The BEST authentic Tres Leches Cake recipe is a must make Mexican dessert!
This authentic Tres Leches Cake recipe will blow your mind! A sweet sponge cake is riddled with holes then drenched in sweetened condensed milk, heavy cream and evaporated milk to create a soft, melt-in-your mouth cake all topped with light and airy whipped cream and cinnamon. The emerging easy Tres Leches Cake is ridiculously moist without becoming soggy, decadent yet light and exploding with sweet, cinnamon, cream flavor with a hint of caramel. This dreamy indulgent dessert is the ultimate make ahead dessert because it only gets better the next day, perfect for holidays (looking at you Christmas), and entertaining. I’ve included step-by-step photos of how to make Tres Leches Cake and tips and tricks so you can create this show-stopping dessert at home!
What Is Tres Leches Cake?
Decadent, dreamy deliciousness. But to get technical, “Tres Leches Cake” (sometimes, yet inaccurately called Tres Leche Cake) literally means “three milks cake,” also known as pastel de tres leches or torta de tres leches. Tres Leches Cake is a light yet sturdy sponge cake, poked with holes, then soaked in “tres leches” or three kinds of milk, usually sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream.
The cake is allowed to sit overnight as the milks soaks into every nook and cranny. The combination of milks creates a rich, layered flavor and ridiculously moist, perfectly sweet, melt-in-your-mouth cake.
The Tres Leches Cake is finished off with an airy sweet whipped cream topping and either a dusting of cinnamon or fresh fruit. It is served cold so it’s refreshing yet rich at the same time.
Authentic Tres Leches Cake is a simple to make yet always impressive. I guarantee it will be the hit everywhere you bring including Christmas dinner!
Tres Leches Cake Recipe
Tres Leches Cake is one of my all-time favorite desserts that I always order at my go-to Mexican restaurant. I was hopeful I could recreate the deliciousness at home, but in all honesty, it took a few attempts. In the end, however, I landed upon a better-than-my-favorite-restaurant Tres Leches Cake recipe! Between my husband and I, we devoured the 9×13 cake in 24 hours! Shameless? Maybe, but I’ll just go with irresistibly delicious, addicting BEST Tres Leches Cake I’ve ever sunk my teeth into.
I started my recipe creation process by researching some Tres Leches Cake recipes online. Some recipes call for butter, some call for zero butter (blasphemy!), some use a standard sponge cake and some use a yellow cake. My first attempt using a standard sponge cake was met with sad, soggy results. My husband still ate it, but there was no way I was posting that recipe.
My search and experimenting continued until I found the Tres Leches Cake recipe by Cooks Illustrated. This recipe is perfection my friends. I usually always adapt recipes to make them better and because that is the thrill of my creative process, but this Tres Leche Cake is perfection as written!
Best Tres Leches Cake
Cooks Illustrated Tres Leches Cake recipe is different (and better!) for four reasons:
- An airy hot-milk sponge cake is used instead of a traditional sponge cake. This means warm milk with melted butter is whipped with whole eggs. This creates a light and wonderfully flavorful cake that’s spongy but sturdier than just using egg whites. Our cake will not deflate or become soggy when soaked in the tres leches.
- The quantity of the three milks is cut back by half a cup to create the perfect amount of liquid to saturate the cake without it becoming soggy.
- The sweetened condessed milk is microwaved for 15 minutes to infuse the cake with a hint of caramel. This technique is a shortcut for creating mild dulce-de-leche flavor which traditionally requires boiling sweetened condensed milk for an hour.
- The heavy cream topping is stabilized with corn syrup. I’ve gone into greater detail below, but essentially, stabilized whipped cream is sturdier which allows you to make the entire cake WITH the topping in advance instead of waiting to the last minute to add the topping which will deflate if stored.
Now we have the BEST Tres Leches Cake recipe worthy of your family, friends and Christmas table!
What country is tres leches cake from?
The actual origins of Tres Leches Cake are hard to pin down. Many Latin American countries have their own versions from Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, and Costa Rica, and of course, they all claim to be the originator. What we do know is that antes (bread soaked in wine and layered with milk custard and fruit or nuts) came to Mexico in the 19th century. Tres Leches Cake is no doubt a descendant of this traditional dessert that dates back through colonial Mexican history to medieval Europe.
