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Pastel de Atún (Mexican Tuna Cake) Recipe

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. 

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

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!) 

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

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.  

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

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.

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