Tres Leches Cake

Do you know how sometimes you really just want a birthday cake, even when it’s not your birthday? You find yourself asking everyone you know if their birthday is coming up, and if their answer is no, you ask if they know of anyone whose birthday is coming up. An aunt, an uncle, a cousin (twice removed), or even a dog, perhaps? You’ll settle for a pet’s birthday at this point because all you really want right now is an excuse to make and eat some birthday cake. That’s totally normal right? Everyone does that. I’m not just projecting my feelings for birthday cake onto you all, am I? That’s a rhetorical question. One that I don’t expect for you to answer, like at all. Mostly because I know you get me on this. We’re on the same page.

I have a sister (the older one) who doesn’t like birthday cake. Or just cake in general, for that matter. She’s prejudice against cake. A true cake hater. Those are the worst kind of people, if you ask me. Every night right before I sleep, as I’m lying in bed, I ask myself the same question. This is every single night, without fail, mind you. I ask the ceiling of my room, and to anyone out there listening up in the stars, “Why is my sister such a weirdo?” Sometimes I’ll even ask another question right after like, “What did I do to deserve a crazy sister who doesn’t like cake?” I must have killed a cute baby animal at some point in my life, and now I’m being punished by the universe. I’ll normally ask those questions and then right after, I’ll eat a giant slice of cake because I get too worked up thinking about it, and the only way to calm me down is with some (it’s not anyone’s birthday but I still have birthday cake) cake.

Tres leches cake, or three milks cake for all you non-spanish speakers out there, is a cake that has three different types of milk in it. (Duh). I won’t even say anything because many people close to me asked what it meant. You know who you are. I wasn’t a fan of tres leches cake growing up, actually I hated it. I’m glad my mom hated it too, because we never had it as kids. It was always too moist and wet for my taste. Not the way a birthday cake should be. I remember going to my friend’s birthday parties as a kid, being super excited for cake, and when they’d bring it out and I’d see that it was tres leches I’d run up and toss the cake on the floor. I was doing everyone a favor. Cut to me now, many years later, I actually love it. Only when it’s homemade though, because I get to control the amount of wetness in the cake. That my friends is the meaning of happiness in life. Let’s make birthday cake for ourselves even when it’s not our birthday.

This recipe is actually super simple to make and put together. It’s perfect for all those celebrations you plan on having (did someone say birthday?) because you don’t have to worry about all those different layers and stacking up the cakes and what not. It’s just a sheet cake, that you can serve right out of the pan. But it still looks pretty awesome (am I right?), so it works for any occasion.

The first thing to do is to combine the dry ingredients. You can just whisk them together or you can run the ingredients through a sifter. I’m too lazy to sift so I’m whisking. The world won’t end if you don’t sift, but you didn’t hear that from me.

Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl.

   

Set the dry ingredients off to the side and turn your attention to the eggs. We have a lot of eggs, in case you haven’t noticed, we’re using six eggs. That’s half a dozen. But don’t let it throw you off. We’re sort of making  a sponge cake, if you will. Not sort of, we are. This is the best kind of cake to make for this recipe because it’ll soak up the three milks perfectly. That’s what we need. Milk to get soaked up into cake.

The cool thing about sponge cakes is that they most often don’t have any butter or oil in the batter. The fat comes from the egg yolks, hence why we need so many eggs.

Carefully separate the eggs, making sure that no yolk (or shells) fall in with the whites. Place the whites in a large mixing bowl along with the cream of tarter.

**Tip: Cream of tarter helps stabilize egg whites once they’re beaten and it assists them in the fluffing process as well. If you don’t have cream of tarter on hand, or can’t find any at the store, you can substitute it with equal parts white wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice.**

 

Beat on medium-high for a few minutes, until the whites begin to get frothy and bubbly. Then raise the speed to high and beat until thick, glossy, soft peaks form, without falling. They should stand up straight on the beaters.

 

Put those off to the side for a second, okay more than a second. Just keep an eye on them.

In the meantime, dump the egg yolks into a separate mixing bowl and beat until somewhat pale in color and just starting to thicken.

 

Add the granulated sugar and beat on high until it becomes a light yellow color and has become super thick and ribbons fall when you lift the beater(s). It should take about 4 to 6 minutes. It’ll be very thick and you might think there’s too much sugar but don’t worry, you’re doing it right.

 

Add the water, vanilla extract, and almond extract and stir until smooth.

  

Add the flour and mix until just combined. Gently stir it in, don’t whip it on high thinking you’re whipping cream and making butter or something, cause you’re not. You just want to lightly fold in the flour.

