Recipe: Tres Leches Cake


There’s some foods that you just seem to have a love affair with. That’s what happened between me and tres leches cake. During our first rendevouz, I was stunned into silence. I may have upset the other people I was dining with that night when I stopped paying attention to their conversation. All my focus was on this dessert. Simple, sweet, and made with one of my favorite ingredients in the world: milk.

I’ll get back to the cake in a moment, but I want to tell you something about me and milk: we’re best friends. It’s been like that since I was little, when I turned up my nose at carbonated beverages like soda. I was teased a lot as a child. I ordered milk at restaurants (even when it wasn’t the cool thing to do), drank it with pizza (I still don’t understand why people think this is strange), and even laughed so hard once…well, you get the picture, yes? I still drink a gallon of it a week and if a day passes and I don’t have a glass, there’s something noticeably wrong with me.


So how could I not love a dessert that’s created from not one, but three milks? Right?

The first time I made my own tres leches cake it came out of the oven and went almost straight into the trash. I could tell something was wrong: cake shouldn’t be dense like a brownie when it comes out of the oven. I cut a piece to try and grimaced. Utter failure. Hated it.

Time number two (a different recipe) was more successful, though it still didn’t have the lightness I remember my very first slice having. I took it to a party and people were happy. But I forgot about it.

See, the test of a good dessert for me is how much I daydream about it after it’s gone. A day means stunning. Two to four means excellent. A week and it stays in my repetoire as delicious. But if I forget about it? I rarely make those again.

I recently made a third attempt, after copying down a recipe Cooks Illustrated had published in one of its magazines last summer. I don’t know why it took me so long to make one of my favorites. It makes enough that you need to share it and really, it requires strawberries in my book. Strawberries are perfect now.

My kitchen was a mess by the end (the final recipe I leave you with has been modified for the original to save you some cleaning) and I was rushed to make it to my dinner on time. But this one I was thinking about the next morning. And that night. And the next day…

Tres Leches Cake
Milk Mixture
1 (14-oz) can sweetened condensed milk
1 (12 oz) can evaporated milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups unbleached cake flour
2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon table salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup whole milk
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. For the Milk Mixture: Whisk together the condensed milk, evaporated milk, cream, and vanilla. If you’re feeling particularly daring, you could heat the condensed milk in a pot over the stove until it thickens and begins to brown slightly; then whisk in evaporated milk, cream, and allow to cool to room temperature. But you don’t have to.
2. For the Cake: Heat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 13 by 9-inch baking pan. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. In a small saucepan over low heat, heat butter and milk until butter melts completely; set aside and allow to cool slightly.
3. Beat eggs in large bowl for about 30 seconds using either a hand held mixer or a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Add sugar slowly on low speed until incorporated. Change speed to medium-high and beat for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the mixture becomes glossy. Set the speed to low then mix in milk-butter mixture and vanilla. Add flour mixture in three additions, then mix on medium speed until fully incorporated. Transfer the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Allow cake to cool on wire rack for 10 minutes.
4. Using a toothpick or skewer, poke holes at regular intervals in top of cake; they should be spaced about 1/3 to 1/2 inch apart (this is pretty dull — it’s best to ask for some help). Pour milk mixture over cake in several steps, until completely absorbed. Let sit at room temperature 15 minutes, then refrigerate uncovered for at least 3 hours (no more than 24 hours).
5. For the Topping: You’ll want to frost this cake right before serving, so remove cake from refrigerator at least 30 minutes beforehand. Beat heavy cream, powdered sugar, and vanilla to soft peaks, 1 to 2 minutes, using your stand or hand-held mixer. Spread over cake, top with sliced strawberries, and serve.