Food History

The Long, Winding Origin Story of Tres Leches Cake

While many Latin American countries claim the three milk–soaked sponge as their own, one writer traces its history to seek out the truth.

January 17, 2020
Photo by Julia Gartland

Growing up Nicaraguan in Miami, tres leches cake made an appearance in our home very often, regardless of whether or not there was a reason to celebrate. A rich and soupy sponge cake soaked in three milks (evaporated, condensed, and whole), tres leches is often topped with whipped meringue or marshmallow fluff and a maraschino cherry, then served in individual squares. The sponge cake does not fully absorb the milk syrup, which makes it taste extra heavenly.

It also tastes like home.

In Miami, where Latin American communities abound, tres leches can be found in both Nicaraguan and non-Nicaraguan establishments alike, from bakeries to food stores and restaurants. The dessert has become so popular that locals have even reimagined the flavor in new forms, like Fatgirl Hedonist’s pumpkin pie tres leches and Salty Donut’s white chocolate tres leches doughnut.

While many credit Nicaraguans for the dessert, others claim it as their own: Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Puerto Rico (the list goes on). The origin stories and recipes vary by country; dig a little deeper and the history is even more elusive. To get to bottom of this, I consulted with a dozen Nicaraguans of varying backgrounds who migrated to the United States in the 1980s.

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The results were mixed.

What People Say

Many told me that did not eat the dessert until they arrived to Miami and credit a local Nicaraguan restaurant chain, Los Ranchos, for the introduction. Others vividly remember the dessert as far back as the 1940s, which coincides with the time that canned milk products became more widely available in Central America. This goes hand in hand with the idea that Nestlé, Borden, and similar companies invented the recipe and printed it on their can labels as a way to promote their products.

Searching through old cookbooks from Mexico and Nicaragua, there’s no evidence of the recipe prior to the 1970s. The closest examples are torta de leche or pastel de leche (“milk cake,” similar to hot milk cake), sopa borracha (“drunken soup,” or rum cake), almibar (syrup), and the French baba au rhum.

Finally, a small group spoke of the society events where the dessert existed exclusively. Known in the capital city of Managua, tres leches was only served in private clubs and wealthy households, where it was referred to as delicias suecas (“Swedish delights”). But there’s no relation to Sweden or its delights. Other sources on the topic even point to Sinaloa, Oaxaca, and Albania, where there’s a version of the dessert known as trilece.

The most likely theory is that tres leches—at least its inspiration—originated in England around the Middle Ages. Considering its form, tres leches can be categorized as a trifle cake, which originated in England around the Middle Ages. Soaking a cake was and is still an easy way to repurpose old or stale cake. Nothing is wasted, everything is used. This makes sense as Nicaragua was colonized by both Spain (1522-1821) on the west coast and England (1633-1860) on the east coast.

What the Books Say

In La Comida Nicaraguense, Jamie Wheelock Roman writes, “From crisis comes new cuisines. The colonial period gave rise to a vast process of experimentation and mixtures of food that had never before come together. During that period of great change, many products of both kitchens disappeared or fell into disuse, but on the other hand, ingredients were added to each other’s native cuisines setting the path to a varied diet and new recipes.”

Products such as sugarcane and cattle and new cooking techniques such as the preservation of milk were introduced and immediately adopted. Sugar became one of the most important crops manufactured in Nicaragua. One of the first accounts of U.S. exploration of Nicaragua in 1897 details many cane plantations throughout the country.

The biggest success, however, was the introduction of livestock for its adaptability to the tropics and its multiple uses. To this day, Nicaragua is a cattle-forward country. In 1936, a trade agreement reduced Nicaraguan duties on milk and other products raised in Wisconsin. The imported products included condensed milk or cream, evaporated milk or cream, dried whole milk or cream, and dried skim milk or cream. Additionally, in 1955, Nicaragua received 277 individual cattle (the biggest shipment ever for its time) for the development and improvement of the beef and milk industries.

Canned milk was produced as early as the 1850s and increased in popularity during the World Wars. Companies like Nestlé and Borden had such a difficult time keeping up with the demand that they opened operations in various locations throughout Latin America, including Nicaragua. Due in large part to the Great Depression in the 1930s, sales in the country skyrocketed. Canned milks were affordable and added luxury to cooking in times of need. And somewhere around this time, someone got creative (possibly inspired by other Nicaraguan desserts such as Pio V and sopa borracha) and combined evaporated, condensed, and whole milks and soaked a sponge cake with the megamilk.

