Make Ahead

Vegan Coconut Tres Leches Cake With Strawberry Sauce

June 28, 2021
5 Stars
Photo by Rocky Luten. Prop Stylist: Alya Hameedi. Food Stylist: Yossy Arefi.
  • Prep time 48 hours
  • Cook time 1 hour 30 minutes
  • Serves 12
Author Notes

Three varieties of nondairy milk; light coconut, full-fat coconut, and almond, come together to make this moist cake. But I've always imagined that "tres" actually refers to the three ways milk is used to make the cake batter, the soaking liquid, and the whipped topping. In addition to those essential components, this cake has two bonus toppings; strawberry sauce and crunchy toasted coconut flakes. It slices up tall and luscious.

Tres leches is a minimum two-day commitment, accounting for the time required to let the liquid soak into the cake. In the downtime, the full-fat coconut cream can be chilled in preparation for whipping, and the strawberry sauce can be made and chilled. After both of those are on the cake, an additional overnight to allow the sauce to set is a bonus. (Please see notes below for prep and storage suggestions.)

Two days is a lot to wait, but the results are worth it. This vegan cake is magnificent. Two plant-based egg substitutes (flaxseed and pumpkin) create a light and springy yellow sponge that would be great all on its own (birthday cupcakes?!). That sponge is soaked with two quarts of maple-sweetened liquid with a mysteriously coffee-like aroma. The resulting sweetness is counterbalanced by the light, barely-sweetened coconut whipped cream and the tart strawberry sauce.

This recipe's star ingredient is nondairy milk, but the secret ingredient is arrowroot starch. Working in place of cake flour, it gives the cake a delicate crumb. Arrowroot also stabilizes the whipped cream, and thickens the strawberry sauce.

I originally developed this recipe when I was a pastry chef at a Brooklyn café whose sister business was a vegan-friendly Mexican restaurant. It was served at a huge Cinco De Mayo fiesta in the restaurant’s backyard, for which I prepared four full hotel pans full of cake. Over 10 years later, I've revived the recipe for the "At Home With Us" video series on Food52, scaled-down and perfected to work for home bakers.

Some ideas for variations:
-Substitute peaches for the strawberries and amaretto for the cognac, with toasted sliced almonds instead of the coconut flakes.
-Substitute chocolate sauce for the strawberry sauce and espresso for the cognac, with chocolate shavings instead of coconut flakes.
-Substitute mango for the strawberries and dark rum for the cognac. —Anitalectric

Watch This Recipe
Vegan Coconut Tres Leches Cake With Strawberry Sauce
Ingredients
  • For the sponge cake
  • 4 cups plus one tbp all purpose flour, presifted
  • 1/2 cup plus two tbp arrowroot starch (can sub cornstarch)
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons baking powder
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons fine sea salt
  • 1 3/4 cups organic sugar
  • 1 1/4 cups safflower oil (can sub canola)
  • 1/4 cup kabocha squash puree* (can sub canned pumpkin)
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon white vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon ground golden flaxseed
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water
  • 1 2/3 cups almond milk, plain unsweetened, at room temperature
  • Zest from 1 lemon
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • _
  • For the soaking liquid
  • 3 (13.5-ounce) cans light coconut milk, unsweetened
  • 2 cups almond milk, plain unsweetened
  • 2 cups pure maple syrup
  • 1/4 cup cognac**
  • _
  • For the coconut whipped cream
  • 4 (13.5-ounce) cans full-fat coconut milk (with guar gum is ok but no other additives), chilled (see notes for tips on chilling)***
  • 1/4 cup confectioner's sugar
  • 1/4 cup arrowroot starch
  • Zest from 1 lemon****
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
  • _
  • For the strawberry sauce
  • 16 ounces strawberries, hulled and quartered*****
  • 3 tablespoons organic sugar
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice (from 1 medium lemon)
  • 3 tablespoons arrowroot starch
  • _
  • To serve
  • 2 cups unsweetened coconut shavings, toasted
In This Recipe
Directions
  1. To make the cake:

    Butter and flour a 9x13” baking pan.

    Sift together the flour, arrowroot, baking powder, and salt 3 times.

    In a separate bowl, combine the sugar, oil, lemon zest, vanilla, squash puree and vinegar.

    Blend the ground flax and water together until white and frothy. Stop blender, add the almond milk and blend until frothy again. Add flax mixture to the liquid ingredients and fold together until smooth. Gently fold in dry ingredients until no large pockets of flour remain (but leave the batter lumpy).

    Scrape batter into greased baking pan and leave to proof for 10 to 15 minutes while oven preheats to 400°F. Bake cake on center rack for 5 minutes. Lower oven temperature to 375°F and continue baking for 20 to 30 minutes, pausing halfway to rotate pan, until cake is golden and set on the top, and tester inserted in center comes out clean.

    Remove to a cooling rack to cool completely.
  2. To make the soaking liquid:

    Combine ingredients in a saucepan and heat on medium for 5 to 10 minutes while stirring, until it begins to bubble and froth. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.

