Why It Works
- Pickled jalapeños deliver a mouth-warming heat that’s tempered by the addition of sweet red bell pepper and dairy.
- Using water-packed, rather than oil-packed, tuna adds a subtle fish flavor that doesn’t overwhelm the other ingredients.
- Thin layers of soft white sandwich bread give the cake a light, delicate texture.
I first tasted pastel de atún, or tuna cake―a dish made of layers of white sandwich bread frosted with a creamy, tuna-based sauce―when a neighbor started selling little pink slices of it at a corner store near my home in Mazatlán, Sinaloa, on Mexico’s Pacific coast. Although pastel de atún may resemble a sugary, frosted layer cake, it's deeply savory through and through, both creamy and spicy, cold and sweet.
Pastel de atún is a traditional staple at children’s birthday parties since it’s an affordable option that looks like a cake and can be decorated accordingly. As a bonus, it doesn’t require an oven; in Sinaloa, which sits right on the Tropic of Cancer, baking in an indoor oven can make a home uncomfortably hot, so many kitchens don’t have one. The cake is usually served cold with a side of frijoles puercos (a Sinaloa specialty of refried beans with lard, chorizo, and a little chile). It’s also a popular make-ahead option to bring along on family outings to the beach or water park and eaten as “la comida,” or the main meal of the day. It’s “like ceviche but cheaper,” one Mazatleca friend told me.
Seafood has been a mainstay in coastal Sinaloa since before Spanish colonization. Many coastal residents still work in the seafood industry, on tuna and shrimp boats, on shrimp farms, or selling seafood in markets or to restaurants. Eating seafood on a daily basis is common, which means locals know their way around a fish. As a result, creative recipes that incorporate easily-available ingredients like canned tuna abound, especially in home cooking. There’s a wide range of tuna salads, tuna ceviches (made with either canned or fresh tuna), and even protein shakes with canned tuna, which are sold at many of Mazatlán’s popular smoothie shops. Then, of course, there’s pastel de atún.
Though no one I spoke with was quite sure of the origin of pastel de atún, they commented that it closely resembles the sandwichón, a dish with alternating layers of bread and chicken salad or slices of ham that’s made in other areas of Mexico. Some believe that, as the name suggests, the sandwichón is an adaptation of a standard deli sandwich, but with frosting and decoration to add a bit of flair for parties and other events. And, of course, the cake-like appearance is on-theme, especially for birthdays.
In fact, for a “deluxe” version of pastel de atún, some Mazatlecos add slices of ham between the bread and sauce, as is typical in sandwichónes. For this recipe, I kept it simple and left the ham out. Another common local variation is the substitution of all or some of the jalapeño in the sauce with chipotles in adobo. I did side-by-side taste tests of the recipe with jalapeño, chipotle, and a mix, and I personally prefer all jalapeño, which lets the other flavors shine. This version, with jalapeño but without ham or chipotle, is the way I’ve most frequently seen the dish served, and it’s my personal favorite. (I also owe a big thanks to my suegra Doña Esthela, my partner Lalo, and my volunteer taste-testers Hilda, John, Santa, Amialba and Hugo for taking the time to talk to me, try various recipes, and reminisce about pastel de atún!)
Since canned tuna comes packed both in water and oil, I wanted to test both kinds to see what difference, if any, there might be. (I used yellowfin tuna in my tests, but skipjack or chunk light can be used as well). I found that oil-packed tuna delivers a more intense fish flavor. While some of my taste-testers enjoyed that pronounced fishiness, others, myself included, favored the more subtle flavors of the water-packed version. For this recipe, I recommend water-packed tuna for a light flavor that won’t overpower the other ingredients.
I like to use media crema, a cream product with 20 to 25% fat and stabilizers, as the base of the sauce. It’s available in most grocery stores with a well-stocked Latin section, as well as online. A little cream cheese helps thicken the sauce. I also include a couple slices of American cheese, a very common pastel de atún ingredient that helps with thickening and rounds out the flavor.
For the cake layers, I prefer crust-less white sandwich bread, which has a soft, airy texture that keeps the cake light; avoid whole wheat bread, which will contribute a tougher, chewier texture. You can keep the crusts on hand as a quick snack to dip in any leftover sauce.
