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).
2 c. flour
1 tbsp. sugar
½ lb. butter (2 sticks)
¼ + 1/8 c. white wine
Dulce de Leche Filling
2 cans sweetened condensed milk
1. Dulce de Leche filling: Heat oven to 425º. 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. wine, mix thoroughly, then add remaining 1/8 c. wine. 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 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 300º. 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.
*For another cake that features dulce de leche, see this recipe.