This cake starts as a basic cornbread, but then it’s given a sweet soaking in the milky caramel treat from Mexico called dulce de leche — a little alchemy that yields dessert gold. Accompany it with strongly brewed dark-roast coffee or with espresso to balance the sweetness.
Cornmeal Cake with Dulce de Leche
You can buy cans or jars of dulce de leche, including cajeta, the more complexly flavored goat’s milk version, in many Mexican groceries.
For the dulce de leche:
4 cups (32 fl. oz./1 l.) whole milk
1 cup (8 oz./250 g.) sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp baking soda dissolved in 1 Tbs. water
Unsalted butter for greasing
1 1/4 cups (6 1/2 oz./200 g.) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup (8 oz./250 g.) sugar
2/3 cup (3 1/2 oz./105 g.) yellow cornmeal
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. sea salt
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
3 large eggs
3/4 cup (6 oz./185 g.) sour cream
1/4 cup (2 fl. oz./60 ml.) olive oil
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
To make the dulce de leche, in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the milk, sugar, cinnamon stick, vanilla and salt. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat and stir in the baking soda mixture. Whisk aggressively while the sauce froths up; it will soon settle down. Return the pan to the stove top and, with the heat at its lowest setting, continue to cook, barely simmering, until the sauce reduces to about 1 cup (8 fl. oz./250 ml.) and is deep brown, 1 to 2 hours. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C).
Grease an 8-inch (20-cm) round cake pan with butter. Line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper, and grease the top of the paper with more butter.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cornmeal, baking powder, salt and cinnamon.
In another large bowl, whisk together the eggs, sour cream, olive oil and vanilla. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the egg mixture, stirring just until combined; do not overmix.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake until the cake starts to pull away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then run a thin-bladed knife around the edges of the pan to loosen the cake and invert it onto a plate. Peel away the parchment paper, then reinvert the cake onto a serving plate.
Poke the cake all over with a skewer. Slowly and evenly pour about half of the warm dulce de leche over the top and allow it to penetrate for a few minutes. Cut the cake into wedges and serve. Place the remaining sauce in a small pitcher and pass at the table.
Make Ahead: The dulce de leche sauce will keep, tightly covered, in the refrigerator, for up to 1 month. Gently reheat it over low heat or in a microwave oven.