Most versions of this recipe call for the standard canned sizes of ingredients available in Mexican grocery stores, which makes measuring easy and cleaning up quick. It uses, for example, about one 200-gram (7-ounce) can of La Costeña–brand red pepper strips (sold as “pimiento morrón en tiras”). Similarly, the recipe calls for roughly a 200-gram can of pickled jalapeños and one 225-gram (7.6 ounce) can of media crema. While it may be appealing to use fresh ingredients rather than canned, and would likely make a delicious pastel, canned is what you need to achieve the most traditional flavor profile.
Assembly is easy and quite similar to frosting a cake: Simply alternate layers of sauce and bread, making sure the bread is thoroughly slathered in sauce, which will begin to soak into the bread but not all the way through. Decorate the top with strips of red bell pepper: You can spell out words like, “Happy Birthday!,” or go for a fun decorative pattern. Don’t stop there―you can add more pizzazz with extra jalapeño slices or even strips of cheese. After a quick stint in the fridge to firm up the cake, dish up slices with frijoles puercos alongside; it’s a great way to beat the heat.
- Two 5-ounce (280g) cans water-packed tuna, such as yellowfin, chunk light, or skipjack, drained well
- 2/3 cup (160ml) media crema (see note)
- 2/3 cup drained canned red bell pepper strips (5 1/4 ounces; 150g), plus extra for garnish (see note)
- 1/2 cup plain full-fat cream cheese (4 ounces; 120g)
- 2 slices (36g) American cheese, such as Kraft singles
- 1/3 cup (2 ounces; 60g) drained canned pickled sliced jalapeño peppers (see note)
- Kosher salt
- 20 slices (600g) white sandwich bread, such as Bimbo or Wonder Bread, crusts removed
In a blender, combine tuna, media crema, pepper strips, cream cheese, and American cheese and blend until smooth, scraping down sides halfway through with a flexible spatula, about 1 minute. Working in batches, blend in jalapeño peppers until desired heat level is reached and a completely smooth sauce has formed. Season with salt to taste. Transfer sauce to a medium bowl.
Using a small offset spatula, spread 1/2 cup sauce (115g) in an even layer that covers the bottom of a 8- by 8-inch square pan, then lay down four slices of bread on top of sauce, so that the edges are touching, forming a single solid layer. Repeat layering process with sauce and bread, making sure to spread the sauce evenly across bread and covering any exposed areas (the sauce should be absorbed by the bread without soaking it all the way through); you should have 5 layers. Cover top layer of bread evenly with remaining sauce, smoothing out any rough areas. Garnish top with pepper strips as desired. Refrigerate uncovered for at least 1 hour and up to 3 hours.
Slice cake into quarters or eighths and serve.
Blender, 8- by 8-inch square pan, small offset spatula.
If desired, you can assemble pastel on a 10- or 12-inch flat round or square plate. In Step 2, spread 1/3 cup sauce (70g) into a roughly 7-inch square in the center of the plate. Lay four slices of bread on top of sauce, forming a single solid layer. Repeat layering process with sauce and bread. Cover top layer of bread and all sides evenly with remaining sauce, and refrigerate.
The quantities of pickled jalapeño, red pepper strips, and media crema are about one 7-ounce can of La Costeña sliced jalapeño, one 7-ounce can of La Costeña pimiento morrón, and one 7.6-ounce can of Nestlé media crema (respectively). You may be able to find these products in the Latin section of your supermarket.
Media crema, a thickened cream with 20% to 25% fat, is a staple in Mexican grocery stores. The Nestlé version of media crema is sometimes labeled “table cream” and is acceptable to use in this recipe; you can find it in well-stocked supermarkets as well as online. However, other products labeled “table cream,” such as Cacique Crema Mexicana Table Cream, have a thinner consistency and a tangy, slightly fermented flavor; they will not work in pastel de atún.
Canned red pepper (pimiento morrón) is a bit harder to find than the other ingredients, but you can substitute with an equal weight of store-bought or homemade roasted red peppers, cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips.
For the pickled jalapeños, you can use an equal weight of thinner-sliced, nacho-style pickled jalapeños or whole pickled jalapeños that have been stemmed and cut into 1/2-inch-wide rounds.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Pastel de atún can be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week. While leftovers are excellent, it will become more dense over time.