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Christmas in the hot, swampy state of Tabasco in southeastern Mexico was, traditionally, a week-long event. It began with the posadas, a series of seven communal dinners held in seven different households in the nights leading up to Christmas Eve to commemorate the Virgin’s wanderings from Nazareth to Bethlehem. These dinners were big but simple affairs: Each community selected seven families who would prepare tamales and fruit salads—enough sometimes for hundreds of visitors—supplemented by gifts of food and fruit brought by the neighbors passing through, who, in this small, isolated state, constituted an extended family in their own right. Christmas dinner itself, though, was just for family— and in many houses, it finished with an Isla Flotante, or Floating Island.
Not to be confused with the French dessert of the same name, which consists of meringues floating in a pool of crème anglaise, Tabasco’s Isla Flotante is both elegant and deceptively simple. Milk is boiled with sugar and either vanilla or cinnamon, poured into a deep, broad vessel, and topped with a batter of whipped egg whites and sugar with yolks and flour folded in. The floating batter inflates in the oven then falls slowly when it’s removed, like a deliberately failed soufflé. Served cool or at room temperature, the cake luxuriates in the horchata-like milk, an ethereally light cousin to tres leches.
Known, depending on who you ask, as Torta Flotante (floating cake), Torta en Leche (cake in milk), Torta de Cielo (cake of heaven), or, often these days, not at all, Isla Flotante is purely Tabasqueño, a regional specialty rapidly fading from the collective memory of a place recently wrenched from centuries of rural reverie by profound economic and demographic changes.
Tabasco is both central and peripheral to Mexican history and culture. It is where chocolate was first cultivated, where Mexico’s oldest pre-Columbian civilization, the Olmecs, first emerged more than 3000 years ago, and where, two-and-a-half millennia later, the Spanish recruited the indigenous translator who helped them to conquer the Aztecs. Otherwise, the Spanish were all too eager to escape the heat and mosquitos, passing through Tabasco on their way to the (much, much cooler) centers of power in the Aztec highlands. By the end of the 16th century, there were only 7,500 indigenous people left in the area, and a mere 100 colonists: a paradigmatic backwater.
Well into the 20th century, Tabasco’s economy was based on cacao, sugarcane, and beef. A little over half a century ago, the state-run oil company discovered oil fields off the northern coast in the Gulf of Mexico and, in a matter of decades, a hot, flat hinterland, threaded with meandering rivers and studded with oyster-encrusted lagoons, became a state-sized company town, home to a floating population of workers and executives from across the country. The food adapted accordingly with Oaxaca-style moles finding their to the markets, while local dishes like guiso verde (a stew made from a variety of local herbs) faded into obscurity. There’s still plenty of local color in the markets—you’ll find panuchos (tortillas, deep fried and stuffed) made with smoked pejelagarto, a prehistoric Gulf fish eaten here and nowhere else, and stall after stall selling chorote, a drink made of ground nixtamalized corn and toasted chocolate beans—but many restaurants serve food from elsewhere for a population that, more and more, comes from elsewhere, too.
Ricardo Zurita Muñoz, whose trio of Mexico City restaurants (all called Azul) and prolific research on regional cuisines have made him one of the foremost authorities on Mexican cooking, hails originally from the town of Mapuscana, about an hour south of Villahermosa. When he was young, he told me, “the state was really all Tabasqueños. Now people come from all over, and I’ve never seen this dessert anywhere else in the country.” Isla Flotante—always a special dish for a special season—has become a kind of gastronomic shibboleth for the oldest Tabasqueño families, those with deep roots in their state’s shallow soil.
Mimy Aguilera Contreras—a sardonic 86-year-old whose sharp tongue is only obscured by the handkerchief she holds over her toothless mouth—is the matriarch (and best cook) of one such family. Most of what she knows she learned from her mother’s side, which hailed from Chiapas, Tabasco’s neighboring state to the south. But Torta en Leche—a favorite dish among the brood of children she helped to raise, despite having none of her own—came from the Tabasqueño side.
Unlike most people I met in Tabasco, Mimy told me that she used to make Torta en Leche regularly, despite the fact that she didn’t particularly like it herself. “I learned to make all sorts of things I didn’t like,” she told me one balmy, gray afternoon in the Spartan living room of her home in Villahermosa, Tabasco’s capital city. “I had to make Torta en Leche any old day because my father liked anything sweet.” Over the years, Mimy made a point of passing her recipes down to all the kids who grew up calling her grandmother. “Everything we know comes from family,” she said, “passed from one person or one generation to the next.”
