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Tres Leches Cake

Tres Leches cake (or just “tres leches” for short) is a classic Mexican dessert. It’s a light, vanilla sponge cake baked in the pan from which you serve it, saturated with a mixture of three milks: whole milk or half-and-half, sweetened condensed milk, and evaporated milk, then finally frosted with whipped cream (which technically makes it four milks, but whilst one is eating tres leches cake is no time to be counting milks.)

tres leches cake

The origin of Tres Leches cake is questionable. I think most Latin American countries could claim it. But I suspect it has a similar tale as Key Lime Pie: that is, it was a recipe created by the creators of canned milk products in order to encourage people to consume canned milk products. In 1864, Old Man Borden built the largest milk condensing factory to date in New York. This was long before refrigeration and the shelf-stable milk became hugely popular with the people, not to mention as war rations bought by the US government for Union soldiers during the Civil War. I am totally guessing here, but it seems logical that as refrigerators became more wide spread in the US, the market for canned milk moved southward into Mexico and the Tres Leches cake was born. (Edit: Turns out, my guesses were right on. Austin Chronicle writer MM Pack just sent me this link to her article with more history on the cake.)

tres leches cake

I use Alton Brown’s recipe for this cake, almost exactly. Changes I make are to the whipped cream topping: cut back on the sugar and leave the vanilla out for aesthetics. He insists on weighing his dry ingredients, and truthfully it is the best way to bake, though I don’t make a habit of it myself. I’ve given both weight and volume here for those of you without a home scale.

Cake flour is crucial to this cake. You’ll find it next to the all-purpose flour, usually sold in a box similar to a cereal box. Swan’s Down is a common brand and the one my grandma always used. The difference between cake flour and all-purpose flour starts in the field. Cake flour is milled from a “soft wheat” rather than a “hard wheat”; soft wheats have less protein (ie gluten) and because of that, cake flour makes a more tender final product. Then cake flour is milled exceptionally finely and bleached all to hell. The bleaching further deteriorates the gluten so it’s even softer. I’ve read that in a pinch you can make “fake cake flour” by using 1 cup minus 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour and then adding 2 tablespoons cornstarch to it and then sifting it several times to equal 1 cup cake flour. I have not tried it myself and take no responsibility!

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Tres Leches Cake

  • Author: Hilah Johnson
  • Prep Time: 12 hours
  • Cook Time: 25 mins
  • Total Time: 12 hours 25 minutes
  • Yield: 16-20 1x
Scale

Ingredients

  • 6 3/4 ounces (1 1/2 cups + 3 tablespoons) cake flour (plus an extra tablespoon for flouring the cake pan)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 ounces (1/2 cup) butter, softened
  • 8 ounces (1 cup) sugar
  • 5 eggs, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Three Milks:
  • 1 cup half-and-half or whole milk
  • 1 12 ounce can evaporated milk
  • 1 14 ounce can sweetened condensed milk
  • Topping:
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
  • Fresh fruits like strawberries, peaches, and mango

Instructions

  1. Set oven to 350ºF and grease and flour a 9×13″ pan. Set aside.
  2. Whisk flour, baking powder and salt together in a small bowl.
  3. Cream butter with an electric mixer on medium speed until fluffy, about 1 minute.
  4. Add in the sugar and beat on low speed for another minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl if necessary to get all the sugar and butter well mixed and creamy-looking.
  5. With the mixer still on low speed, add the eggs one at a time. Mix well after each egg and don’t add the next until the previous has been fully incorporated.
  6. Mix in the vanilla.
  7. Add the flour mixture a little bit at a time, mixing on low speed and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed, until all the flour is in. When the batter is finished, it will be slightly glossy and fall away from the spatula in wide “ribbons”.
  8. Spread into pan and bake 25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
  9. Cool 30 minutes.
  10. Combine the three milks in a quart measuring cup or pitcher.
  11. Use a skewer to poke about 50 holes in the cake, all over. Go crazy! Make sure the skewer reaches all the way through the cake and to the pan. There should be at least a hole every 1/2 inch.
  12. Pour the milks over the cake. Within 5 minutes, the milk should all be pretty much absorbed. Cover the cake with plastic and refrigerate overnight.
  13. Whip the heavy cream with sugar and vanilla on medium speed until it begins to thicken, then increase and beat on high speed for 2-3 minutes until stiff peaks form.
  14. Spread over cake. Garnish with fruit if desired and serve.
  15. Store leftover cake in the refrigerator, covered, for up to 3 days.

50 Comments

  1. Jon on June 18, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    Hey Hilah, Did you know they make clear vanilla extract?
    http://www.amazon.com/Watkins-Imitation-Vanilla-Extract-Strength/dp/B00325TPXI
    Made right in my home town, and this shiz is the bomb. it says “immitation.” but that’s only because the ratio of vanilla to alcohol isn’t the same as traditional extract. still made with vanilla beans and errathang.

    • Hilah on June 21, 2013 at 2:12 pm

      Thanks, Jon! I’ve heard of it, but never tried using it. That is cool it’s made in your town. I bet the town smells like cookies all day long!

