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Authentic Tres Leches Cake - A Latin American favorite make with 3 milks, a homemade sponge cake and whipped cream frosting!

Authentic Tres Leches Cake

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An Authentic Tres Leches Cake, or three milks cake, is a Latin American classic. Rich, ultra moist and absolutely impossible to resist. One of my daughter’s favorites desserts, it’s often her birthday cake request!

A popular cake in Latin America, this pastel de tres leches translates to sponge cake with three milks, the latter referring to evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and half and half. This Tres Leches Cake Recipe is unlike any other you’ve ever eaten!

Authentic Tres Leches Cake slice topped with strawberry halves on a white plate

 

Authentic Tres Leches Cake

It must have been more than 10 years ago when I heard about tres leches cake, so of course, the foodie in me had to make one. My first attempt was nothing special, but my daughter, Katie, was smitten. The rest of the family was underwhelmed.

I found Alton Brown’s recipe a few years later when she was hounding me to make it for her birthday. He is a master at researching the science of what makes a recipe work, so I consider him a good source for a pretty authentic, well-tested recipe.

Of course, despite what the rest of the family thinks, Katie gets to request her favorite dinner and birthday dessert. So, much as I tried to ignore her pleas, I went ahead and baked up a new version. I added a few strawberries just to garnish.  Just to give the plate a little pizzazz. The results were pretty darn tasty, I have to admit! Even Bill changed his tuned after I suggested he give this tres leches cake recipe a chance.

Authentic Tres Leches Cake - A Latin American favorite make with 3 milks, a homemade sponge cake and whipped cream frosting!

What does tres leches mean?

It is the Spanish phrase for three milks, referring to the 3 kinds of milk products in this cake recipe. 

What does an authentic tres leches cake taste like?

It’s a cool, moist, spongy, custardy cake. It’s like no other cake you’ll ever eat!

Can skim milk be used for one of the milks?

I wouldn’t recommend it as each milk product is rich with a thicker consistency than skim milk.  Diluting the mixture will change the mouthfeel of the cake. If you want to cut calories, eat a smaller slice.

How far in advance can this cake be made?

I like making it the night before which gives the cake plenty of time to absorb the milks. If you do not have time the day before, it could be made two days before. Add the whipped cream topping before serving. Note: the cake will need at least 6 hours to absorb the milks.

How long  will it keep?

The cake will start losing quality after 3 days as the whipped cream topping may start to separate. It is safe to eat up to 4 or 5 days as long as it’s been stored correctly.

How should this be served?

Though totally optional, topping with a couple of slices or halves of ripe strawberries add a nice pop of color to a rather pale dessert.

How should a tres leches cake be stored?

If you were wondering, this cake is traditionally served cold, which is unusual for cake recipes. It also must be stored covered in the refrigerator.

Tips for Making the Best Tres Leches Cake Recipe

There are scads of variations of this three milks cake. But this one what our family considers the best tres leches cake. The picky hubby isn’t totally on board, preferring chocolate chip cookies or brownies, but hey, you can’t win ’em all. If you’re new to making tres leches cake, here are a few tips on How to Make a Tres Leches Cake.

  • The cake is an egg heavy sponge cake. “Sponge” is key here as the cake must be able to absorb almost 4 cups of liquid.
  • Other recipes call for a butter cake or even using a yellow cake mix, but I’m on team sponge cake.
  • To facilitate absorption, use a fork, skewer or even a straw to poke numerous holes across the surface of the cake. This gives more real estate for the milks to soak into.
  • Cake flour is used in the recipe instead of all purpose flour. Cake flour is made from a softer wheat and has less gluten, making for a more tender cake. I do not recommend using all-purpose flour as a substitution.
  • When I was a teenager, WAY before the Internet, I remember using a mixture of all purpose flour and cornstarch as a substitute for cake flour. You can easily make your own.
  • PRO-Tip: To make your own cake flour, follow these instructions: For each cup needed, measure out a cup of flour, then remove two tablespoons. Replace the 2 tablespoons of flour with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch. Sift this mixture 3 or 4 times to make sure the cornstarch is evenly dispersed. While you’re at it, make more than one cup, and save the extra for the next time you need cake flour.
  • Depending on the recipe, the 3 milks can vary. Most recipes I’ve seen call for the two canned milks, evaporated and sweetened condensed. The third for this cake is half and half, an equal blend of whole milk and light cream, but other recipes call for whole milk or heavy cream.
  • I use a 4 cup Pyrex measuring cup with a spout to pour the milks over the cake. I start with a dousing across the surface of the cake, using about a third of the mixture to start, then letting it absorb before repeating the process. Using all of the “milks” may cause some leakage at the bottom of the cake as a smidgen of the liquid may not totally absorb. It isn’t a huge deal, but feel free to hold back some of the liquid if desired. I didn’t use 1/3 of a cup.
  • Beware, this is a VERY sweet cake. The whipped cream topper has an additional 1 cup of sugar added. I’ve seen comments/complaints on other recipes about this dessert being too sweet. Just know that this is how it’s supposed to taste.
  • PRO-Tip: A caterer friend taught me to freeze the bowl for whipping the cream for a half hour or more before making it. Cream whipped in an icy cold bowl is much more stable than when done in a room temperature bowl. Meaning, it’s less likely to “break” and turn watery.
  • This authentic tres leches cake is perfect for Cinco de Mayo or your only daughter’s birthday!
Authentic Tres Leches Cake slice on a square plate with full cake in the background

