Tres Leches Cake

This is a favorite of mine. A tres leches cake, also known as a “three-milk cake”, is a dense, moist cake made with three types of milk and topped with a generous whipped cream topping.  The unusual aspect of this cake is that after baking it is poked with numerous holes and then soaked for some time in a mixture of three kinds of milk: evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and heavy cream–hence the name. Served chilled, this decadent cake is unlike any other. In a tres leches cake the mixture of milks creates just the right amount of sweetness, and density, yielding a rich, velvety cake that almost melts on your tongue without being mushy.

tres leche cake

The History of Tres Leches Cake

Like many other well-known foods, there is a dispute over where tres leches cake was first created.  Most food historians believe it likely came from Nicaragua. But this delicious milk-soaked cake, with subtle rum essence, also has strong roots in Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guatemala, so its exact origin remains a bit murky. The cake’s existence could probably be traced more directly by looking at the evolution and popularity of both evaporated milk and condensed milk, two kinds of milk essential to the making of a tres leches cake.

tres leche cake

Canned Milk

Canned milk began being produced in the 1850s and increased in popularity during the World Wars. At that time, canned milk was in such demand that companies, such as Nestlé, had such a difficult time keeping up with the demand that they opened factories in various locations throughout Latin America, including none other than, Nicaragua.

tres leche cake

Due in large part to the Great Depression in the 1930s, sales of conned milk in the United States skyrocketed. Canned milk was affordable and added true luxury to cooking in times of need. Historians believe it was around this time that creativity within the kitchen led to the invention of this unique cake. And to this day, it is Nestle that is credited for making the tres leches cake more “mainstream“.

Milk aside, the actual technique of soaking a cake probably originated far earlier than canned milk, likely in England, sometime around the Middle Ages. This belief stems from the idea that a tres leches can actually be categorized as a trifle cake and the concept of soaking a cake was simply a resourceful way to use up old or stale cake or bread.

tres leche cake

A Celebration Cake

Many people who grew up in Mexico and the bordering states will tell you that a tres leches cake is considered a celebration cake and the cake one often expects to be served at birthdays, graduations, family gatherings, and weddings and that you’re guaranteed to see it as a centerpiece at traditional Mexican quinceaneras and annual Cinco de Mayo fiestas. Over the years the tres leches cake has grown in popularity, so much so that this beloved milky sponge cake has become prominent in American culture from deconstructed versions by famous chefs to casual roadside Tex-Mex eateries across the states, all with their unique twists.

Special occasion or otherwise, a tres leches cake is a wonderful addition to the cake world. I welcome this cake’s simplicity as well as its subtle flavors that linger after each bite. A tres leches cake is not for everyone, there is no chocolate or frosting so scrap that sugary image from your mind and think rich and flavorful with a surprisingly light cake that is both memorable and, if you ask me, completely addictive.

tres leche cake

About the Author

Andrea Potischman

I am a professionally trained NYC chef turned CA mom and food blogger. I post about real food, with doable ingredient lists that are family friendly.

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