What’s not to love about a deliciously rich, custard-soaked vanilla sponge cake? The luscious sweet is a revered classic throughout Latin America. A staple at birthday parties, weddings, quinceañeras and all manner of celebratory family gatherings, the moist tres leches cake takes its name from its preparation with three types of milk – evaporated, condensed and heavy cream – and in some Latin countries, comes only second to flan as an all-time favorite dessert.
But believe it or not, the sweet taste of tres leches is accompanied by some fiery controversy about its origins. Some argue it’s a dessert native to central Mexico. Others say that pastel de tres leches came from Nicaragua, where the European tradition of soaked cakes (think Italian tiramisu) was made popular with the production of condensed and evaporated milk in the mid to late 1800s.
Regardless of its origin, tres leches cake has soared in popularity – even spawning the popular Häagen-Dazs ice cream flavor in 2004 – and is perfect for making at home for any occasion. And while the cake is perfect in its simplicity, it’s also open to interpretation: try substituting coconut milk for the heavy cream, topping the cake with seasonal fruit or as I do here, adding your choice of spirits for a luxurious adults-only version. However you prepare it, remember the golden rule regarding tres leches cake – the longer you let it sit before serving (at least a few hours) the better it tastes.
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup white granulated sugar, divided
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup whole milk
1 14 oz can evaporated milk
1 12 oz can sweetened, condensed milk
1/4 cup heavy cream
½ cup high-quality brandy
For whipped topping:
1 pint heavy cream
2 tablespoons white granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Using butter or baking spray, grease a 9 x 13 inch pan liberally until completely coated.
2. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Set aside.
3. Carefully separate the eggs. In a mixer, beat the egg yolks with ¾ cup sugar on high speed until pale yellow. Stir in milk and vanilla and pour over the flour mixture. Mix gently until combined.
3. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites on high speed until soft peaks form. With the mixer on, add the remaining ¼ cup sugar and beat until stiff peaks form.
4. Fold the egg whites into the cake batter gently until just combined (over mixing will result in a tough cake). Pour the mixture into the greased pan. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until a cake taster comes out clean. Once the cake has cooled, you may invert the cake onto a deep-rimmed platter.
1. Combine condensed milk, evaporated milk, heavy cream and brandy in a large measuring cup. Pierce the cake in even rows with a fork and drizzle the milk mixture on top of the cake. Let the cake absorb the cream mixture for at least 30 minutes before icing.
2. To ice the cake, whip heavy cream with sugar and cinnamon until thick and spread evenly on the cake. If desired, top with your choice of seasonal fruit. Cut into squares to serve. Yields 12 large slices.