Classic Tres Leches Cake

Pastel Clásico de Tres Leches
A slice of plain sponge cake, laid unadorned on a plate, would not likely excite anyone. All alone, it’s not very sweet or moist or interesting. But true to its name, a classic sponge cake is eager to absorb liquid deliciousness, transforming Plain Jane simplicity into something pretty glamorous. That’s tres leches cake, here presented in its most classic form, infused with Latin America’s beloved one-two punch of evaporated milk and sweetened condensed (lots of flan recipes call for both of these), plus a little whole milk for good measure. Frosted with whipped cream (some cooks like a meringue frosting, making the experience sweeter) and, perhaps, with the addition of some fruit, one bite is all you need to comprehend why this is a classic. Homey recipes for tres leches cake abound, made in a 13x9-inch baking dishes, doused with the milks and topped with frosting. But many bakeries in Mexico (and beyond) make two layer round or rectangular tres leches cakes, sandwiched with fruit and decorated beautifully enough for the most special occasions. That’s the path I’m on here. People who are far better trained historians than I am have been frustrated in their attempts to unearth the exact invention of this cake. Yes, it’s so incredibly popular in Mexico, many think it must come from there. But it’s just as popular in many Latin American countries. And yes, because cooks have been soaking cakes and breads with all kinds of liquid goodness for millennia, some think it must be ancient. But this particular soaked sponge cake with the inimitable infusion of two canned milks is a unique. Was it the canned milk producers who thought up this version? If so, not one has stepped up to claim the distinction. Was someone making flan, but, realizing they had no eggs, doused a stale sponge cake with the eggless flan mixture and changed the course of history. Perhaps we’ll never know. Though this version is very traditional, I like to vary the milks (think variations like coconut milk in place of evaporated, cajeta instead of sweetened condensed, espresso instead of half the milk), add ground toasted nuts in place of a quarter of the flour, use caramelized apples for the fruit in fall—the possibilities are endless.
Servings: 12(or a few more)


  • For the Cake
  • 1 1/2 cups(210 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 2teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2teaspoon salt
  • 6 eggs
  • 1/3 cup(80 grams) vegetable oil
  • 3 tablespoons(45 grams) water
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons(250 grams) sugar
  • 1/4teaspoon cream of tartar
  • For the tres leches soaking liquid
  • One14-ounce can evaporated milk
  • One12-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
  • 3/4cup whole milk
  • 1teaspoon vanilla
  • For finishing the cake
  • 2cups (heavy) whipping cream
  • A fewtablespoons of sugar if desired
  • 4cups berries (halved or quartered strawberries, raspberries, blackberries or blueberries—any or all make a beautiful cake)


Make the cakes.  Oil the bottom and sides of 2 9-inch round cake pans.  Cut 2 9-inch parchment circles and lay in the pans.  Turn on the oven to 350 degrees and adjust a shelf to the middle.  

In a medium bowl whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.  Separate the eggs, putting the whites into the bowl of your mixer, the yolks into another medium bowl.  Whisk the oil, water and half (1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon/125 g) the sugar into the yolks.  With the whisk attachment, beat the whites with the cream of tartar on medium speed until foamy.  Increase the speed to medium-high and, when the whites look like they will hold soft peaks, add the second half of the sugar 1 tablespoon at a time, beating for about 30 seconds after each addition.  Once all the sugar is incorporated, continue beating for another minute or so, until the egg whites are nearly stiff.   Whisk the dry ingredients into the egg yolk mixture until thoroughly incorporated, then gently stir in about ¼ of the whites to lighten the batter.  In 2 additions, carefully fold in the remaining egg whites, folding just until there are no visible streaks of white.  

Divide the batter between the two pans, slide into the oven and bake until lightly golden and springy to the touch (a toothpick inserted near the middle should come out clean), about 22 to 25 minutes.  Cool 10 minutes, then run a thin knife around the edge of both pans and turn the cakes out onto cooling racks.  Cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes. 

Make the Tres LechesIn a bowl or blender jar, combine the evaporated, sweetened condensed and whole milk with the vanilla.  Whisk or process until thoroughly combined.

Finish the cake.   With your electric mixer, beat the cream (adding a few tablespoons of sugar if you wish) until it forms stiff peaks.  Have the fruit at easy access.  Place one of the cake layers on a serving plate and poke 20 or 30 holes in it with a skewer or large fork.  Slowly and evenly start spooning the tres leches liquid over the entire surface of the cake (don’t miss the edges), letting one spoonful be absorbed before adding the next.  It will take about 4 or 5 minutes for the cake to absorb about half the liquid, but if you notice any liquid seeping out at the bottom, stop adding more; the cake has absorbed its max.  Spread about 1 cup of whipped cream over the cake, then top with a little less than half the fruit, pressing the fruit into the cream. Lay the second cake on top, gently press it to compact the filling and, if necessary. to level it.  Poke holes in the cake, then slowly spoon on the remaining liquid. 

Frost the sides and top of the cake with the remaining whipped cream.  Pile on the remaining fruit and refrigerate your beautiful creation until you’re ready to serve.

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