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Tres Leches, Tres Ways—With One Tangy Secret

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Tres leches cake has long been on my list of top 10 favorite desserts of all time. I love its ease and simplicity—this is a cake you could pull out last minute for an unplanned shindig, and it can easily be made to serve a crowd. But even more than that, I love the way this beautiful cake tastes. It takes a seemingly simple cake and packs it full of richness, adding a creamy, custardy element with the soaking liquid. It’s a make-ahead dream because it won’t dry out. And perhaps best of all, I find they’re incredibly hard to screw up, which also makes them perfect for tweaking and altering to create new, exciting variations you can personalize as you wish.

Tres leches and infinite joy.
Tres leches and infinite joy. Photo by Julia Gartland

Ready to dive in? Here’s what you need to know.

Origins

Tres leches cake (or pastel de tres leches) has roots in Latin America, though it's unclear from which cuisine; various regions in Mexico and Nicaragua, for example, claim it as their own. Though the widespread popularity of the dessert could be traced back to the 1940s, when Nestlé began publishing tres leches cake recipes on the sides of their evaporated and condensed milk cans, soaked cakes—perhaps inspired by the likes of tiramisu and trifles—experienced some popularity in Mexico during the 19th century, according to Maria Dolores Torres Yzabal's book The Mexican Gourmet. (For more information on its history, see this Austin Chronicle article). As the silky, rich cake became increasingly adored across the United States, I fell for its charms.

The Cake

The cake at the base of a tres leches cake uses a classic creaming method; it starts by mixing butter and sugar together until it gets light and fluffy. Eggs are added one at a time and mixed to combine, plus a little vanilla for flavoring. Finally, the dry ingredients are added. This makes a pretty stiff cake batter—but don't fret, milk and other liquids will get added later, during soaking. Once the batter is mixed, it gets poured into a greased 9x13 inch pan and baked at 350°F oven until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. You needn’t even fear over-baking by a minute or two, because even if the cakes dries out a smidge, the soaking will help even it out in the end.

Once the cake comes out of the oven, let it cool completely inside the pan. Once the cake is totally cool, attack it with a wooden skewer to it, poking it all over to make wells for the soaking liquid to travel through the cake. You can use a toothpick, but I like that the skewer makes wider indentations. Be really generous with the amount of holes you poke—you can’t really overdo it, and the more holes there are, the quicker the soaking will happen.

There's no overdoing it here.
There's no overdoing it here. Photo by Julia Gartland

You Can Tweak Your Own Way ♬♬

You can throw in additional flavorings anywhere you might in a traditional cake—subbing in 1/3 cup of cocoa powder for 1/4 cup of the flour, for example. You can add citrus zest to the butter and sugar when creaming it, or swap in other extracts for boosted flavor. Spices can also be freely added, and can be a great way to compliment the other flavors you might add in the soaking liquid later.

N. 10 - Yemen (Ginger, Cinnamon & Allspice) & No. 14 - Sri Lanka (Chinese Five-Spice)

N. 10 - Yemen (Ginger, Cinnamon & Allspice) & No. 14 - Sr...

$30
Hand-Forged Skewers (Set of 6)

Hand-Forged Skewers (Set of 6)

$36

The Soaking

Traditionally, tres leches cake is made with—you guessed it—three milks. These are most often sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and whole milk. This combination makes a nice, not-too-liquid, nicely sweetened combination that soaks through the cake, making it moist, rich, and oh-so-delicious. In my quest to create my own ultimate tres leches, I discovered a few things about the soaking liquid. For one, I found it almost too rich, but loved the texture the soaking created in the cake. My solution? Sub buttermilk for the whole milk. Buttermilk is thicker but lower in fat, and I love the subtle tang it adds to the mix. I also tried adding multiple milks—upwards of cinco leches, in fact—but I found no combination that beat the inclusion of buttermilk. For the cake recipe included in this article, I found that the perfect ratio of soaking liquid is 1 cup buttermilk : 1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk : 1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk.

Don't worry, even if the cake floats.
Don't worry, even if the cake floats. Photo by Julia Gartland
The cake's taking a milk bath.
The cake's taking a milk bath. Photo by Julia Gartland

But the even more exciting variation came about when I decided to try adding fruit into the mix. I’d often seen tres leches cakes served with fruit on top, but I wondered why that flavor and sweetness couldn’t be added to the soaking step to create an infused tres leches cake. First, I tried it with passionfruit, adding store-bought passionfruit juice directly to the cooled cake prior to soaking. The result was better than I could have hoped for. Now, the cake was bursting with fresh, fruity flavor, taking the custardy interior of the cake to a whole new level.