    Pierce the cooled sponge cake throughout with a fork. Pour some of the soaking liquid over the entire surface of the cake until the holes are full. Repeat every few minutes, adding just enough each time to fill the holes. (Soaking the cake gradually allows for even distribution.) Cover and refrigerate. Allow cake to soak in the liquid for 12 to 24 hours.
  3. To make the coconut whipped cream:

    Place mixer bowl in ice bath to keep cold while working. Alternately, you can chill the bowl in the freezer for at least 20 minutes (I prefer the ice bath method because you can take your time with the recipe without risk of losing volume).

    Scrape chilled coconut cream into the mixer bowl. Beat the cream until smooth. Add the confectioner’s sugar and arrowroot and continue to beat until smooth. With the mixer on low, add the extracts and zest. Increase the speed and allow the cream to aerate. To loosen the texture and disperse any small clumps, add reserved coconut liquid 1 tablespoon at a time, being careful not to add too much or the whip will not hold its shape (I used about 4 tablespoons). Reserve remaining liquid for another use (note: it can be frozen).

    Spread the finished whipped cream (while still cold) over the top of the soaked cake. Form a border around all four sides to hold the strawberry sauce inside, or transfer some of the whip to a piping bag and pipe the border. Return frosted cake to refrigerator for at least 20 minutes before adding the strawberry sauce.
  4. To make the strawberry sauce:

    Place the strawberries and the sugar in a pan and simmer over medium heat until bubbling and strawberries have started to wilt around the edges. Make a slurry with the lemon juice and arrowroot starch by mixing them together in a cup until smooth. Add slurry to the strawberries while stirring and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer to blender and process until smooth. (Keep blender on low setting to avoid aeration). Transfer to a container to chill sauce completely to room temperature or refrigerate overnight.

    Once the sauce has chilled, pour over the frosted cake and spread into an even layer. Return cake to refrigerator to chill for at least one hour, or preferably, overnight. Optional: sprinkle toasted, unsweetened, coconut flakes or toasted, sliced almonds over the cake before serving.

    When ready to serve, cut cake into even squares and serve chilled. For best results, serve cake within 1 to 2 days of assembly.
  5. Recipe planning for best results:

    2 to 3 days before serving:
    - Prepare sponge cake (keep covered if not soaking same day).
    - Prepare strawberry sauce.
    - Prepare soaking liquid and soak the cake.
    - Separate and chill the cans of coconut cream.

    1 day before serving:
    - Prepare coconut whip.
    - Frost cake.
    - Top with strawberry sauce.

    On the day of serving:
    - Top with toasted coconut.

    Please note that with every day that passes after assembly, the vibrant red of the strawberry sauce will begin to fade, and the coconut flakes will lose their crunch. As noted in the whipped cream section, because the coconut cream is left raw, it has a shorter shelf life. And a cake with this high level of moisture will spoil more quickly than conventional cakes, even under refrigeration. I recommend consuming it within 4 days of assembly.

    If you plan to transport the finished cake, keep it tightly wrapped and insulated with an ice pack. I recommend reserving coconut flakes to add after, if transporting.
  6. Ingredient notes:

    *Kabocha squash puree: To make puree from scratch: peel, seed and chop the squash. Simmer in a thin layer of coconut milk until soft, replenishing with a small splashes of milk as necessary to prevent sticking. Pulse in a food processor until smooth. Keep puree refrigerated in a tightly sealed container until ready for use. Freeze if not used within 5 days.

    **Cognac: You can sub espresso, limoncello, rum, amaretto, or other flavored liquor for the cognac. But if you use a sweetened substitution, decrease maple syrup by a teaspoon.

    ***Coconut cream: For easier preparation of the cream, drain the liquid from the bottom of your cans of coconut milk while they are freshly home from the store and still at grocery store temperature. Reserve all the cream in a one quart container, and the liquid in another. Chill both overnight before preparing the whipped cream. Second note about this ingredient: Coconut cream spoils as quickly as heavy cream. If you plan to store the finished cake refrigerated for more than the recommended 4 days, I recommend you simmer the coconut cream for 5 to 10 minutes before chilling overnight, in order to extend the shelf life of the cake.

    ****Lemon zest: The lemon zest cancels out the “canned” taste of the coconut milk. Substitute 1/8 tsp lemon extract if you don’t have lemons. While the almond extract is optional, I like that it brings out the coconut flavor of the milk. I’m not fan of coconut extract, but you can sub that.

