Recipe: Dulce de Leche Pastry Cake (Torta Chilena)

26 Nov

When I was in college,  I sampled an exquisite confection that has forever remained seared on my memory: Torta Chilena. It was a cake with eight crispy layers filled with dulce de leche (caramelized sweet milk).  I immediately requested the recipe from the Costa Rican lady who made it, and it has since followed me across continents and years to be pulled out on special occasions.

Torta Chilena is a beloved Costa Rican dessert. So why, you may ask, is it called a “Chilean Cake”?  In Chile, a very similar dessert is called Torta Mil Hojas (“Thousand-Layer Cake”), which is itself a variation on the mille-feuille theme. But instead of being filled with custard, as the French versions are, the Latin American versions are filled with dulce de leche.  Latin Americans love dulce de leche, so it is a natural adaptation. I surmise that a Chilean with a fondness for sweets settled in Costa Rica, made the dessert to great acclaim, and helped start the national craze for Torta Chilena. However this cake originated, I am deeply grateful.

Note: One popular way to make dulce de leche is to cook unopened cans of sweetened condensed milk in boiling water for 2-3 hours. The problem with this method is that the occasional can explodes. So, I’ve always preferred making it in the oven in a bain-marie (water bath, also known as a baño maría in Spanish).

Torta Chilena
[Updated 12-15-12]

2 c. flour (250 gr.)
1 tbsp. sugar
½ lb. butter (2 sticks, 227 gr.)
¼ + 1/8 c. white wine (90 ml.)

Dulce de Leche Filling
2 cans (14 oz./400 gr. each) sweetened condensed milk

powdered sugar

1. Dulce de Leche filling: Heat oven to 425ºF/220ºC. Spray a glass casserole dish with cooking spray, pour both cans of condensed milk into it, cover the dish, and then set it in a deep roasting pan filled with enough water to rise slightly above the level of the condensed milk in the casserole dish. Bake covered for about 3 hours until golden brown (stirring vigorously 2-3 times during the latter part of the cooking process to avoid lumps). Set aside. This is the dulce de leche; you can make it ahead of time, but if you are not using immediately, refrigerate it and bring to room temperature before using.


2. Pastry: Put flour and sugar in a large bowl, cut in butter, then add ¼ c. (60 ml.) wine, mix thoroughly, then add remaining 1/8 c. wine (30 ml.). Mix thoroughly. Turn dough out onto well-floured surface, shape into a log and cut into 8 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball. Draw 9-inch (23 cm.) circles on baking/parchment paper (I used a  plate and traced around it). Turn sheets of paper over so dough doesn’t come into contact with pen/pencil marks, then place 1 ball of dough in center of the circle, and use fingers to spread out to edges. Dough will be very thin.

3. Preheat oven to 300ºF/150ºC.  Bake pastry circles until slightly golden (exact time will depend on your oven; start checking at about 8-10 minutes–the circles should look “cooked,” but not brown). When cool, very carefully remove each pastry circle from paper; circles will be wafer-like and fragile. Place a small dab of dulce de leche on a round platter, then gently position the first pastry circle on top. Press carefully to stabilize the circle on the platter, then spread with roughly 1/7 of the dulce de leche (doing so as lightly as possible). Put the next cooked pastry circle on top, spread with dulce de leche, and repeat with all the layers except the top one – sift powdered sugar on top of that one. Some layers may crack; press the pieces onto the dulce de leche base, and try to reserve the best layer for the top.
4. Enjoy.

*For another cake that features dulce de leche, see this recipe.

6 Responses to “Recipe: Dulce de Leche Pastry Cake (Torta Chilena)”

  1. helen December 15, 2012 at 6:01 pm #

    I tried this for my spanish project and i had a hard time following what you were doing, so i had to improvise on some parts. You might want to be a little bit more detailed and give exact instruction as to how long thr cakes should be inside thr oven. I followed exactly as you said on the dulce de leche and it came out lumpy amd such but it still tasted good and cakes were very cookie-like so it started crumbling and I over baked some of them not knowing how long to put them in the oven


  2. perennialpastimes December 15, 2012 at 7:15 pm #

    Thanks very much for the feedback. So sorry it did not turn out properly. The layers are very thin and will end up being crispy and wafer-like, so they need to be handled very carefully or they will crack (though this isn’t a problem unless it is the very last layer — if that happens, piece together as best as possible and dust generously with confectioner’s sugar; with the other layers, you can simply press the pieces together on top of the dulce de leche base). Baking time is hard to specify because it depends entirely on your oven — but I would start checking at about 8-10 minutes, keeping a careful eye thereafter (as you would for thin cookies). You want the layers to be slightly golden and look “cooked,” but not actually be brown. Stirring the dulce de leche fairly vigorously a few times after it starts to turn color helps prevent lumps. But should you end up with small lumps, they won’t affect the taste of the Torta Chilena in any way and will be barely noticeable once the dulce de leche is sandwiched between the layers of pastry (as I can say from experience…). I’ll update the blog post with a few of these more specific details in the hope it helps.


  3. Judy in Boston February 28, 2013 at 1:48 pm #

    I went to Costa Rica this winter, so wanted to make a Costa Rican dessert for a group of friends that have all visited this beautiful country! I’ve made the dessert twice. The first time I didn’t roll out the dough thin enough, so only made 6 layers. It came out really good though, so thought I’d give it another try. This time I made 1 1/2 times the recipe and ended up with 12 layers. It was amazing. It takes a lot of work to roll the layers so thin, but it made a difference. This is a labor and time intensive dessert, but worth it.


    • perennialpastimes February 28, 2013 at 8:59 pm #

      Good on you for painstakingly rolling out. I put the dough ball in the middle of the paper circle, press it flat, and slowly push the dough outward with my fingers, moving thicker areas to cover thinner areas– because I am not nearly as skilled at rolling out thin dough as you are! Did the dough stick at all?


  4. Leah September 4, 2013 at 11:30 pm #

    I visited a Chilean lady when I lived in Switzerland. She used dulce de leche to ice a cake and called it “gâteau bronzée” (“bronzed cake”). That was my first experience with dulce de leche. She said it was very typical of Chilean desserts. Have you ever tried cajeta (version made with goat’s milk)? I have swirled it through my pumpkin ice cream from time to time. This cake looks lovely but I think I could only eat very small pieces. Dulce de leche is muy dulce.


    • perennialpastimes September 4, 2013 at 11:39 pm #

      I have had cajeta–I am drawn to sugar in almost any form; your use of it sounds delicious. And yes, a small piece of this cake is very satisfying…!


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