I loved it so much, I tried a third variation in which I DIY-ed a sweetened strawberry-rhubarb puree and used that to soak the cake as well. While this flavor was slightly more subtle, it still packed a tasty, fruity punch and a delicate pale pink color. For the cake recipes included in this article, I found that you can add up to 1 cup of fruit juice/syrup to the cake, reducing the buttermilk amount to compensate. (I didn’t alter the other two, because who wants to use partial amounts of canned milks?!)

Passionfruit Tres Leches Cake

Passionfruit Tres Leches Cake by Erin McDowell

Strawberry-Rhubarb Tres Leches Cake

Strawberry-Rhubarb Tres Leches Cake by Erin McDowell

Tweak Your Own Way ♬♬

What goes into your soaking syrup is totally up to you, and you can add a whole new set of flavors to your cake. You can go the traditional route and sub milk for the buttermilk recommended in my recipe. You can also get really crazy and use heavy cream for your non-canned dairy (hehe). Or, you can try infusing some of the liquid with other flavors, such as whole spices, fresh herbs, or tea (chai tres leches, anyone?). When it comes to fruit additions, just remember that thick mixtures will have difficulty soaking into the cake and may take longer. It’s ok to still start with a thicker fruit mixture (like the strawberry-rhubarb puree I mentioned earlier), but remember to mix it in with the other ingredients to help it become more fluid and soak more evenly. The easiest ingredient to add is fruit juice—but use the high-quality kind, with no or little sugar added, to control the flavor of your final cake.

Top shortly before serving.
Top shortly before serving. Photo by Julia Gartland

The Topping

I’ll confess, I rarely stray too far away from the original here, with plenty of lightly sweetened and softly whipped cream. But of course, there are no hard and fast rules. You could try adding a jam layer first to echo the fruit flavors you soaked into your cake. You could use a combination of mascarpone, sour cream, or even crème fraiche for a tangier take on classic whipped cream. You could skip the cream altogether and pile it high with fresh fruits galore. Whatever you do, remember it’s ideal to apply finishing touches not long before serving, as some items may break down (whipped cream) or leech their color into the cake (fresh fruit).

Tangy Tres Leches Cake

Tangy Tres Leches Cake

Erin McDowell Erin McDowell
Go To Recipe
Makes one 9 x 13 inch cake

Cake:

  • 12 tablespoons (170 g) unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups (297 g) granulated sugar
  • 7 large (397 g) eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons (7 g) vanilla extract
  • 2 1/4 cups (271 g) all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons (6 g) baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon (3 g) fine sea salt

Soaking:

  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • one (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
  • one (12 ounce) can evaporated milk
  • lightly sweetened whipped cream, as needed for finihsing
  • ground cinnamon, as needed for finishing
Go to Recipe
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Passionfruit Tres Leches Cake

Passionfruit Tres Leches Cake

Erin McDowell Erin McDowell
Go To Recipe
Makes one 9x13 cake

Cake

  • 12 tablespoons (170 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups (297 g) granulated sugar
  • 7 large (397 g) eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons (7 g) vanilla extract
  • 2 1/4 cups (271 g) all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons (6 g) baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon (3 g) fine sea salt

Soaking:

  • 3/4 cup (185 g) passionfruit juice (I used Goya brand)
  • 1/2 cup (112 g) whole milk
  • one (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
  • one (12 ounce) can evaporated milk
  • lightly sweetened whipped cream, as needed for finishing
  • passionfruit pulp, as needed for finishing
Go to Recipe
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Strawberry-Rhubarb Tres Leches Cake

Strawberry-Rhubarb Tres Leches Cake

Erin McDowell Erin McDowell
Go To Recipe
Makes one 9x13 inch cake

Cake:

  • 12 tablespoons (170 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups (297 g) granulated sugar
  • 7 large (397 g) eggs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons (7 g) vanilla extract
  • 2 1/4 cups (271 g) all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons (6 g) baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon (3 g) fine sea salt

Soaking:

  • 2 cups (340 g) sliced strawberries
  • 2 cups (340 g) sliced rhubarb
  • 1/3 cup (66 g) granulated sugar
  • 1/2 vanilla bean, scraped
  • 1/2 cup (112 g) whole milk
  • one (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
  • one (12 ounce) can evaporated milk
  • lightly sweetened whipped cream, as needed for finishing
  • strawberries, as needed for finishing
Go to Recipe
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What’s your favorite recipe for Tres Leches Cake? What tweaks are you dreaming up for your next cake?

Automagic Spring Menu Maker!
Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: South American, Cake, Easter, Make Ahead