We also know easy Tres Leches Cake was popularized by Nestle as a brilliantly delicious marketing ploy (no arguments here). Nestlé established manufacturing plants in Mexico around World War II, which led to them publishing Tres Leches Cake recipe on their can labels. This helped popularize this Mexican recipe in the United States and has remained a favorite ever since.
Easy Tres Leches Cake Recipe Ingredients
The ingredients for easy Tres Leche Cake recipe are pantry friendly – you probably have almost all of them right now! You will need:
- Tres leches: Sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and heavy cream are poured over the poked sponge cake to create our mega tender, creamy cake. Using three cakes also creates the layers of flavor. More info on the tres leches below.
- All-purpose flour: I have not experimented with gluten free flour, but I assume gluten-free 1 to 1 flour like Bob’s Red Mill would work great. Please do NOT use cake flour or your Tres Leches Cake is more likely to become soggy.
- Baking powder: is an acidic leavening agent that gives your cake lift and makes it fluffy. Take care your baking powder is fresh, (throw out after 6-12 months) so it works!
- Salt: enhances the flavors, cuts through the sweetness and improves the texture of the easy Tres Leches Cake. You want to use good old table salt.
- Cinnamon: delivers sensationally flavorful.
- Sugar: granulated sugar please. The sugar sweetens the cake and helps tenderize it as well.
- Butter: please do NOT substitute butter with margarine or oil or you will be missing out on some serious flavor. Use unsalted butter so we can control the salt in the recipe.
- Eggs. You will need 4 large eggs at room temperature. They provide structure and binding properties. Take care they are at room temperature for fluffier results.
- Milk: you will need one cup whole milk for the actual cake. I usually purchase 1 percent, so to make whole milk, add some heavy cream (which we will need anyway in this recipe) to a one cup measuring cup, then fill the rest with your leaner milk to equal 1 cup.
- Vanilla extract: use quality extract for maximum flavor.
What Are the Three Milks Used in Authentic Tres Leches Cake?
The three milks used to pour over authentic Tres Leches Cake are: sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream. You need all three kinds of milk to make the best Tres Leches Cake otherwise it would just be Dos Leches Cake! Here’s the breakdown:
Condensed milk and sweetened condensed milk are used interchangeable and are the same thing. Condensed milk is essentially thick, sweetened milk that is about 40-45% sugar. To make condensed milk, whole cow’s milk is heated with sugar until 60% of the water evaporates resulting in a sweet, thickened, milk syrup. Condensed milk is sold in cans and can last for years if not opened.
Condensed milk is often used in desserts such as no-bake cheesecakes and fudge, caramel and of course is simmered to create easy Dulce de leche. I also use it in my Mud Pie, Rocky Road Ice Cream and Key Lime Cheesecake Dip.
In this Tres Leches Cake recipe, the condensed milk is microwaved for a kiss of caramel flavor. It also provides rich sweetness.
Evaporated milk is similar to condensed milk in that 60% of its water is removed BUT it does not have any sugar added. Because a large percentage of water is removed, it contains higher milk fat than whole milk (approx. 6.5% to 3.5%) but still far less than heavy cream which 36% milk fat.
Both sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk were developed in the 19th century in order to deliver milk without refrigeration.
In this easy Tres Leches Cake recipe, evaporated milk is used to thin the heavy cream and sweetened condensed milk but is richer than just using milk which would make the cake soggy due to its higher water content.
Heavy cream or “heavy whipping cream” as it is labeled, is the thick, fat-rich part of milk, which rises to the top when milk is fresh and is skimmed off before homogenization. It is rich, indulgent and can be used in many applications such as pasta sauces, whipped cream, soups, etc. Some of my favorite recipes using whipped cream are Rigatoni in Tomato Cream Sauce, Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Tomato Basil Soup and Pan Seared Steak with Balsamic Herb Cream Sauce.
In this authentic Tres Leches Cake recipe, the heavy cream adds buttery richness to the cake.
Stabilized Whipped Cream Topping
Now for the crowning Tres Leches topping! Traditional whipped cream toppings will deflate and even start weeping within a couple hours. Stabilized whipped cream, on the other hand, holds its shape for DAYS so you can make this easy Tres Leches Cake recipe 100% ahead of time without worrying about the topping melting.