 

The last thing to do is fold in the egg whites. Remember those from earlier? Grab them now and add a big scoop of it to the batter.

**Tip: It’s important to do this step by hand. You need to fold in the egg whites, do not stir or mix. Folding in the whites makes sure they don’t deflate. You went through all that trouble of fluffying them up. The last thing you want to do is take all that air out of them. Add the whites in batches and just fold them in.**

   

That’s pretty much it. Are you surprised by how easy it was? Every time I make a spongecake I pretty much hold my breath the entire time because I’m afraid to deflate the whites. I’ll cross my fingers when it’s in the oven praying to the cake gods that it turns out perfectly. Hey, you never know. It can be fickle, especially if the weather outside is acting funky.

Grease and flour a 9×13 inch baking pan, and pour the batter into it, tapping the pan on the counter a few times to release the air bubbles.

 

Bake the cake for about 25 to 30 minutes, until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Let the cake cool completely on a wire rack. It should take a few hours, just to be on the safe side. You don’t want to add the milks while the cake is warm.

Once the cake has cooled, grab a long skewer and poke a bunch of holes throughout the cake. I know that sounds weird, but just do it. It’ll be a great excuse to release any stress or anger you have stored up inside of you. Take all your frustration out on the cake, go ahead. Poke it to death. I give you permission to.

**Note: Poking the cake does release stress and anger, yes, but it actually helps absorb the milks later on, so it’s a win-win situation.**

Now we’re going to combine three different types of milk, which is where the name “tres leches” comes from. In a large bowl— preferably one with a spout for easy pouring—whisk together, heavy cream, sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk and vanilla extract (and rum if you want to be adventurous and sinful).

**Note: Since you’re not cooking the milk mixture, the alcohol won’t cook off, so if you plan on adding the rum, make sure you keep that in mind. Don’t use the rum if you’re making this for kids. Just throwing that warning out there. I’m sure it goes without saying.**

  

  

At this point you can pour the milk mixture over the cake. You can decide how moist you’d like your cake to be, by adding as much or as little of the mixture as you’d like. I don’t like a super wet cake so I’ve made the milk mixture just the right proportions, but if you feel like it’s still too much for you, you don’t have to add it all. I won’t be mad.

Cover the cake with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a few hours. It’s important for the cake to chill for at least 3 hours so that it firms up a bit. It’ll give the milk a chance to set in and allow the cake to absorb it.

This cake doesn’t get a fancy frosting or icing. I’ve had tres leches before with a thick (and almost too sweet) meringue frosting. I’m not a fan of super sweet desserts. So instead, we’re going to top this with fresh whipped cream.

Beat some cold heavy whipping cream with a little bit of powdered sugar (like barely any sugar) and vanilla extract until thick and soft peaks have formed.

  

Be careful to not over whip the cream because it will turn into butter. I’ve seen it happen. Especially when you least expect it.

Add the cream to the chilled cake and spread it out onto a thin layer. You can make lines (as a design) like I did, if you want. I think it adds to the look of the cake.

 

Remember how I said earlier that you can use this as a celebration cake, like for a birthday or something? Well, we want it to look nice, so make it look nice! Grab some of that extra whipped cream, stick it in a piping bag and decorate the cake with a cool simple border all around.

Since we’re making it look all nice with the decorative edge, why not go all the way? Take out some sprinkles and sprinkle the edges with some color.

Most tres leches cakes are cut into squares and are topped with maraschino cherries. It’s one of those traditional things that has to happen. A rule set in stone when it comes to this cake. I wanted mine to be somewhat traditional, so I brought the cherries. Mainly because I love maraschino cherries….in my alcoholic beverages.

Cut the cake into 12 even slices.

**Note: I think 12 is a good number, making the slices a decent serving size, but if you think that’s too big or if you want to make the portions smaller, to stretch out the cake, you can.**

Top each slice with a cherry, right in the middle. I like to dry the cherrie a bit with a paper towel so that the red color doesn’t bleed onto the cake.

If you would like to make this cake in advance, you can pour the milk mixture over it, cover it tightly with plastic wrap and place it in the fridge for a few days. Just make the whipped cream and frost the cake on the day you plan on serving it. It’s a great way to make the dessert for a party in advance, that way you have one less thing to worry about. See? I’m constantly thinking about you guys.

