Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Mexican Impossible Cake with Purple Sweet Potato (Chocoflan)

Mexican Impossible Cake with Purple Sweet Potato (Chocoflan)
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
During colonial times, kitchens in México were glistening with amazing delicacies that mixed indigenous ingredients and traditional cooking methods with those brought over by the colonizers.  It was in 1518 that the famous conquistador Hernán Cortés landed in the Yucatan peninsula and was awed at the rumors of flavors unique to the newly found land.  In every remote kitchen, there happened a culinary marriage of flavors that Mexicans of the times raised to high levels.  For native cooks, cooking was a daily ritual of ceremony.  Enigmatic dishes and fruits of the season were offered to the Gods on impressive altars decorated with fragrant flowers and burning copal incense.  Spanish cooks upon their arrival, were fascinated by the alchemy that occurred in the kitchens and by observing the techniques, they learned how to blend the flavors of the newly discovered ingredients with those that they brought from the old world such as milk from domesticated animals.   

One favorite Mexican delicacy is the pastel impossible or impossible cake.  It is one of the many captivating sweets that has a long tradition and a marked history.  The exquisite dessert consists of a fluffy layer of chocolate bread and a layer of velvety egg custard called flan, baked together in a steam ban marie.  They’re not baked separately but at the same time, one over the other.  What makes the dessert a culinary caveat is that the batter for the bread and the batter for the flan do not mix while baking.  The airy bread layer ends up on the bottom and the denser flan layer ends up on the top when turned over from it’s mold.  That’s what makes the cake almost imposible, hence the name.        

It is no coincidence that chocolate, indigenous to Mexico, was a favorite ingredient for savory dishes as well as for sweet.  Chocolate was obtained from the roasted cacao pods and for the Aztecs, it was a gift from the gods worthy of important and sacred ceremonies.  For the Spanish colonizers, the sweet steamed milk and eggs, cooled and served with a sugar caramel, turned over in native clay pots was a perfect and refreshing dessert.  This is when the marriage of this dessert really occurs.  Apart from the chocolate, the Aztecs had one other secret ingredient that the conquistadors favored: the vanilla bean.  It was the native fragrant essence, filled with intrigue and passion that the Aztecs used as medicine and for flavoring in foods especially the favorite drink: xicolatl or chocolate.  The ancient Totonaco Indians whom inhabited the Gulf coast near Veracruz, were the first keepers of the secrets of vanilla.  The ruling Aztec kings required payment in taxes from the Totonaco tribes in the form of the dried vanilla pods which were extremely secretly guarded, but not for long after Hernán Cortez’s arrival!

Purple Sweet Potatoes
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015
By the 1600’s chocolate and vanilla beans were a highly sought after commodity being traded all over the world.  Meanwhile, in the kitchens in México, dishes were being finessed and perfected making it one of the most important gastronomies in the world.  For the pastel impossible or impossible cake, also commonly called chocoflan, it clearly became a possibility appreciated all over latin america, Europe and even in the Philippines, another Spanish colony where many ingredients from Mexico were introduced.  In the Philippines, the Impossible cake or chocoflan is even made with purple sweet potatoes or yams called ube which were also introduced from the Americas as in the recipe that follows.


For the bread batter:

1 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 cups of cooked and mashed purple sweet potatoes or yams
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 eggs
3 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup of milk (more or less)

For the flan batter: 

1 cup of sugar for caramel
3 eggs
1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1 (12 ounce) can evaporated milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 (8 ounce) package of cream cheese

Mashed Purple Sweet Potato
Photo by Leticia Alaniz © 2015

In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, melt 1 cup of sugar until liquified and caramelized.  Carefully pour hot syrup into a 12 inch tube mold or bundt pan, turning the dish to cover the bottom evenly.  Set aside.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).

Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.  Set aside.

For the bread batter:  In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Add mashed purple sweet potatoes and vanilla.  Beat until well blended.  Add eggs, one at a time (the batter will look curdled).  Add 3/4 cup of milk.  Add flour mixture to potato mixture.  Beat on low until combined.  If batter is too thick add a little more milk.  The batter will be thick and dense.  Pour batter into the tube pan.  

Next, make the flan batter:  In a blender add the 3 eggs, condensed milk, evaporated milk, vanilla and cream cheese.  Blend until smooth.  Pour batter on top of already poured bread batter in the tube pan.    The batters may appear to mix when that flan mixture is poured on top but they completely separate while baking.  Place pan in a large roasting pan and add about 1 inch of water.  Place in oven and bake for about 60 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted comes out clean.  Cool cake completely.  Chill overnight if desired.    

To serve, insert and run a knife along edges and carefully invert on a serving plate.  Serve with a drizzle of condensed milk if desired.   

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