    *****Fruit: While some recipes call for you to puree the fruit before cooking, leaving the strawberries in quarters while cooking, and pureeing after, will preserve more of their tart flavor. With most of the cake’s sweetness coming from the soaking liquid, the sauce is meant to counterbalance with tartness, and not too much sweetness. Mango, cherries, rhubarb, passionfruit, or other tart berries can be substituted for the strawberries.
  7. Shopping list:

    Produce:
    2 large lemons, 16 ounces strawberries, 1 small kabocha squash (or canned pumpkin puree)

    Baking:
    1 pound all-purpose flour, plus extra for pans, arrowroot starch, 2 pounds granulated sugar, confectioners' sugar, 26 ounces maple syrup, baking powder, fine sea salt, vanilla extract, almond extract (optional), 4 ounces cognac, toasted unsweetened coconut flakes or sliced toasted almonds

    Grocery:
    Safflower oil, vinegar, golden flaxseed or flaxseed meal, 3 (13.5-ounce) cans unsweetened lite coconut milk, 4 (13.5-ounce) cans unsweetened full fat coconut milk (best quality, no additives if possible)

    Refrigerated:
    1 carton plain unsweetened almond milk (or oat)

    Frozen:
    Ice for the ice bath

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Katie Hornstein
    Katie Hornstein
  • Anitalectric
    Anitalectric
  • ZakCannon
    ZakCannon
  • Sara
    Sara
I am a self-trained vegan chef, pastry chef and baker. More recently, I founded Anita's Yogurt in Brooklyn, NY. Anita's Coconut Yogurt is now available from coast-to-coast and for nationwide delivery from our website. I still frequently bake desserts for my daughter and post recipe videos on instagram. Currently baking: Kombucha Muffins From Jerrelle Guy, Genius Nut and Seed bread from Sarah Britton.

7 Reviews

ZakCannon February 17, 2022
This cake is very expensive given the amount of coconut milk, maple syrup, strawberries, etc. but the result blew everyone away. I didn't use all the soaking liquid (maybe 2/3?) so I think you could reduce that and get away with it. I made the cake, soaking liquid, and strawberry sauce on day 1, soaked the cake on day 2, and on the day of serving I made the coconut whip, topped the cake, and then pulled out individual slices to top them with the strawberry sauce and toasted coconut. I used lime zest and juice in place of lemon and used oat milk in place of almond. Lovely!! I will definitely be using this sponge recipe for any future vegan cakes.
 
Katie H. November 2, 2021
Let's not mince words: this cake takes a LOT of effort. But if you want to impress your vegan friends/family members with a memorable, delicious dessert, this should probably be your go-to recipe. I bake all of the time but am new to vegan baking, so this was a bit of a departure for me. I followed the recipe exactly and still found room to make mistakes. For one thing, my cake did not get the rise it needed and would not absorb the "milk". My baking powder was probably the culprit, so I baked another sponge, with much better results, yielding a shockingly light and rich crumb with a delightful nutty sweetness that comes from the Kobucha squash and the flax. I did not love having to buy four cans of coconut to scrape off the cream. Is there a reason why you can't just buy a couple of cans of coconut cream to make the frosting? Perhaps this could be clarified in the recipe. I used frozen strawberries instead of fresh. The sauce tasted good and had bright notes of acid, but I found that the texture from the arrowroot powder to be a bit gloppy. In the end, the weird texture didn't matter and the sauce behaved like it should and sat on top of the coconut frosting. I finished the cake with toasted coconut as directed. An absolute stunner. The vegan at dinner was super impressed and asked for the recipe. This is a special occasion cake that is mostly worth it, but it's also pretty expen$ive and labor intensive. As long as you know this going in, you'll be able to manage your expectations. Follow the recipe exactly or suffer the consequences!
 
Sara October 3, 2021
Anita is a genius. I am blown away by this cake. I followed the instructions exactly, even made the kabocha squash purée, and it came out divine. First of all how on earth did Anita think of kabocha squash as an egg replacement? It was such a thick luscious purée. Also, you will think that the cake can’t possibly take all that soaking liquid. Mine took longer than I expected to absorb it all. But it does sip it all up and the cake holds its shape when finished. It’s incredible. You might also think there is too much strawberry sauce. Wrong! The tart sauce is so delicious with the cake and the cream, I had no idea that I would want as much as possible. I didn’t use it all on the cake then ended up drizzling it over the top of slices. The flavor of this cake is just perfection. It is the best tres leches cake I have ever had. Brought this to a party and everyone said the same thing!
 
nicolechin July 5, 2021
Oh my goodness I've made this twice now and it's absolutely amazing. You definitely need to follow the instructions exactly and don't try to substitute with any other type of milk. I tried substituting with oat milk once and it was still tasty, it was just a little gummy bc of the oat milk. I also did a flavor variation and blended my soaking liquid with strawberries so that the strawberry flavor was all the way through. Topped it with mangoes. DELICIOUS! So happy to have this recipe in my go-tos. Thanks for writing this amazing recipe, Anita!!
 
Tanya22 June 19, 2021
The cake on its own is already absolutely delicious- can’t wait to try it all together!
 
E K. June 13, 2021
Hello! I watched the video a few times before making this cake. Actually, as I type this I'm proofing my cake and waiting for the oven to heat up, the cake ingredient list left out lemon (zest), and the vanilla measurement. But luckily, the recipe has it written in. I rewatched that portion of the video for the measurements; one zested lemon but not sure about vanilla... I guessed 2 tlbsp? So far, the batter tastes super yummy!
 
Anitalectric June 14, 2021
EK- Thank you so much for noting this omission! Correction will be made. Cannot wait to hear how it turns out! Please post pics. xo