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Tres leches is a moist and subtly sweet cake made with sponge cake and three different kinds of milk. It's easy to make (only 30 minutes of active time!) and it gets even better after a day in the fridge.
Photography Credit:Marta Rivera
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
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
Updated April 20, 2020 : We added a new video to this post. Enjoy!
Tres Leches Cake Recipe
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
1 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.
2 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.
3 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.
4 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.
5 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.
6 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.
7 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.
8 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.
9 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).
10 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.
11 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.
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- Cooking spray, for the baking pan
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 ½ cups cornmeal
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 pound labneh
- 2 large eggs
- 3 tablespoons whole milk
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- Whipped cream and/or fresh fruit, for serving
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 cup heavy cream
- ⅔ cup granulated sugar
- ½ cup half-and-half
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
Preheat the oven to 350F. Lightly coat a 13-by-9-inch baking pan with cooking spray and set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. Set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together labneh, eggs, milk, olive oil, and lemon juice until smooth. Add the dry ingredients to the labneh mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until just combined. Give the batter a few turns with a rubber spatula to make sure there aren't any floury pockets or clumps. Scoop the batter into the cake pan and smooth the top bake until a cake tester inserted in the middle comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes.
While the cornbread bakes, make the Tres Leches Soak: Combine the milk, cream, sugar, half-and-half, and salt in a medium bowl. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Once your cornbread is room temperature, cut it into 12 equal pieces. Using a skewer, gently poke some holes into the cornbread to allow the Tres Leches Soak to permeate. Pour the Tres Leches Soak over the cake, cover and chill for at least 8 hours (or overnight). Serve with whipped cream and/or fresh fruit. Enjoy!
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 4 teaspoons baking powder
- 6 large eggs, separated
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups sugar
- 1/2 cup milk
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 (12-ounce) cans evaporated milk
- 2 (14-ounce) cans sweetened condensed milk
- 3 cups heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin (see note)
- 2 tablespoons water (see note)
- 1/4 cup cream cheese, softened (see note)
- 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
Frequently Asked Questions About Mexican Tres Leches
Before I share my tres leches recipe, here are a few questions I've been asked about homemade tres leches cake.
What is 'La Lechera'?
La Lechera is the name of the condensed milk made by Nestle. “Lechera” means “milk lady”, and if you look at the picture on the can, you can see that there’s a lady holding a pot of milk on her head.
Does tres leches cake have alcohol in it?
That's completely up to you! Sometimes I'll add a splash or two of alcohol and sometimes I'll keep it very simple.
If you do decide to add alcohol I recommend adding some rum or brandy.
Can you leave tres leches cake out overnight?
I would not recommend doing this. Since the cake has dairy in it, it's not safe to leave it out and eat it later. However, you need to place it in the fridge overnight to allow it to absorb all the milk. Besides, the tres leches cake tastes better when is cold.
How long can I store this Mexican cake?
This tres leches recipe is best to eat within 2 days but you can leave it up to 4 days in the fridge if wrapped tight and stored properly. And, you can even freeze the cake after you added the kinds of milk, to defrost place it in your fridge until it defrosts them decorate it with the whipped cream & fresh fruits. Remember that its texture is a little soggy.
Tres Leches Cake
This Tres Leches Cake recipe is the perfect light and airy dessert and a Latin American favorite. Tres Leches means "three milks" and is a sponge cake that contains three different types of milks. It's basically the original poke cake.
How do I make the cake?
At first glance, the cake seems more advanced than most, but it's not too difficult. A classic tres leches is made with a sponge cake. It's much lighter and not as dense as a traditional cake. The trick is in the egg whites. Be sure to beat them well into stiff peaks and then fold them in, ever so gently, into the cake batter. The goal is to not deflate them while folding so that the cake bakes up nice and tall with lots of lift!
Can I make this in advance?
Yes! You can make the cake a day ahead before poking it with holes and store it tightly wrapped at room temperature. The cake also benefits from sitting in the refrigerator to absorb all of the milk and can be done ahead of time. It needs at least 1 hour, but can sit in the fridge overnight before frosting and serving.
What are the 3 milks?
We use sweetened condensed, evaporated, and whole milk. Some recipes use heavy cream in place of whole milk, but we feel the mixture is already so decadent and that milk helps balance it. Plus, we use heavy cream for the topping so it still makes it way in there.
How do I serve it?
Tres leches is best served cold. After pouring in the milk mixture refrigerate the cake for at least an hour. This lets all of the milk absorb into the cake and becomes the most refreshing dessert. It's perfect topped with cinnamon-sugar and strawberries.
What's the best way to store Tres Leches cake?
This cake is best stored in the refrigerator with a lid or plastic wrap and will be good up to 3 days.
Tres Leches Cake | 3 Milk Cake Recipe
– Sponge Cake
1. Preheat oven at 160°C / 320°F. Grease and line the pan with parchment paper on the bottom.
2. In 2 large bowls, separate the egg yolks and whites.
3. In the bowl of yolks, add sugar. Whisk well until cream and pale. Then add the milk and whisk to incorporate. Add salt and vanilla extract, and whisk to combine.
4. Sift in the dry ingredients in a few batches. Mix only until the flour disappear. Do not over mix. Continue sifting the flour and mix.