Some people really like their tres leches cake soaking with milk, so if you don’t think there’s enough in this recipe, you can make a batch and a half and make it more “milky” if you’d like. I like for there still to be some kind of cake texture, which is why I don’t add that much milk. I feel like then you’re just eating mushy cake, with a puddle of milk, that doesn’t sound appetizing to me for some reason, but who am I to judge?

You can make different types of tres leches cakes. You can infuse the milk with different flavors like, coconut? Use coconut milk in place of one of the other milks, if you’d like. You can also sprinkle flaked coconut on top to really enhance that coconut flavor. You can also fold in chunks of canned pineapple into the batter, right before baking to really go all the way with that tropical flavor infusion.

Another great tip would be to make coffee flavored tres leches. Add cold brewed coffee and coffee flavored liqueur to the milk mixture for that perfectly flavored coffee dessert.

If you’ve never tried tres leches for yourself, you’re really missing out. I highly recommend that you stop everything you’re doing right now, and make this cake for yourself. Don’t have an excuse or occasion to make it? Who cares! Slap a few candles on it and sing to yourself like it’s your birthday, but not. You deserve to treat yo self! Either way, just make the cake and let me know what you think. I’m sure you’ll be writing to me to tell me how addicting it is. Enjoy!

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Tres Leches Cake

This homemade sponge cake is doused with three different types of milk; heavy cream, sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk. Topped with fresh whipped cream and adorned with maraschino cherries, this cake is perfect for every occasion. Make this for your next birthday gathering, the crowd will love it, and they’ll love you (which is what’s really important).

yield: 1  9×13 inch cake, about 12 slices

Ingredients:
Cake:
  • 1½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 6 large eggs, separated
  • ½ teaspoon cream of  tarter, or ½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1½ cups granulated sugar
  • ⅓ cup cold water
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
Tres Leches:
  • 1  cup heavy cream
  • 1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 small can (5 ounces) evaporated milk
  • 1 tablespoon rum or brandy (optional)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Frosting:
  • 2 cups cold heavy whipping cream
  • ½ cup powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • sprinkles, for garnish
  • maraschino cherries, for garnish
Preparation:

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a 9×13 inch baking pan, set aside.

2. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt, set aside. In a large mixing bowl whip together the egg whites, along with the cream of tarter (or lemon juice) until soft peaks form, about 5 to 7 minutes.

3. In a separate mixing bowl, beat the egg yolks until somewhat thick and pale. Add the granulated sugar and beat on high, for about 5 minutes, until very thick and ribbons fall when you lift the beaters. Stir in the vanilla extract, almond extract and water, until smooth. Add the flour mixture and stir until just combined. Fold in the egg whites, a little at a time, making sure to not over mix.

4. Pour batter into prepared baking pan and bake for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

5. Whisk together the tres leches ingredients, in a medium bowl. Using a wooden skewer, poke holes all throughout the cooled cake. This will allow for the milk mixture to seep in. Pour the milk, evenly, over the cake. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to chill in the fridge for about 3 hours, or overnight.

6. Make the frosting by beating the heavy whipping cream along with the sugar and vanilla extract, until soft peaks form. Spread the whipped cream over the chilled cake. Decorate it anyway you’d like. Make a decorative border with the remaining whipped cream. Sprinkle with sprinkles and/or top each slice with a cherry. Leftovers will keep in the fridge, covered, for a few days. Enjoy!

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Join the Conversation

  1. I relate to your cake feelings so much that I needed to stop everything and comment. I have been known to walk around the office looking for birthday cake. You would think in a company so big it must be someone’s birthday pretty much ever day! And I agree 100% with your feelings of tres leches cakes – so now I must try yours! As for your sister…I have no words.

  2. Ooohh my goodness gracious. Amazing. Looks so good! And ugh, your sister – how could you even call her a relative?! 😉

  3. This looks amazing! I agree with you and the wetness of this cake; soggy cake is not good cake. I’ve made a tres leches cake before, and replaced one of the milks with coconut milk. My family are coconut fiends, so that went over pretty well.

    Can I please just have a corner piece? 😉

  4. Yum, it looks so good! I didn’t know tres leches cake as a kid since we don’t make it here, but I love it now. In fact I recently made a batch of tres leches ice cream, though now that I see this post, I really want a slice of the cake, hehe

  5. you sister does not like cake….like WHY???? I havent had my birthday cake yet this year and this sounds really really good! you are a good cake cutter too.

  6. Hi!! I love your recipes and this is my favorite cake of all!! I want to ask you if you really need a mixer to do it? or could I do it by hand? because I don’t have a mixer and I would LOVE to try and make this cake.