Between 1979 and 1990, the violence of the Nicaraguan Revolution, coupled with an earthquake, forever changed both Nicaragua and Miami. Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans fled the country to Miami, a growing metropolis where Latin Americans thrived, forged in large part by the Cuban community. Much of the population settled in the suburb communities of Sweetwater and Kendall.

Today, Sweetwater is known as Little Managua, which is also where the famous Los Ranchos opened in a small stripmall in 1981. Since then, they’ve expanded to three additional locations. Tres leches cake was added to the menu and thus reintroduced to the Nicaraguan community as well as formally introduced to Miamians.

In exile, there’s nothing better than the food that reminds you of home. Since then, Miami’s Latin American community has grown even more diverse, bringing with it new desserts, many that also include evaporated and condensed milks.

Nevertheless, there’s still something singularly magical about tres leches.

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Mandy Baca

Written by: Mandy Baca


EmmnEmm March 4, 2022
Really ??? Lmao “Tres Leches” came from England … the delusion… and you took time to write this bs…
Smaug March 4, 2022
The article is quite specific about how England may have been the "inspiration" for this cake; it is not suggested that the actual recipe originated there. Plentiful lack of condensed or evaporated milk in the Middle Ages, for one thing. Although the idea of soaking stale cake (or bread for that matter) in liquid is so obvious that it scarce qualifies as an idea.
Beloved H. June 16, 2021
This is false! Tres Leche did not originate from England.

We are talking about a latin dish (hence Tres Leche) that originated in Central and/or South America... that was later adopted by the Caribbean’s... which then became-very popular because Dominican’s & Mexican’s brought their version of the cake to other countries and people who tasted when visiting DR & Mexico tried to replicate.

This recipe came about in Nicaragua or Costa Rica no one knows exactly... however it did and spread in south america and central america decades ago by someone using the nestle carnation & condensed milk. They received these can foods as a gift from a missionary ministry or a church. Which later on was spread by missionary ministries themselves.

Yes Europe has some desserts similar such as Italy has the tiramisu however.... the tres leche with carnation & condensed milk did not originate from the UK or/and Europe.

I am 45 years old mixed with European & Latin... I was about five years old when I tasted the tres leche cake in South America and I was 22 years old when I tasted it in Doninican Republic, also my Brazilian family as well has their version from decades ago that came from south america... same exact recipe and story. I could never find this cake in Europe or in the United state. However, now it is popular and everyone wants to claim it as theirs. Give credit where credit is owed!!!

The best version of this cake is the one made with the Dominican Cake and Frosting. If you visit Dominican Republic you should definitely try it.
Beloved H. June 16, 2021
I Addition, when this story spread Nestle printed the recipe on the nestle can.
Aural_Architect August 28, 2023
If you read the article carefully it is clear that England is not actually being suggested as the origin of this cake!
It is merely proposing a theory which is admittedly not well fleshed out here.

In culinary terms this caked is categorized as a trifle; that is: a cake soaked in a liquid (which has of English origin).
The theory is that the cake actually first appeared in the British colonized part of Nicaragua during the late colonial era (after the invention and introduction of condensed & evaporated milk). The assertion is that tres leches was created by a Nicaraguan cook for the upper classes and the idea was likely inspired by the English trifles the cook was familiar with.
During this time canned milk was too expensive for most people and so it was only known among the very wealthy. Apparently an early version of that cake was served in exclusive country clubs.
The Great Depression brought canned milk to the country at prices affordable to most people; which is when the rest of the country was introduced to tres leches. This timing coincides with the appearance of the cake in the collective memory of Nicaraguans.

Other accounts of this history are more thorough...
However, while this article may be a bit lacking in details, it does NOT claim that tres leches came from England!!! YOU are the one that invented that notion because you failed to read the article carefully...
Smaug January 17, 2020
Always thought of it as Brazilian, myself- I can't claim any real expertise on the subject, but the recipe apparently appeared on Nestle cans in the 30's, and it probably wasn't at all new then.
HalfPint January 17, 2020
I didn't have tres leches cake until I moved to California. One of my favorite cakes.
arcane54 January 17, 2020
The first time I has Tres Leches cake Was at a baby shower. So appropriate.
Carlos C. January 17, 2020
Fascinating article, Mandy. The Wisconsin connection will make my in-laws happy...especially since I often refer to Nicaragua as the Wisconsin of Central America. I can’t wait to read more from you