I learned to make Torta en Leche from one of those grandchildren, Ernesto Aguilera, whose Villahermosa restaurant, Tierra Criollo, uses Tabasqueño ingredients for a mix of Mexican and continental dishes. The day we met, Aguilera took me around Villahermosa’s largest market, where we ate tortas slick with cochinita, sugar-soaked deep-fried patties of glutinous yucca, and some of the best churros I’ve ever eaten, crisp and sweet and barely cooked, their insides still creamy with sweet batter. Aguilera showed me the pastry counters selling a variety of breads, both sweet and savory, which, he said, have their antecedents in convent cooking. “Pastry tradition in Mexico comes from monasteries, but we only had one in Tabasco,” he said. “We were that isolated.”
Aguilera described the Torta en Leche as “absolutely a convent dish—it’s made from ingredients that the monks always had on hand: eggs, flour, milk.” Others told me vague stories of grandmothers and old aunties sent off to work in the homes of affluent families whose daughters had gone off to study in France and returned with similar recipes. Still others told me the cake would only have been eaten by the wealthy, not because of some obscure connection to Europe, but because the kinds of ovens necessary to bake an Isla Flotante were uncommon in lower-income households.
Muñoz says most of this is either conjecture or legend. “There are people who believe that anything beautiful must have come from Europe,” he says. Like all pastry in Mexico, the dish certainly has its earliest antecedents in the continental kitchen (and might, for that matter, have come through convents as Aguilera says). In Mexico fresh fruit is available year round, which explains the relative lack of things like preserves; “why,” he asked, “eat mango compote when you can eat fresh mangoes?” In steamy Tabasco, heating up an oven is a similarly unappealing proposition through most of the year, with the slightly cooler month of December among the only times that baking makes sense.
Whatever its origins, Muñoz says, in its current iteration, Isla Flotante is distinctly Tabasqueño. He compared the dish to apple pie: made from the same ingredients as a tart tatine, but thoroughly American nevertheless. “I could believe that the families that came to Tabasco 200 years ago brought something like this dish,” he told me, “but it was perfected in Tabasco.”
Isla Flotante, Muñoz pointed out to me one evening over his own rendition of the dish—served in a deep metal pail with a layer of cake wobbling golden and soft over a deep pool of milk—encapsulates so much of what’s essential to the region’s flavors: the milk of Tabasco’s dairy farms, the vanilla that grows in the tropical underbrush, cinnamon introduced from Sri Lanka centuries ago, one end of the culinary cross-pollination that gave Asia ingredients like chili and tomato.
The cake itself, Muñoz suspects, might once have been prepared using a type of flour called piñol, made from ground, roasted corn, since wheat flour was indeed a colonial introduction. But really, he says, there’s little documentation of the dish’s origins. “The dish has been in my family for maybe 200 years, and no one was ever sent to Europe,” he told me with a dismissive laugh when I mentioned the stories I’d heard in Tabasco. “People don’t give sufficient credit to the ingenuity of Mexican women.”
Ingenuity and, of course, incredibly hard work. As a girl, Mimy Contreras (most people still call her Señorita Mimy, despite her age) would go to her family’s ranch in Chiapas, a four-hour ride on horseback from the nearest village. As soon as she arrived, her cousins would send her to the kitchen to cook. “I’d say, ‘I’d rather go home,’ and they’d say I couldn’t have a horse, so I’d tell them, ‘Fine, I’ll walk.’” Of course, she would always stay and cook anyway. Mimy stopped cooking some years ago, which is when Ernesto learned her recipe for his favorite dessert. When I asked if she missed it, she scoffed.
While Mimy and I spoke, Ernesto went into the kitchen and brought out the pink-and-white saucer off of which he’d eaten his first piece of Torta en Leche as a small boy, along with the cakes we’d made in the industrial oven at his restaurant that morning. “She would always tell us ‘This isn’t a restaurant,’ but then she’d cook like it was,” Ernesto said as he cut a slice for his grandmother. “She taught me everything I know.” Mimy scowled happily and shook her head. “I don’t believe that,” she said.
I asked Mimy why people don’t make this dish anymore. “They don’t make it because they’re lazy,” she said with a shrug. Ernesto shook his head as he carried a slice over to his grandmother and fed her a bite. She gave a slight nod of approval and told him it was good. He smiled.
Whatever we might not know about Tabasco’s Isla Flotante, we do know one thing: as Ernesto had told me that morning, “it should taste like your grandmother’s hands.”