    Thanks~

    1. I’m sure you could do it, you’ll just need a lot of patience and strength to whip up those egg whites, and egg yolks, and whipped cream!

    2. I just made this cake without a hand mixer. It took a little bit more time, and my arm is a little sore, but the cake came out fabulous!!

  7. Tres leches is my favorite cake of all time!! LOVE this.

  8. Hello. I don’t seem to find any heavy cream where I live. Any suggestion for substitution? thank you.

    1. You can just use whole milk!

  9. And I am seriously considering dropping everything to make this cake. Can’t remember the last time I had tres leches cake, and I don’t know if I’ve ever had a homemade version. Gotta fix that!

  10. I came across your site while google-ing photos of traditional tres leches cake. So glad the search led me here! I’m happy to have a new recipe site that shows how beautiful food can be! You really take pride in creating and capturing amazing food. Gorgeous work!

  11. I have never had Tres Leches cake, but I think I’m going to have to find an opportunity to try making one. & eating it, naturally 🙂

  12. This is the 3rd time I made your cake!! It’s absolutely amazing. My family devoured it. I adjusted the almond extract to our liking since it was a bit overwhelming but the consistency is perfect. Not soggy nor dry just perfect. Thank you Jon Jon no more store bought birthday cakes for this momma!

  13. I just made this cake for a group of friends. Was a huge hit! Thanks. It’s now become my favorite cake! Yum

    1. I’m so happy to hear that it was a hit!! Thank you for making it, Reb!

  14. Pinning it now..love the way you have described the steps.I am going to try making this today..and if all goes well..planning to make it for my 2 yo bday party. How far ahead in time can we actually make this?

    1. Hello Shikha! I would say about 4 days, you don’t want to do more than that since the cake would get to “wet.”

  15. I happened to find this recipe while trying to perfect my family’s Tres Leches recipe. My family is from Nicaragua but I found that their recipe needed some tweaking or maybe some of the details just got lost in translation… Anyway, this recipe came out perfect for me and the photos are so pretty too!! I have been browsing your website ever since and can’t wait to try more recipes.. Awesome job! 🙂

  16. I’m so excited to try this recipe. You sold me at soggy cake. I HATE soggy cake…..hoping this is the right amount of milk! Many Thanks

  17. I really do like this recipe especially since it doesn’t require butter which is what usually messes up my cakes (why? That I do not know.) and this reciepie is perfect since I have been looking for a good Tres Leches cake recipe. I have a questionand i hope you can respond to this failty quickly, but can you layer these cakes and will the milk leak out if i do layer them? ( as in one cake split into two layers )

    1. Hello Bridget! Thank you so much for writing. Unfortunately the cake isn’t sturdy enough to handle being layered. You might be able to pull it off if you soak it with a fraction of the milk mixture, otherwise it wouldn’t hold up.

  18. Hi i so love this recipe i just have trouble with the tartar part is there any way of not using it or maybe substitute?

  19. First time making this! I’ve used unsweetened evaporated milk, desert cream and condensed milk! Holding thumbs it tastes as delicious!

  20. antonia says:

    I made this cake last night, however the cake did not absorb the milk mixture it just sat at the top of the cake. I waited for the cake to cool 2 hours before poking holes and adding the milk mixture im not sure what i did wrong..

  21. If I substitute heavy cream with whole milk,is it gonna make a huge difference in taste?

  22. If I subtitute heavy cream with whole milk, is it gonna make a huge difference in taste? Which one do you prefer? The one with heavy cream or heavy milk?? Why?

  23. My cake also did not absorb all the milk, what went wrong?

  24. The best tres leches cake recipe I have found! I have tried about 15 recipes and this is by far my favorite!

  25. I’ve never tried this, but I’m going to.

    1. You have to, Mary! It’s one of my favorite cakes!

  26. Thanks for the fantastic recipe! It was a huge hit when I made it for boyfriend’s family on Easter.

  27. Hello! I’m so happy I found your blog – the recipes look amazing and I can’t wait to make so many of them! I have a question – I was going to “stabilize” the whipped cream frosting with a little gelatin. Do you think it would affect the taste? I have stabilized whipped cream for cream puffs etc. I’d love to know what you think! Thanks so much!!

  28. Christina says:

    I’ve been following your blog for quite a while, probably since around 2014 when you posted this recipe. This tres leches cake has been on my baking bucket list since then and I FINALLY made it! I was weary about the amount of milk when I poured it on the cake, and I’m sorry for doubting you because it worked beautifully. It was delicious and everyone I made it for loved it. Definitely will not wait another 8 years before making it again.

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