorrel leaves.

And, for the big reveal…..sloppy, creamy, oozy, bready, messy, scrumptious savoury cake heaven.

Really lovely treat to bring to an afternoon lunch, garden party or pot luck. Choose your own favourite flavours and decorative toppers. You can also do this using bread rounds from the bakery or store.

Slan Abhaile

Imen x

Photos & Styling by Imen McDonnell 2012. Wild Garlic & Sorrel foraged by Geoffrey McDonnell. With thanks to the Irish Twitter squad for helping me with the mad Irish expressions.

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