November 25, 2008

The Secrets of Natalia's Way, Bienmesabe Cake

Hold on tight to your mixers and bags of sugar, because in this post I'm revealing local St. Louis chef Natalia Penchas's secrets for her favorite dessert (and mine), the Venezualan Bienmesabe cake. And you can't do the cake justice without these secrets, believe me!

Natalia, with the finished Bienmesabe

Once upon I time, at the St. Louis Food Bloggers' Potluck, I met my Latin lover, Beinmesabe, a Venezualan pastry. She is a light, amusing sponge cake soaked in coconut milk and rum, covered in piles of cinnamon-dusted meringue; intense, unforgettable.
The only creatures in the Universes who will not like this cake are those who (still inexplicably, as far as I'm concerned) do not like coconut.
I tried making her from Natalia's recipe, and, well, my creation was adequate, but she was not my Bienmesabe. Specifically, two things went wrong: rather than a soaked sponge cake I ended up with a cake sitting in a puddle of liquid (this problem was so acute that I put the cake back in the oven and baked it off until it seemed edible); and though I followed the meringue instructions in Natalia's recipe, my meringue was just not as structured as hers, not as much a part of the cake, if you will.
And so, because of my weeping upon the internets, Natalia graciously offered to come over and teach me to make the cake of my heart, properly. Watching and listened to her, all problems were solved. It turns out there are a couple of secrets, important secrets not included in her recipe.
These are important secrets. Believe me. And Natalia has given me permission to reveal them here, to you! Natalia's recipe for the Bienmesabe is posted on her web site, Zinur.
Here I have simply reposted and edited the recipe (we must remember that English is not Natalia's first language), made some "corrections" based on what she did in her demonstrations, and inserted the secrets, which are in bold italic type.

Somewhere in the process.


Here's the basic deal: you're going to bake a sponge cake, trim off the top of that cake, pour a fabulous coconut and rum liquid into it the well, top it with tons of Italian meringue, and sprinkle it with sugar.

Instructional photo #1: sifting the flour over the egg mixture

Instructional photo #2: Cake with the top, caramelized part peeled off, leaving the side walls and an upper lip for structure

Preheat the oven to 350° F (180° C).

Sponge Cake

(Makes one 9-inch round layer cake or two 6-inch cakes; if you make the two, freeze one)

6 eggs
1 1/4 cup of Sugar
a dash Vanilla extract
1 cup all purpose flour (you'll need a sifter)

Butter and flour the cake pan, and tap out the extra flour.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs with an electric mixer. For a long time. 7 minutes, 10 minutes. A few minutes in, all the vanilla. Beat until the eggs are fluffy and forming up as if you'd beaten the yolks and whites separately. Seriously. (If you're more comfortable you can do them separately, as Natalia says to in her instructions; I'm just telling you what she did in my kitchen).

Instructional photo #1:
Slowly sift the flour directly over the bowl of egg mixture, letting it fall like a gentle snow.

Now fold the flour into the eggs. Be very gentle, and very careful not to activate the gluten.
Spread the mixture in the prepared baking pan(s).

Do not tap the pan(s). Keep the bubbles in the batter intact.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until lightly golden and springy to the touch.

Leave the cake(s) in the pan for 5 minutes, then flip onto a sugar covered surface.

Place the cake into a nice deep round platter.

Instructional photo #2:
Now you are going to prepare the cake for the liquid by removing the caramelized top of the cake, but leaving the outer edge of the cake, and about a 1/2-inch rim of horizontal cake surface around the whole cake. This will insure the cake retains structure (see photo).

To remove the top of the cake, lightly drag a fork across the surface so that the brown part begins to peel off. At some point you can start using your fingers. But remember to leave an edge intact so the cake doesn't fall apart!


1 can of coconut milk (just the standard stuff, like you use for Thai or Indian cooking)
1 14 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk
1/4 cup of dark rum (optional)

Mix these together.

In batches, and slowly, pour the milk mixture into the well of the cake, saturating evenly. Here's the trick: as you pour in batches, watch how it absorbs. When it stops absorbing, stop pouring. There will still be some liquid running out from the bottom of the cake.But you are minimizing that, and keeping the structure of the cake, by watching and regulating the liquid. We had about a 1/4 left over. But it's going to be different every time, so just trust your eyes.

Put the cake in the fridge to chill while you make the meringue. Here I am disregarding the recipe Natalia has on her site altogether, because we didn't use that one. She said she put the standard French recipe up so as not to make it all too complicated. But the Italian version is definitely what works for this cake! It's more stable and structured. Italian meringue is made by pouring hot simple syrup into beaten egg whites and continuing to beat. Here is a Tyler Florence's standard recipe. Note, however, that Natalia did not use cream of tartar. I don't see how it can hurt, though.

1 cup superfine sugar (we used regular sugar)
1/3 cup water
5 egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

In a small pot over low heat, combine sugar and water. Swirl the pot over the burner to dissolve the sugar completely. Do not stir. Increase the heat and boil to soft-ball stage (235 to 240 degrees). Use a candy thermometer for accuracy. Wash down the inside wall of the pot with a wet pastry brush. This will help prevent sugar crystals from forming around the sides, falling in and causing a chain reaction.

Prepare your meringue.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, whip the eggs whites on low speed until foamy. Add the cream of tartar, increase the speed to medium, and beat until soft peaks form.

With the mixer running, pour the hot sugar syrup in a thin stream over fluffed egg whites. Beat until the egg whites are stiff and glossy. Spread the meringue over a hot cake or pie, and bake as directed.


Once the meringue is ready, immediately take the cake from the fridge and start piling it high with the meringue. Use a rubber spatula to make little peaks of the meringue.

Dust the top with cinnamon, through a sifter. Serve, and watch your guests just die from pleasure!
A couple of notes: Natalia has some pretty cool projects going, including a catering business with local restaurantuer Michael Johnson, and a pastry, soup, and sandwhich shop to be nestled in an antique store in my very own Lafayette Square, Rue La Fayette.


Natalia Penchaszadeh said...

Thank you Margaret !
WOW your note can't be better

Ms Unseen/MsF/Redlotusblossom said...

Thanks, Natalia. Feel free to link back or quote it out or whatever you want to do! And thanks again.:-) said...

this looks great... thanks natalie... i like your notes too..