5. In the other bowl of egg whites, add the cream of tartar. You can also substitute with same amount of lemon juice. Use a hand mixer to mix until bubbly before adding in the sugar. Add in the sugar little by little. Continue mixing until stiff peaks form.
6. Fold in the white mixture into the yellow batter in a few batches. Just fold until the white disappear. Again, do not over mix. However, make sure there is no lumps.
7. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Use a skewer to do the action as shown in the video to release any trapped air bubbles. Tap the pan few times on the table to further release the air bubbles.
8. Bake in preheated oven at 160°C / 320°F for about 20-25 min. Make sure the inserted skewer comes out clean.
9. Let it cool while doing the next step.
– 3 Milk Bath
10. In a cup, add all the 3 milks and give it a quick whisk.
11. On the cake, use a fork to poke holes all over the surface. This is so that the milk will sip into the cake.
12. Pour the milk onto the cake.
13. Let it rest for 30 min to 1 hour or until the milks are sipped into the cake.
14. In another bowl, whip the whipping cream until stiff peaks form.
15. Add the cream onto the surface of the cake. Use an offset spatula to level and smoothened the surface.
16. Chill the cake for about 1 hour before cutting, OR you can serve immediately by cutting from the glass tray.
17. Cake is ready to serve. Pipe some simple deco and garnish with any fruits you desire. In this case, I like strawberries to bring out the colors of the cake.
Homemade Tres Leches Cake
There are some desserts that are truly just best when homemade. Store bought and restaurant versions often just don’t do them justice! This Tres Leches Cake is one of those desserts. I’ve tried buying it, I’ve tried ordering it, but the only way to experience the best this dessert has to offer is to make it yourself. Thankfully, that is easy to do!
Making Tres Leches at home may seem intimidating, but it’s easy and totally addicting! This cake is refreshing, lightly sweet yet full of flavor. It holds the milks so well without being too dense or falling apart. A big winner!
This easy tres leches cake recipe has three components: the sponge cake base, the three milk filling, and the whipped cream topping. Here’s an overview of the ingredients you will need for this recipe:
- Eggs: Be sure to use large eggs and to separate them. The egg yolks and whites will be mixed up separately. I recommend using room temperature eggs too because they will whip up much better.
- Granulated sugar: Sweetens the cake and is whipped up with the egg whites. This helps give the sponge cake its signature texture.
- Vanilla extract: Pure vanilla will provide the best flavor.
- Milk: Whole milk is best, but any kind of milk should be fine.
- All-purpose flour: You need to spoon and level the flour when measuring it, otherwise you might accidentally measure out too much.
- Baking powder: This is supposed to be a denser sponge cake, but you still need baking powder in the batter to help the cake rise in the oven.
- Salt: Enhances the vanilla flavor of the sponge cake.
- Sweetened condensed milk: One of the three milks used in the filling. It’s thick, creamy, very sweet, and is m ade out of milk (with some water removed) that’s had sugar added to it.
- Evaporated milk: Can be found next to the sweetened condensed milk in the baking aisle. This has a much thinner consistency and is not nearly as sweet.
- Heavy whipping cream: Used in both the filling and the whipped cream topping. Be sure to buy heavy whipping cream that’s at least 36% fat.
- Powdered sugar: Sweetens the homemade whipped cream.
- 5 eggs
- 1 cup cake flour
- 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ⅔ cup granulated sugar
- ⅓ cup whole milk
- 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
- ⅓ cup packed brown sugar
- 1 14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk
- 1 12 ounce can evaporated milk
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 2 3 inches sticks cinnamon (optional)
- 3 tablespoons powdered sugar
- Small whole or halved strawberries (optional)
Separate eggs allow egg whites and yolks to stand at room temperature 30 minutes. Meanwhile, in a very large bowl combine flour, baking powder, and salt set aside.
Preheat oven to 350°F. In a large bowl beat the egg yolks and granulated sugar with a mixer on high until yolks are pale yellow and doubled in size, about 3 minutes. Add whole milk and vanilla beat 1 minute more. Pour yolk mixture over flour mixture fold together with a rubber spatula until combined.
Thoroughly wash and dry the large bowl and beaters. Beat egg whites in the bowl on medium until soft peaks form (tips curl when beaters are lifted). Gradually add brown sugar and continue beating until stiff peaks form (tips stand straight). Gently fold egg whites into the yolk mixture just until combined. Spread batter into a greased 3-qt. rectangular baking dish.
Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in baking dish on a wire rack.
Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan combine the sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, 1/2 cup of the heavy cream, and the cinnamon sticks (if using). Bring just to boiling over medium-high. Reduce heat and simmer gently, uncovered, 15 to 20 minutes or until reduced to 3 cups, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. If the pan doesn't have a pour spout, transfer the mixture to a 4-cup measuring cup or small pitcher.
Using a paring knife or skewer, pierce the cake all over. Slowly pour half the milk mixture evenly over the cake, going all the way to the edges. Wait 1 minute, then repeat with remaining milk mixture. Let cake cool to room temperature, then chill, covered, 8 to 24 hours.
To serve, beat the remaining 1 1/2 cups heavy cream and the powdered sugar with mixer on medium to high until stiff peaks form. Spread whipped cream over cake. If desired, top with strawberries.