You will need:
- heavy cream
- corn syrup
- granulated sugar
- vanilla extract
The corn syrup stabilizes the whipped cream so its sturdier and dependably dreamy; seriously, culinary changing! If you are vehemently opposed to using corn syrup, then you can replace it with granulated sugar but be aware your whipped cream topping is no longer stabilized and you should add the topping just before serving.
How to Make Tres Leches Cake
There are a few different steps to make the best Tres Leches Cake, but they are all very simple and worth EVERY single second!
- Make hot-milk. In a small saucepan, melt butter with milk over low heat, stirring occasionally until butter is completely melted; refrigerate to slightly cool.
- Mix dry ingredients. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon; set aside.
- Whip eggs and sugar until glossy. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip eggs on medium speed for 30 seconds, then slowly whip in sugar until incorporated. Increase speed to medium-high and whip for 5-7 minutes until the mixture is very thick and glossy.
- Add dry ingredients. Reduce speed to low and slowly add melted butter mixture and vanilla. Add flour mixture one third at a time, scraping down bowl as needed, then mix on medium speed just until fully incorporated, about 30 seconds; don’t overmix.
- Transfer batter to pan. Transfer batter to prepared pan and spread into an even layer. Drop the pan a few times on the counter to remove excess air bubbles.
- Bake. Bake at 325 degrees F until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, 35 to 45 minutes. Transfer cake to wire rack and let cool 60 minutes.
- Make tres leches mixture. Meanwhile, pour condensed milk into large microwave-safe bowl or large glass measuring cup and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Microwave on low power (10%), for 15 minutes, stirring and replacing plastic every 5 minutes. Remove bowl from microwave and whisk in evaporated milk, heavy cream, and vanilla. Refrigerate to cool.
- Poke cake with holes. After 60 minutes (cake will still be slightly warm), use a serving fork (or regular fork if you don’t have one), poke holes all over the top of cake.
- Drench cake with tres leches. Slowly and evenly pour milk mixture over cake.
- Let cake rest. Let cake sit at room temperature for 15 minutes, then refrigerate UNCOVERED for at least 6 hours, best if overnight.
- Make whipped topping. Using a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip cream, corn syrup, granulated sugar and vanilla on high speed until soft peaks form, 1 to 2 minutes.
- Finish cake. Frost the cake with whipped topping and dust with cinnamon and/or desired garnishes.
TIPS AND TRICKS FOR BEST TRES LECHES CAKE RECIPE
- Use parchment paper: This cake is likely to stick due to the tres leches sinking to the bottom. Parchment paper ensures your slices come out cleanly every time and makes for easy cleanup.
- Use room temperature eggs. As in all my cake recipes, you will need room temperature eggs for this authentic Tres Leches Cake recipe. Room temperature eggs mix much easier – you can literally feel the difference. This makes it hard to overmix your batter which results in a softer, fluffier, more tender cake. Cold eggs result in a dry, denser cake.
- To quickly bring eggs to room temperature: add warm (not hot) tap water to a bowl then add eggs (still in their shells) for at least 20 minutes.
- DIY whole milk: I usually purchase 1 percent, so to make whole milk, add some heavy cream (which we will need anyway in this recipe) to a one cup measuring cup, then fill the rest with your leaner milk to equal 1 cup.
- Don’t overmix. For the lightest, most tender, best Tres Leches Cake, take care not to overmix the flour mixture, mix just until combined. You never want overmix a flour mixture once combined with eggs as this will overdevelop the gluten and result in a tough cake.
- Make sure the cake is level: Spread the batter evenly in the pan with a spatula to ensure it is level prior to baking then drop the pan on the counter a few times to get rid of any air bubbles. A level cake will evenly soak up the tres leches instead of it pooling in areas.
- Don’t under-bake. While I usually caution against over-baking cakes, this authentic Tres Leches Cake is one cake you don’t want to under bake. If the cake is underdone, it is more likely to become soggy once statured with tres leches. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out cleanly.
- Don’t open oven door early. It is important to not even crack the oven door until it’s time to check your cakes for doneness. Opening the doors can cause your cake to cook unevenly and to fall in the center.
