Ashley Boyd's current obsession? Tres leches cake made with quintessentially Southern ingredients like pawpaw, maypop and buttermilk. Here, she shares her creative process

Thirty minutes outside of Charlotte, North Carolina is an off-the-beaten-path Waxhaw restaurant called Heritage. Many locals (and chefs around the country) tout pastry chef Ashley Boyd’s creations as the best they’d ever had. With Heritage set to reopen in Charlotte proper and Boyd continuing to wow guests at 300 East, the chef is making moves, one dessert at a time.

At a recent dinner at Charlotte's Heirloom put on by Order/Fire, a web series from photographer Peter Taylor and chef Marc Jacksina, Boyd ended the meal with something simple and perfect: Mexico’s traditional tres leches cake—a dessert Boyd is obsessed with for autumn, and something my mother-in-law, originally from Mexico City, spoils me with on special occasion. “It’s very adaptable to all these short, seasonal, fall fruits that are coming in,” Boyd says. “Tres leches cake is a fantastic dessert, without any adornment, and it’s also kind of ubiquitous. I’ve never been particularly inspired to mess with it until recently, when shopping the markets and reading the lists of produce that farmers were sending me and watching the incredible variety and bounty of the late-summer, early-fall harvest fly by.” Boyd wanted to highlight these ingredients during their tiny window of availability.

Up first: melons, which present super delicate flavors and a high-water content. “To give a melon dessert substance without overwhelming the flavors and texture of the fruit, a spin on tres leches seemed like a good foil," she says. “The soft, moist cake and mild milky flavor would not compete with the delicate character of the fruit. It needed acidity though, to balance the sweetness of the melon, or it would fall flat,” and just like that, Boyd’s buttermilk tres leches came to life. “I made a ‘condensed’ buttermilk which is actually an old-fashioned buttermilk icing—the kind you pour over a warm cake.”

Tres Leches Cake
Credit: Courtesy of Ashley Boyd

Boyd’s delights in exploring the artistic possibilities that come with being a pastry chef. Each of her structures is a modern piece of edible art. At her dinner at Heirloom, native passionfruit, pawpaw and maypop were the stars of her tres leches variation. “I wanted to develop a dessert that would combine these ‘tropical’-tasting local fruits,” she says. "I had a pawpaw sorbet that Heritage’s sous chef Alex had made, which was magical, and thought the round, sweet flavor needed to be paired with something acidic that would help bring it into balance and make it pop.”

Turns out, her buttermilk tres leches was the perfect match. “For the dinner I used the pawpaw in a gelée layer on top of the cake (with more pawpaw as a sorbet), a marmalade with maypop pulp and seeds and touches of buttermilk in a whipped crémeux and a buttermilk crumb. Everything played really well together.”

For a recent Johnson and Wales event, Boyd created her third tres leches masterpiece: a white spice tres leches with hibiscus, lemongrass and red zinger sorbet that can now be found at 300 East. “I thought of my quintessentially Southern paternal grandmother and the things she loved and had on the table and one was hibiscus tea—not something people would associate with southern cooking, but that memory, and the fact that local hibiscus and lemongrass were seasonal and available, intrigued me,” Boyd says. “I made my own version of the tea with hibiscus, lemongrass, cinnamon, mint, rose hips and orange peel for a sorbet and a sauce. Tres leches ended up being the perfect vehicle to showcase the tart hibiscus.”

When making tres leches at home, Boyd recommends visiting a local farmers market to peruse and see what’s growing. “If you see a fruit you’ve never tried and have a little time and access to the internet, find out how to best bring out its flavor,” she says. “Simmering in a sugar syrup? Making a jam? Or is it best sliced up and used fresh? I cannot think of any fruit that would not pair well with this versatile dessert.”