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"The Book of Unknown Americans" by Cristina Henríquez & Tres Leches Cake

"The Book of Unknown Americans" by Cristina Henríquez & Tres Leches Cake

“When I glanced at the people around us, no one was even looking in our direction, and I felt the way I often felt in this country — simultaneously conspicuous and invisible, like an oddity whom everyone noticed but chose to ignore."

In a small American city, there is an apartment building that houses numerous immigrant families from Mexico and across South America. From the outside, the tenants may appear indistinguishable, and are treated as such by the general surrounding population. But before these "unknown" people can be generalized and forgotten, author Cristina Henriquez gives each one a name and a story, making it impossible to mistake them for anything but individuals.

The story of The Book of Unknown Americans unfolds in a fashion styled after the apartment itself — small glimpses into each family’s life and history, with an overarching plot that ties them together. Each chapter is told through a different tenant's point of view, and each one has a different immigration story to tell. There are those that left home unwillingly for their safety, those who sought a better life in the U.S., those who thought their trip would be temporary. As the parents and children interact, a full, complex story unfolds and draws the reader in completely.

Henriquez’s greatest strength in this story is that every character is given their due. There are no names without faces, no people there to give exposition and then disappear. Every person mentioned is given his or her due, and no one remains unknown.

The multitude of cultures and personalities in the story inspired me to try my hand at tres leches — one of my favorite desserts. In the recipe, three different types of milk work together in harmony, much like the different families in the novel came from different origins but created a working community together.  

The Book of Unknown Americans & Tres Leches Cake | www.paperplatesblog.com
The Book of Unknown Americans & Tres Leches Cake | www.paperplatesblog.com


Makes one 9x13" cake


For the cake:

  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) of butter
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 5 eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 (12 fluid ounce) can evaporated milk

For the icing:

  • 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract


Preheat oven to 350ºF. Grease and flour a 9x13" baking dish.

In a mixing bowl, sift together flour and baking powder. Set aside.

In another large bowl using an electric mixer, cream together butter and 1 cup sugar until fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla extract then beat well.

Mix dry ingredients into egg mixture two tablespoons at a time until combined. Pour batter into prepared baking dish.

Bake for 30 minutes.

In a large bowl, combine whole milk, sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk.

Remove cake from oven then pierce several times with fork. Pour combined milks over top of cake, then cover baking dish with foil and cool overnight in the fridge. In that time, most of the milk should soak into the cake.

The next day, remove from fridge and pour off extra milk.

In a bowl, whip together the whipping cream, remaining one cup of granulated sugar and remaining teaspoon of vanilla extract until thickened. Coat top of cake with icing then serve.

Keep leftovers (if there are any) refrigerated.

Note: This cake is very easy to customize — you can add cinnamon or other spices, or put fruit on top for some color!

Adapted from AllRecipes.

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