Pastel De Atún: The Mexican Tuna Cake You Should Know About

When you hear the word "cake," you don't necessarily think of a savory or spicy dish, but that's exactly what makes pastel de atún unique. Yes, there's a coating of "frosting," but biting into a slice of this Mexican tuna cake is not going to deliver the dessert-like experience you might've hoped for. The irony, according to Serious Eats, is that the dish is often found at children's birthday parties. Is this some twisted prank? No, but the cake is easy to prepare, can be decorated according to individual preferences, and doesn't require heat to bake it, so it might be a win for parents around the world.

Rose Egelhoff at Serious Eats describes pastel de atún as "deeply savory" with a "light-weight, delicate texture," and recommends cooks use water-packed tuna rather than oil-packed so as to not overwhelm the other ingredients. But where did such a creation come from and why is this fish-filled surprise so commonly found at parties and picnics in Mexico? 

An uncertain history

Serious Eats acknowledges that the origin of this dish is uncertain, but pastel de atún takes after another Mexican creation called a sandwichón that also layers bread and ingredients into a cake-like shape and is served at festive occasions. Flavor Teller notes that pastel de atún is nearly impossible to buy from food carts, and restaurants typically don't serve it. Additionally, recipes served up at picnics and parties are rarely standard; dishes might include variations that feature slabs of ham, sauces made from chipotle paste, or spicy slices of jalapeños. 

The best part of this dish, notes Costa del Sol Málaga, is that the savory cake can be made days in advance. If guests can't quite finish the presentation in one go, slices can be served at the next day's festivities or stored in the fridge for a cool afternoon snack. With such versatility, pastel de atún might be voted in as one of the best ways to use canned tuna.

How pastel de atún is made

If you're wondering how to assemble this savory Mexican cake creation on your own, we got you. Flavor Teller says that any Mazatleco can make pastel de atún with their eyes closed and offers a generous recipe to be copied and/or modified as you see fit. You'll need sliced white bread, sour cream, cream cheese, a can each of red bell peppers and chipotle pepper, two cans of tuna, and a bit of mayo. Think of the assembly like putting together a classic lasagna bolognese recipe; first you'll blend the sour cream, cream cheese, bell pepper, chipotle pepper, tuna, and mayonnaise. You'll layer this mixture in between the bread slices and repeat. 

Once your desired shape is formed — or your dish is full — you can decorate the top of your cake with ingredients of your choosing. La Mansion de las Ideas advises that the bread shouldn't be folded or creased before setting it into your dish, so you have an easier time slicing the presentation to serve — especially if you're aiming to cut perfectly layered squares. Flavor Teller serves the cake with refried beans, but really, it's up to you to go wild.