Ch. 16: Latiya, a national treasure

As you can tell, I’ve made a lot of desserts in my day. Really, the list goes on full of flavors that I’ve tried and all these delicious baked goods that make my mouth water. But when it comes to my favorite dessert- Latiya definitely holds a top spot. I can’t quite say it’s number 1, but it’s top five for sure. I remember being so nostalgic in college that I decided to whip it up for a potluck that my friends I were having. I watched with anticipation as they took their first bite, witnessing the taste of home hit their tongues, followed by the eye-opening realization that it was damn good. One of them even joked that it was so good, he wanted to name his daughter “latiya”- I can’t say I’ve heard that before. The leftover cake ended up being served at a house party my friends were throwing where everyone raved about the “Guam cake” they found in the kitchen. There’s nothing like a bunch of drunk strangers coming up to you and saying how much they liked your cake. Needless to say- it’s beloved by all. 

Latiya is a cake with a layer of custard on top that’s sprinkled with cinnamon. It sounds easy, but trust me, I’ve had some really bad versions in my life because nowadays it seems like everyone’s trying to take shortcuts with it.. Depending on who you ask, the bottom layer of cake can be anything from sponge cake to pound cake to boxed yellow cake. Hell, I’ve even seen recipes say Graham Crackers could be used! (Please don’t do it, I beg you). Both of my grandmas made latiya with sponge cake, so anything other than that seems like I’m committing a cardinal sin. With lockdown in full effect, I decided to make my own sponge cake so i wouldn’t have to rely on bakeries in order to make latiya. If you’ve ever made a cake, sponge cake is pretty simple apart from one added step. Sponge cakes rely on eggs for leavening- it’s what makes them so spongy and airy. The whites are separated from the yolks and beaten together with sugar to form a meringue. That then gets folded into the thick egg yolk-milk-cake flour batter and poured into a pan to bake. It’s one of those cakes that’s worth all the effort because it’s so incredibly light and delicious even on it’s own. The cake then gets sliced up and placed into a serving dish, which in my case is a 9×13 inch glass pan. 

I think everyone can agree that it’s the custard that’s the real star of the show- for me, it’s what makes or breaks good latiya. I used a recipe I found on Guampedia which I’ve adapted over the years to get the right sweetness and consistency. It’s interesting to note that it starts off with evaporated milk and water. Back then, fresh dairy milk wasn’t commonly available unless you had your own cows, and so shelf-stable milk products were widely used in Guam cuisine. The addition of water, I assume, is meant to stretch the milk a bit as even that was likely expensive or hard to come by. I’ve tested this before with fresh milk and the flavor just doesn’t compare. The deep dairy and rich flavor of evaporated milk is what transforms it from a standard custard to a Chamorro latiya. The evaporated milk, some of the water and sugar is set to a boil, after which a cornstarch slurry is added to thicken. Whenever you use cornstarch, it’s important to let it cook for a full minute in order to active it. Otherwise, the custard will never thicken. I’ve seen some recipes call for upwards of 1 cup of cornstarch and trust me when I say that’s a big mistake. You shouldn’t ever need more than ¼ cup to thicken a custard. The eggs are then are gradually streamed in, followed by some vanilla and butter. It’s key here that you whisk constantly so the eggs don’t scramble upon contact with the hot mixture- unless a sweet egg drop soup is what you’re after. It’s then poured directly onto the cake and sprinkled with cinnamon. Now depending on how good of a job you did with your whisking, you may need to run the custard through a sieve to catch any stray bits. I don’t recall neither of my Grandmas ever needing to strain their latiya- must be some Chamorro magic that I’ve never picked up.

Latiya is one of the most comforting desserts I’ve had. It’s creamy and lightly sweet with that soft and airy cake underneath. The sponge cake is so incredibly light- having just enough structure to hold up the custard top while still absolutely melting in your mouth. It’s the lightness that really makes it the perfect candidate for me- as yellow cake and pound cake tend to be more dense and add flavor to the dessert that it doesn’t need. The cinnamon adds some nice flavor too that compliments the rich custard and gives it its distinct flavor.. It’s really all I look for in a dessert. There’s a reason why it’s considered the national dessert of Guam. 

My Sponge Cake Recipe

1 ¼ cups of Cake Flour
¾ cups of Granulated Sugar
1 ¼ teaspoons of Baking Powder
¼ teaspoon of Salt
¼ cup of Unsalted Butter, melted and cooled slightly
4 large Eggs, separated
1/3 cup of Milk
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 300. Grease an 8” springform pan with nonstick spray and line with parchment paper. Cut strips of parchment paper to line the sides, about 4″ tall. In a small bowl, whisk together the cake flour, ¼ cup of sugar, baking powder and salt. In a large bowl, whisk together the melted butter, egg yolks, milk and vanilla. Add the dry mix into the wet and whisk to combine. Beat the egg whites on medium until frothy. Add in the cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form. Gradually add in the remaining ½ of granulated sugar and beat until stiff peaks. Fold the meringue into the batter in three increments. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35-40 minutes or until the top is golden brown and a cake tester comes out clean. Allow to cool completely before removing from the pan.

My Adapted Latiya Recipe:

1 8” prepared Sponge Cake
1 12oz can of Evaporated Milk
1 2/3 cups of Water, divided
¼ cup of Cornstarch
6 tablespoons of Granulated Sugar
2 teaspoons of Vanilla Extract
2 tablespoons of Unsalted Butter
2 Large Eggs , beaten
Cinnamon for sprinkling

Cut the sponge cake into ½” slices and arrange on a 13×9 pan, a large tray, or 2 pie pans, filling in all the gaps at the bottom. In a medium saucepan, bring 1 1/3 cup of water to a low boil. Add in the evaporated milk and sugar and bring to a simmer. Combine the cornstarch with the remaining 1/3 cup of water until smooth. Pour in the cornstarch mixture into the pan and cook until thick. Remove from the heat and slowly stream the eggs into the milk mixture, stirring constantly to avoid scrambling. Return to medium high heat and cook until the custard coats the back of a spoon. Turn off the heat and dd in the butter and vanilla. Stir until melted and combined. If lumpy, run through a sieve. Immediately pour the custard over the prepared pans and generously sprinkle with cinnamon. Allow the custard to set in the refrigerator for a minimum of 2 hours. Can be served cold or at room temperature.

Read more about the history of Latiya on Guampedia here:

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