There’s a debate regarding the origin of the creamy, whipped cream-topped cake known as tres leches. Some say it’s originally from Mexico, while others swear it’s a Central American creation.
I can’t confirm or deny either birthplace, but after one bite of this moist confection, you’ll understand why everyone wants to lay claim to it.
Video: How to Make Tres Leches Cake
Tres Leches Cake
What Is Tres Leches Cake?
Regardless of its exact origin, tres leches cake (literally "three milks" cake) is definitely a Hispanic dessert that has been enjoyed for years by folks in most, if not all, Spanish-speaking countries.
Tres leches is comprised of a milk-soaked sponge cake that’s topped with whipped cream. Some (like me) prefer a dusting of ground cinnamon on top of their frosted cake; others prefer to garnish theirs with fresh fruit.
What Kinds of Milk Go Into Tres Leches Cake?
Another debate arises as it pertains to the “leches,” or milks, used in tres leches. My version uses the following:
- Whole milk
- Condensed milk
- Evaporated milk
Because I top my tres leches with rich whipped cream, I prefer to cut down on the decadence by using whole milk in the milk bath. Some would argue that would make mine a cuatro leches cake. But really, who cares? It’s amazing no matter what the milk count is.
How to Avoid Soggy Tres Leches Cake
Sponge cake is the cake for the job because it will absorb the large quantity of milk poured over it without breaking down into a soggy mess.
Tres leches should not be soggy; it should not disintegrate. Tres leches has a light flavor and a texture reminiscent of a vanilla custard or pudding. It should puddle milk when you pierce it with your fork.
The optional dusting of cinnamon is subtly spicy, contrasting the delicate creaminess of the cake.
How Do You Make Sponge Cake?
The preparation of the sponge cake is broken down into three easy steps:
- Whip the yolks: First, whip the egg yolks and the warmed sugar together until they are a very pale yellow color and have doubled in volume.
- Whip the whites: In a separate, very clean bowl, whip the room temperature egg whites (and more sugar) until you get glossy peaks stiff enough to stand on their own.
- Mix with flour: Add sifted cake flour to the egg yolks alternately with the whipped egg whites. Work quickly to retain that volume, which is essential for the cake to rise like it should.
This sponge method leavens a cake without the need for chemical leaveners, like baking soda or baking powder. It also creates a cake with an exceptionally spongy interior, which is great for absorbing that sweet milk.
Tips to Make the Best Tres Leches Cake Ever
- Warm your sugar: Place 1/2 cup of the granulated sugar into an oven-safe container and let the sugar warm in the oven as it’s heating up. Warm sugar helps give the egg yolks more volume when you whip them.
- Use a clean bowl and beaters: Because any trace of fat can potentially inhibit the egg whites from reaching their maximum volume, a clean bowl and beaters are a must when whipping egg whites.
- Make sure the cake is level: To make sure the cake absorbs the milk evenly, make sure the batter is level in the pan prior to baking. Use an offset spatula to spread the cake batter evenly. Give the pan a few taps on the countertop just before baking to release any air bubbles that may have become trapped during mixing. An even cake means the milk bath will flow consistently over the surface of the cake and every inch of tres leches will ooze milk.
Make-Ahead Tres Leches Cake
Tres leches can, and actually should, be made a few hours (up to a day) in advance. The longer the cake has a chance to absorb the milk mixture, the richer it will taste. Likewise, frosting the cake with whipped cream several hours in advance gives the cake a chance to absorb some of its flavor. I’ve kept mine for three days and it was still in great shape; the whipped cream, though, does deflate a little bit.
How to Store Leftovers
Leftovers will last three days in the refrigerator, but freezing the cake is not recommended as it tends to become rubbery after thawing. The whipped cream won’t thaw well, either, so enjoy this cake within a couple of days with no reservations!
More Delicious Cake Recipes!
- Sour Cream Chocolate Cake
- Coconut Cake with Lemon Curd and Vanilla Buttercream
- Carrot Cake
- Strawberry Cream Cake
- Triple Layer White Cake with Orange Curd Filling
Tres Leches Cake
- For the sponge cake:
- 1 tablespoon melted unsalted butter, for brushing the cake pan
- 3/4 cup + 1 tablespoon (178g) granulated sugar
- 6 large eggs, whites and yolks separated
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 1/2 cups (173g) cake flour, sifted
- For the milk mixture:
- 1 1/2 cups whole milk
- 1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
- 1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
- 1 tablespoon brandy (optional)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- For the whipped cream topping:
- 3 cups heavy cream
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup powdered sugar
- Ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven and prep your pans:
Preheat your oven to 400°F. Brush the inside of a 9x13x3-inch cake pan with a thin layer of the melted butter.
Place 1/2 cup of the granulated sugar into an oven-safe container and let the sugar warm in the oven as it’s heating up. Warm sugar helps give the egg yolks more volume when you whip them.
Whip the yolks:
Using a hand or stand mixer, whip the egg yolks, the warmed sugar, and the vanilla extract together on medium-high speed until the egg yolks have doubled in volume and are a very pale yellow color. This should take about 5 minutes. Set the bowl aside.
Whip the egg whites:
In a separate, very clean bowl with clean beaters, whip together the egg whites and the salt on medium-high speed until the whites are foamy.
Once the whites look foamy, gradually add the remaining 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon of sugar to the egg whites. Continue whipping until the whites are stiff and glossy, about 4 1/2 minutes. The whites should stand up with a peak that folds over just slightly when the beaters are pulled from their surface.
Make the batter:
Working quickly to prevent the eggs from deflating, sift half of the cake flour into the bowl with the yolks. Use a wide rubber spatula to gently fold the flour into the yolks. Once the flour has been incorporated, fold in half of the egg whites gently so as not to deflate the eggs. Repeat again with the remaining flour and whites.
Fill the pans:
Fill the prepared cake pan with the cake batter and use an offset spatula to spread the batter evenly into the pan. Gently tap the pan against the countertop a couple of times to release any air bubbles that may be trapped in the batter.
Bake the cake for 15 minutes:
or until the top is golden brown and springs back quickly when pressed with your fingertip. Allow the cake to cool completely in the pan, or turn it out onto a deep, rimmed serving platter.
Make the milk mixture:
In a large pitcher or bowl, combine the three milks, the brandy (if using), and the vanilla extract. Whisk together until combined.
Soak the cake:
Once the cake has cooled, use a toothpick or the tines of a fork to poke small holes all over the cake. Pour the milk mixture over the cake, covering it entirely. Don’t worry if it seems to be a lot; the cake will soak up virtually all of the milk as it sits.
Cover the cake with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 3 hours or up to 24 hours.
Whip the cream:
In a large mixing bowl, whip the heavy cream with an electric hand mixer on medium-high speed. Once the beaters begin to leave ribbons in the cream, stop the mixer and then add the vanilla extract and the powdered sugar.
Increase the speed to high, and whip until the cream is thick and holds its shape when the beaters are removed (this should take anywhere from 5 to 7 minutes).
Finish the cake:
Spread the whipped cream in an even layer over the top of the cake using an offset spatula. Sprinkle with a liberal dusting of ground cinnamon.
Serve the cake:
Refrigerate the cake up to three hours until ready to serve. Cut into 12 squares. Enjoy up to 3 days after preparation—keep it refrigerated.