Progressive Eats

Welcome to Progressive Eats, our virtual version of a Progressive Dinner Party. Each recipe in our menu this month features the flavors of Latin America and our host this month is Karen who blogs at Karen’s Kitchen Stories.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, a progressive dinner involves going from house to house, enjoying a different course at each location. With Progressive Eats it’s a virtual party. A theme is chosen each month, members share recipes suitable for a delicious meal or party, and you can hop from blog to blog to check them out. Come along and see all of the delicious south of the border dishes!

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Flavors of Latin America!

Cocktails

Appetizers

Bread

Main Courses

Side Dishes

Desserts

  • Authentic Tres Leches Cake – That Skinny Chick Can Bake

More Delicious Cake Recipes

Tres Leches Cake

Tres Leches Cake

Alton Brown's version of this "3 Milks" cake.

Prep Time 45 minutes
Cook Time 25 minutes
Total Time 1 hour 10 minutes
Yield 24 servings

Ingredients

Cake:

  • 1 1/2 cups cake flour, plus extra to dust the pan
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 ounces butter, at room temperature
  • 1 cup plus 1 tabblespoon sugar
  • 5 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla

Glaze:

  • 1 can evaporated milk (12 ounces)
  • 1 can sweetened condensed milk (14 ounces)
  • 1 cup half and half

Topping:

  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350º. Grease and flour, or use Baker's Joy, to coat a 9 x 13 pan.
  2. Whisk together dry ingredients and set aside.
  3. Using the paddle attachment of a stand mixer, beat butter until fluffy on medium speed. Decrease to low and add sugar slowly. Scrape down sides of the bowl. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing until well combined. Add vanilla and mix.
  4. Add dry ingredients in three batches and mix till just incorporated. Pour batter into prepared pan. Smooth top. Bake in the middle of your oven for 20-25 minutes.
  5. Remove and cool for a half hour. Poke top of cake with fork or skewer. Allow cake to completely cool.
  6. Make the glaze by whisking the milks and half and half. Slowly pour over cake and refrigerate overnight. I did not use the last 1/4 cup of glaze so that it all absorbed.
  7. Before serving, make topping by whipping heavy cream, sugar, and vanilla until mixture thickens and stiff peaks form. Spread topping over cake and refrigerate until serving.
  8. May garnish with sliced strawberries.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

24

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 220Total Fat: 14gSaturated Fat: 9gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 5gCholesterol: 80mgSodium: 140mgCarbohydrates: 19gFiber: 0gSugar: 12gProtein: 4g
Lambeau eyeing the Tres Leches Cake

The Birthday Girl who requested the tres leches cake

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53 comments on “Authentic Tres Leches Cake”

  1. Looking forward to trying your recipe. I made it once and was underwhelmed also. Your’s looks delicious!

  2. Do you have to refrigerate over night for it to turn out?

    • It will fully absorb the “glaze,” slice easier and not be so overly sweet if refrigerated overnight (tastes best cold). BUT, if you an make it very early in the day and give it a good 6-8 hours in the refrigerator, I think that would work. Hope you enjoy!

  3. I hosted a Cuban family reunion and dessert had to include a tres leches cake.  I have to admit I was nervous.  This recipe received high marks from all the “tias” and everyone else in attendance.  THANK YOU!  (Mine absorbed ALL of the liquid.)

  4. Liz, it’s really awesome! This will quickly become a favorite in our house!

  5. Liz, bravo! I cooked it with strawberries, it turned out just amazing!!! Thank you!

  6. Liz, this looks amazing! Thank you, I will try this right away)

  7. we tried the recipe as cupcakes for a school project. It turned out okay but was a mess and took longer than expected. overall we loved this recipe. definitely recommend it.

  8. Liz, this recipe would be perfect for those cold nights. Looking forward to making this for my family.

  9. I have made this three times now, following step by step and it has came out horrible! I don’t understand. Each time my cake is like a big egg casserole. Hard and rubbery! 

    • Gosh, I’m so sorry, Heather. How frustrating. It sounds like your baking powder (don’t use baking soda) isn’t fresh. It does tend to expire quickly (6 months to a year) and lose its oomph as it sits in the pantry. You can test it by putting a teaspoon in a bowl and pouring boiling water over it. If it doesn’t bubble vigorously, it’s old and won’t have enough power to use in baking.

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