- Don’t poke holes to the bottom. Poke the holes into the cake about ¾ of the way down so you aren’t breaking the bottom of the cake.
- Clean fork. Wipe your fork occasionally for a clean piercing because the warm crumbs will want to stick to it.
- Let tres leches cool. After you have combined the tres leches, refrigerate it until completely cold before pouring over the cake.
- Add tres leches to warm cake. Pouring cold tres leches over a slightly warm cake produces the best results as the cake sucks up the liquid as it cools.
- Don’t shortcut the soaking. While you can soak the easy Tres Leches Cake for as little as six hours, it is really best to soak overnight. The longer the cake has a chance to soak, the more milk mixture it can absorb, resulting in a richer, more flavorful cake.
- Don’t over-beat whipped cream. Beat the whipped topping until soft to medium peaks but don’t over beat because this can cause the cream to separate.
- Corn syrup substitute. The corn syrup stabilizes the whipped cream so it doesn’t deflate or weep. You may substitute the corn syrup for an equal amount of granulated sugar but be aware your topping is no longer stabilized and will need to be used and served immediately.
- Top with plenty of cinnamon. I highly encourage a generous topping of cinnamon – it is divine!
HOW TO AVOID SOGGY TRES LECHES CAKE
In order to avoid soggy Tres Leches Cake, please use the homemade hot-milk sponge cake in this recipe and avoid any boxed sponge cake mixes or yellow cake mixes. Traditional sponge cake will dissolve under the large quantity of liquid and traditional yellow cake doesn’t have enough structure and can become a soggy mess.
Furthermore, don’t under-bake your cake or you are setting yourself up for a soggy cake. Lastly, don’t substitute heavy cream or any of the milks for plain milk.
What should I top Authentic Tres Leches Cake with?
Topping authentic Tres Leches Cake can be as simple as dusting with cinnamon or you can get all sorts of fancy by garnishing with tropical fruit such as mangos or pineapple, berries such as raspberries or strawberries, drizzling with caramel or chocolate or topping with toasted coconut, lime zest or nuts.
Does Tres Leches Cake need to be refrigerated?
Yes, Tres Leches Cake should be refrigerated because it is saturated with three types of dairy plus the whipped topping.
Is Authentic Tres Leches Cake Served Cold?
Yes, authentic Tres Leches Cake is traditionally served cold. It is best to make it a day ahead of time so it can sit in the refrigerator overnight and absorb all of liquid.
How long does easy Tres Leches cake keep for?
Tres Leches Cake should be tightly covered and stored in the refrigerator. It is good for up to five days – if it lasts that long!
Can You Make Tres Leches Cake recipe Ahead of Time?
Yes! This authentic Tres Leches Cake recipe can be made 1-2 days in advance and will taste even better as the cake has more time to soak up the tres leches. You can even add the whipped cream topping IF you use the corn syrup because this stabilizes the whipped cream. If you don’t use the corn syrup, you will want to add the topping right before serving or it won’t be as fluffy.
If you want to make the cake further in advance than a couple days, I suggest making the cake portion, poking with holes, then freezing.
CAN I FREEZE TRES LECHES CAKE?
You may freeze the cake portion of the Tres Leches Cake but not the assembled, soaked cake or it will become mushy. The topping also doesn’t freeze well.
To freeze the cake portion:
- Bake and poke holes in cake according to directions.
- Let cake cook completely.
- Tightly double wrap the cake while in the pan with plastic wrap.
- Freeze cake for up to 3 months.
- Allow the cake to thaw overnight in the refrigerator then unwrap and come to room temperature on the counter.
- Proceed with drenching the cake in tres leches, refrigerating and topping with whipped cream according to recipe instructions.
Looking for more Cake recipes?
- Raspberry Cheesecake with Chocolate Ganache
- Caramel Brown Sugar Pound Cake
- Kentucky Butter Cake
- Chocolate Eclair Cake
- Easy Molten Chocolate Lava Cakes
- Coconut Cake (Triple Coconut)
- Lemon Blueberry Cake
- Carrot Cake with Pineapple Cream Cheese Frosting
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Recipe slightly adapted from Cook’s Illustrated, Best Ever Desserts, pg. 18