Cafe Con Leche Ribbon Cake, A New Dessert Assembled From Past Failures

I have some extremely exciting news to share with you today, folks. The sort of news that could end up defining my life from this day forward. One day people might build statues to commemorate this moment, or perhaps name their children after me. The past few weeks leading up to this have been utterly exhilarating, and I am so happy that I can finally share the good news with all of you. [Deep breath.] I have invented a new type of cake.

I didn't set out to do it, but here we are, living in a brand-new world with a brand-new cake. The dessert gods have smiled down upon us.

So how did this, the greatest achievement of my life (apologies to my children) come to pass? Completely by accident. I work from home, and I share my test kitchen with two kids, four cats, and one very patient husband who helps with all the dirty dishes. I do my best to stay focused, but sometimes I take something out of the oven too early because or screw up a measurement because I'm distracted, or make a bad choice because my head isn't in the game. But when things go wrong, I do a postmortem to see if my mistakes have created anything I can use down the line. Maybe I accidentally created a new texture I like, or stumbled upon a flavor combination I never thought to try. Maybe it's all garbage and I learn a valuable lesson about keeping my olive oil next to the maple syrup. Whatever it is, I always walk away having gained something from the experience.

This cake is the product of four separate and unrelated failures over the course of a year: a beesting cake that was too soft, babka that was way too sweet, monkey bread that didn't effortlessly pull apart, and a cake that collapsed halfway through baking when I dropped a cup of coffee on it. Though they were all disasters in their own abysmal way, they each had merit and value. And they've come together to create Cafe con Leche Ribbon Cake, an entirely unique dessert.

It begins with a buttery yeast dough that's gently sweet like a Hawaiian roll; after a single rise, it gets rolled into tiny balls and coated with a mixture of coffee and cocoa, just as you would when making chocolate truffles. The balls are then tossed into an angel food cake pan and drenched with a light milk caramel before baking, melding together as they rise, becoming a cohesive, well-marbled cake that is rich without being too rich, sweet without being too sweet. It's the sort of cake you can enjoy every day, which I have been, by myself, in a dark and silent "test kitchen" before anyone wakes up. This cake of accidental fortunes was the universe's gift to me, and now, it's my gift to you.

For the dough:

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 packet active dry or instant yeast
  • 4 cups (550g) all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup (110g) sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract

For the milk caramel:

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
  • 2 Tbsp. dry milk powder
  • 2 (12-oz.) cans evaporated milk
  • 1 cup sugar

For the coffee ribbon:

  • 1/4 cup instant espresso powder
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. Dutch-process cocoa powder

First, make the dough

Using the microwave or a small saucepan, melt the butter, then add the milk and continue heating until just warm. Stir in the yeast, then pour into the bowl of a stand mixer equipped with the paddle attachment. Add the flour, sugar, and salt, and beat on medium speed until fully mixed.


Crack the eggs into a cup with the vanilla extract. Add to the dough one at a time with the mixer running, then increase the speed to medium-high and beat for 5 minutes, scraping down the sides midway, until the dough becomes shaggy, sticky, and shiny.

Use a large silicone spatula to pull the dough away from the sides of the bowl, pick it up, and form it into a cohesive mass. Spritz the inside of the bowl with cooking spray, plop the dough back in, and cover with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel. Put the bowl into a cold oven with the light on and let it proof for one hour.

Immediately after making the dough, make the milk caramel

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat, then add the milk powder. Cook while stirring until the butter turns brown—about 5 minutes—then add the evaporated milk and sugar. Stir well, increase the heat to high, bring up to a bare simmer, and drop the head to medium-low. Do not take your eye off the pan while you do this! When the caramel nears its boiling point it will increase exponentially in size and possibly boil over, which will turn your stove into a gigantic mess.


Once your heat has been lowered and the mixture is gently simmering, you may then turn away. Cook until the milk caramel has reduced to about 2 1/2 cups—about 20 minutes. Pour into a bowl and put in the freezer to help cool. (You don't need to the caramel to get ice cold; you just want to to bring it down to below 100 degrees as quickly as possible.)

Prep your pan and your coffee ribbon

Generously grease a large bundt or angel food cake pan with oil or melted butter. If using an angel food cake pan, wrap the bottom with aluminum foil to prevent the caramel from leaking. Place on a sheet pan and set aside.


Mix the sugar, espresso powder, and cocoa powder in a shallow pie pan or on a rimmed plate until well combined.

Assemble the cake

Remove the milk caramel from the freezer. Either put a ladle into the bowl, or pour into a large liquid measuring cup. Set near the cake pan.

Remove the risen dough from the oven and punch down to remove the extra air. Rub your palms with a tiny bit of butter or oil, then begin pinching off small pieces of dough, rolling them into marble-sized pieces, coating them well in the espresso mixture, and tossing them into the baking pan.


Once you've finished doing this with half the dough, move the balls around to make sure they're relatively evenly distributed and the bottom of the pan is fully covered. Don't pack the balls in tightly or press them into the pan; the dough needs to rise again, so keep it loose and easy. Pour about one-third of the milk caramel evenly over the dough balls. Repeat the rolling and coating process with the remaining dough, add these balls to the pan along with any extra espresso mix, and cover. Leaving the cake pan on the sheet pan, put the cake back into the cold oven (with the light on, of course) to proof for another 30 minutes.

Time to bake!

Remove the raised cake from the oven and preheat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the oven is up to temp, pour half the remaining caramel evenly over the top of the cake, then slide the sheet pan with the cake into the oven. Bake the cake for 40-45 minutes, until a probe thermometer inserted into the center reaches 185 degrees Fahrenheit.


If you intend to serve the cake warm, allow it to cool for at least 30 minutes before unmolding it; otherwise, allow to cool completely in the pan. Sprinkle any remaining espresso mixture over the top, and serve with remaining milk caramel for drizzling.

Note: If you're not going to eat the entire cake in one day, cut it into slices, wrap each individually in plastic wrap, and store in the freezer. To reheat, unwrap the cake and microwave for 1 minute, adding more time in 15-second increments if desired.