Tres Leches Cake
Tres Leches Cake (pastel de tres leches) is an immensely popular dessert throughout Central and South America. The origin of the cake is a matter of debate, and while it definitely did not originate in Costa Rica (at least I haven’t heard anyone argue that), that is where I first ate it, so that’s the cuisine I am going to toss it in with.
If you haven’t heard of it before, odds are you can still parse apart what that name means: three milks cake. What that refers to is a syrup made from evaporated milk, condensed milk, and cream, with which the sponge cake is soaked after baking. It is made with an oil-free and exceptionally light sponge, akin to angel food cake, which perfectly absorbs this milk syrup, and creates a truly magical dessert. Typically topped with a bit of whipped cream and cinnamon or fresh fruit, it is a real crowd-pleaser.
As to the origins, it is likely descended from the European tradition of soaked cakes, which includes things like tiramisu and trifle cake. The best guess is that it originated in Mexico, as there is 19th century evidence of similar cakes, like torta de leche, which was baked in a pan of milk and served with a milk syrup.
We can be relatively certain, however, that the nestle corporation is responsible for this dessert’s widespread popularity throughout Central and South America. Canned milks were first created in the 1850s, but this cake did not gain fame until the 1940s, when nestle began printing a recipe for it on their cans of condensed milk, many of which were produced and consumed in Latin America.
My first taste of tres leches cake came when I was a boy and my family traveled to Costa Rica. We made two trips when I was younger, for around a month each time, and traveled all over the country, largely carted around by a Costa Rican family that were good friends of my aunt. I can’t remember the exact occasion that I first ate this amazing cake, but I do know that it was the only thing I wanted on my birthday for years afterward.
We baked this cake again for my first birthday in the bus and ate it in the middle of the Mojave desert. It was just as wonderful as I remembered, and I only wished that we had more people to share it with.
Tres Leches Cake
1 cup flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
⅓ cup milk
1 cup condensed milk
1 cup evaporated milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup heavy cream
1 tsp sugar
¼ tsp vanilla
Ground Cinnamon or Sliced Strawberries
First, you need to bake the cake.
In a large mixing bowl, stir together 1 cup flour, 1 ½ tsp baking powder, and ¼ tsp salt.
In another mixing bowl, beat the egg yolks (with an electric mixer probably) with ¾ cup sugar until they turn pale yellow. Add ⅓ cup milk and 1 tsp vanilla and mix well.
Rinse the mixer well to remove any yolk. In yet another mixing bowl beat the egg whites with ¼ cup sugar until they form stiff peaks.
Mix the egg yolks and flour mixture until well combined. Gently fold in the egg whites with a spatula until only just combined. Pour the batter into the lightly greased cake pans and get ready to bake. Typically, tres leches is baked in a large pan like a casserole dish, but we used an 8” and a 6” cake pan for this recipe.
If you have an oven, bake for around 35-40 minutes at 350 degrees. As you may know, we do not have an oven in our bus, so we baked this in a cast iron pan on the stove. You can see our full stovetop baking guide here. But here are the basics: heat the pan, covered, over a high flame until the top is hot enough that you can only touch the lid for around 1-2 seconds. Reduce the flame to medium-low and add your cake on top of the wire rack.
If you have a stove thermometer, stick it to the side and try to keep the temperature around 350 degrees. If not, just keep testing the temperature of the lid. Increase the flame if needed to get the lid back to temperature.
The cakes will be done in around 35-40 minutes, or when a toothpick poked into the center comes out clean.
Allow the cakes to cool, and then poke holes all over the top with a fork.
Mix the tres leches together to make your syrup, and pour it over the top. Put the cake in the refrigerator and allow it to soak for at least a couple hours and as much as a couple days.
When you are ready to serve, beat the heavy cream, sugar, and vanilla until it holds nice peaks. Either make a nice layer of whipped cream on top of your cake in the pan, or remove the cake from the pan and frost it on the top and sides.
Dust the cake with ground cinnamon or garnish with sliced strawberries.