Impossible Cake

I guess I’m really a kid at heart, because I can’t stifle a streak of unbridled glee every single time I watch the improbable reversal of cake and custard as this “impossible” cake makes its tour though the hot oven. Even more than the ascent of a soufflé or the ballooning of cream puffs, there’s remarkable culinary wizardry going on here. A cake pan gets coated with the Mexican caramel called cajeta, spread with chocolate cake batter, topped with liquidy custard and slid into the oven. Whereupon the cake batter starts puffing, as you’d expect from any self-respecting batter as it warms, making it lighter than the not-yet-set custard. Glob by glob, you can watch the batter break through the liquidy layer, reuniting into a solid cap of cake at about the same time the custard sets. See what I mean? A tasty little science lesson that turns out a creamy caramel custard “impossibly” fused to a dense, chocolatey chocolate cake—double appeal.

Working Ahead: The cake can be made 2 or 3 days ahead, cooled, tightly covered with plastic—still in the pan—and refrigerated. Unmold the cake a couple of hours before serving and leave it at room temperature.

Recipe from "Fiesta at Rick's" by Rick Bayless/W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.

Impossible Cake

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    1 cup homemade or store-bought cajeta (goat milk caramel), for cake pan 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
    5 ounces (1 stick plus 2 tablespoons) butter, slightly softened 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon cocoa powder (I like the more commonly available cocoa best here, not Dutch process)
    1 cup sugar 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk
    1 egg 1 12-ounce can evaporated milk, for flan
    2 tablespoons espresso powder dissolved in 1 1/2 tablespoons hot water, OR 3 tablespoons espresso 1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk, for flan
    3/4 cup all-purpose flour 4 eggs, for flan
    1 cup cake flour 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, preferably Mexican vanilla, for flan
    3/4 teaspoon baking powder


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    • 1

      Prepare the cake pan. Turn on the oven to 350 degrees and position the rack in the middle. Generously butter the bottom and sides of a 10-inch round cake pan (you need one that’s 3 inches deep), sprinkle with flour, tip the pan, tapping on the side of the counter several times, to evenly distribute the flour over the bottom and sides, then shake out the excess. Microwave the cajeta for 30 seconds to soften it, then pour over the bottom of the pan, tilting the pan to coat the bottom evenly. Place a kettle of water over medium-low heat. Set out a deep pan that’s larger than your cake pan (a roasting pan works well) that can serve as a water bath during baking.

    • 2

      Make the cake batter. With an electric mixer (use the flat beater, if yours has a choice), beat the butter and sugar at medium-high speed until light in color and texture. Scrape the bowl. Beat in the egg and espresso. Sift together the all-purpose and cake flour, baking powder, baking soda and cocoa. With the mixer on medium-low, beat in about of the flour mixture, followed by of the buttermilk. Repeat. Scrape the bowl, then raise the speed to medium-high and beat for 1 minute.

    • 3

      Make the flan mixture. In a blender, combine the two milks, the eggs and the vanilla. Blend until smooth.

    • 4

      Layer and bake. Scrape the cake batter into the prepared cake pan and spread level. Slowly, pour the flan mixture over the cake batter. (I find it easiest to pour the mixture into a small ladle, letting it run over onto the batter.) Don’t be alarmed if some of the cake batter begins to float up through the custard—it’ll come out fine in the end. Pull out the oven rack, set the cake into the large pan, then set both pans on the rack. Pour hot water around the cake to a depth of 1 inch. Carefully slide the pans into the oven, and bake about 50 to 55 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out dry. Remove from the water bath and cool to room temperature, about 1 hour. For easiest unmolding, I like to refrigerate the cake for several hours or overnight.

    • 5

      Serve. Carefully run a thin-bladed knife around the edge of the cake/flan to free the edges. Invert a rimmed serving platter over the cake pan, grasp the two tightly together, then turn them upside down. Gently jiggle the pan back and forth several times to ensure that the cake/flan has dropped. Remove the pan, scraping any remaining cajeta from the pan onto the cake.

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