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Signature Dish: Tres Leche cake with coconut milk delights family

Noemi Gerena perfected her Tres Leche Delight Cake at her daughter’s request.


Noemi Gerena perfected her Tres Leche Delight Cake at her daughter’s request.

Who: Noemi Gerena, 65, of St. Petersburg, mother of six and grandmother of five, dessert caterer.

What: Tres Leche Delight Cake

About the recipe: What makes Gerena's tres leche cake special?

"Maybe because I just put so much love in it," she says.

About 13 years ago, she began baking to please her children, who all loved sweets and begged her for desserts. To train herself, she resolved to create the ideal flan — baking it over and over, sometimes recruiting her husband at 1 a.m. for emergency tastings. Once she mastered the flan, she says, "I became perfect."

Her desserts were so popular among friends and family that she started her own business, selling to local stores and catering for private events. Her tres leche cake became her number one seller.

That dessert began as a request from her daughter, who craved the tres leche cakes she'd tasted in Miami. Modifying a recipe from her sister-in-law, Gerena added coconut milk to give the dessert a subtle tropical flavor. She frosted the top with Cool Whip and adorned it with 12 cherries.

That night, Gerena invited her extended family over for dinner, saving the cake as a special surprise.

"When (my daughter) tasted it, she said, 'Mommy, this is better than the ones I ate (in Miami)!'"

A family tradition: Every Wednesday night for the last 10 years, she has cooked an elaborate meal — "nothing but the best" — for her children and grandchildren. She bakes a different dessert for them every week. "They cry when I have to go on a cruise or something," she says.

Baking traditional desserts, like the tres leche cake, helps her keep in touch with her Puerto Rican culture and share it with her family. Plus, she says, "I like to make people happy when they eat something."

Can't bake without: Romantic bachata music. "I could hear bachata all night," she says. "I've always been such a romantic woman."

(According to, bachata is a genre of music from the Dominican Republic, where it was first recorded in 1961, derived primarily from Cuban bolero and characterized by its distinctive lead guitar — played by plucking, rather than strumming or sustained — and highly emotional singing style.)

Emily Young, special to the Times

If you have a recipe that you would like featured, or would like to nominate other home cooks and their dishes, email with a name and daytime phone number. Include SIGNATURE DISH in the subject line. Or mail to Taste, Tampa Bay Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.


Tres Leche Delight Cake

1 (18.25-ounce) box yellow cake mix

1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk

1 (14-ounce) can condensed milk

1 (14-ounce) can coconut milk

1 1/2 cups whole milk

1 tablespoon vanilla

Pinch salt

1 small tub Cool Whip

12 maraschino cherries

Make the yellow cake following the cake box instructions.

When the cake is finished baking, take it out and poke holes in the cake.

Mix all the milks with the vanilla and salt in a bowl.

Put the bowl of milk mixture in the microwave for 3 minutes.

When finished heating, pour the milk mixture on top of the cake. The cake must be hot from the oven, with holes poked in it, to make sure the hot milk mixture absorbs correctly.

Refrigerate immediately for at least 3 hours, or it can be served the next day.

When cake is completely cool, decorate with the Cool Whip and add cherries on top.

Source: Noemi Gerena of St. Petersburg

Signature Dish: Tres Leche cake with coconut milk delights family 03/12/13 [Last modified: Monday, March 11, 2013 3:31pm]
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