    • Jose on June 9, 2019 at 5:50 am

      I’ve already made this recipe a few times already. Let me tell you it NEVER disappoints! I’ve even made a red velvet variation and it was a hit! Father’s day is coming up and my dad loves his coffee and chocolate so, I want to make a mocha tres leches cake for him. Now, my question is, in your own personal opinion, would you recommend baking chocolate or cocoa powder and how much do you add to the recipe?

  2. Jewel on June 18, 2013 at 9:56 pm

    I made myself a tres leches cake for my own birthday. My husband groused about such a complicated cake to make, blah blah blah. He was disappointed that there would be no ice cream – cinco leches- but I just kept saying, Mhm. Mhm. Just wait. Well, the next evening, I invited my brother and his family over for my birthday, and my how the husband did belabor the point about the cake, and that it wasn’t worth all the time it took to make.
    But after I blew out the candles and served them up a piece, it was silent, and all the man could say was: Oh my!

  3. Jewel on June 19, 2013 at 11:56 pm

    I was giving this recipe more thought. I think I’ll modify the recipe to become a coconut/lime cake, and instead of pouring 3 kinds of leche on it, I shall melt a half gallon of vanilla bean ice cream and pour it over the cake instead. That way, you can have your cake, and eat your ice cream, too!

    • Hilah on June 21, 2013 at 2:08 pm

      Wow! I guess that would work, wouldn’t it? Very interesting thought, Jewel. I can see trying different flavors of ice cream, too…

      • Jewel on September 1, 2013 at 1:03 pm

        It is my birthday, once more, and I made this cake again, using melted vanilla ice cream. It soaked in quickly, and it’s sitting in the fridge waiting for whipped cream and raspberries. I will let you know how it goes. But reading your comment, I thought this: 2 cake mixes, swirled:
        Orange and White, with vanilla ice cream poured over it would make a lovely dreamcicle cake, wouldn’t it!

        • Hilah on September 2, 2013 at 4:58 pm

          Oh boy, dreamsicle cake! I love dreamsicle-flavor. Happy Birthday, Jewel!

          • Jewel on September 2, 2013 at 5:03 pm

            Cake was an absolute success! White cake, 4 cups of melted vanilla bean ice cream, whipped cream and fresh raspberries. The tart raspberries cut through the richness of the cream, and the gulp of cold sweet vanilla milk was exquisite! I will try the dreamsicle cake next.



          • Hilah on September 3, 2013 at 10:24 am

            FAN-tastic! Do let me know how that goes, too! 🙂



  4. Chris on June 22, 2013 at 2:04 am

    Oh Hilah I love tres leches cake but I would always screw up the sponge cake…. until now! It was perfect 🙂 I like to add a little (or a lot ha!) of Brandy to the tres leches mixture, it enhances the flavor but it’s not overpowering at all! *eats the whole cake by himself*

    • Hilah on June 22, 2013 at 3:27 pm

      Hooray! I’m SO happy to hear this wonderful news! Go forth and become King of all Leches!
      And I’m totally trying the brandy next time. Any excuse to sneak more booze in.

  5. rania khalid on June 23, 2013 at 8:04 am

    cant wait to try that!!!!!!!!thanks hilah!

  6. XIOMARA MAYORA on June 24, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    I love your cooking videos!
    You are an inpiration for cooking.

    Thank you for sharing them.

    • Hilah on June 24, 2013 at 1:37 pm

      Thank you, Xiomara! I love your name. It is beautiful. 🙂 Hope you try this recipe!

  7. Gilbert on July 5, 2013 at 8:08 am

    Hilah I noticed that the first paragraph on here says that the cake is served in the pan it’s baked in, is this for a certain reason because I was wondering if I could use a pan with removable sides or should I stick with a normal pan like yours?

    • Hilah on July 5, 2013 at 9:42 am

      Hey Gilbert!
      It’s served from the pan because it’s too soft to remove it. I’d worry if using a pan like the one you’re talking about, the milk would seep through the pan instead of soaking in and also make a big mess in your fridge!

  8. sonya on July 25, 2013 at 1:38 am

    Well made my first tres leche cake today now just waiting for it to soak in why does it take so long lol Ithink i should of made a spare desert.

  9. sonya on July 25, 2013 at 7:44 am

    my cake i think i cooked it way to long its a little dry even with the wet ingredients anyways my questions are the cake powder are you suppose to pack it or just scoop it and how could i perfect it for next time just not cook it so long i think my oven cooks fast.

    • Hilah on July 25, 2013 at 8:50 am

      Hi Sonya!
      The most accurate way to measure flour is like this:
      Use a spoon to scoop the flour into the measuring cup until it’s mounded up on top. Give the side of the cup a gentle tap with the spoon to settle it a little. Don’t pack it. Then use the flat side of a butter knife to level it off.
      Next time, check the cake at 20 minutes and make sure you cream the butter and sugar for the entire two minutes.

  10. Renan on August 23, 2013 at 10:41 pm

    HI, Hilah! I am following the recipe at this very moment and step 4 asks me to add sugar and cream, but the video only adds the sugar. I am following the video, but would like to know which is right for future reference. (:

    • Hilah on August 24, 2013 at 10:00 am

      Aha! I was confused, too, Renan. It was a poor choice of words on my part. I was using “cream” as a verb: “cream together the butter and sugar”. Good decision on your part to follow the video. I’ve changed the wording on the recipe to be more clear.
      Thanks for the heads up! 🙂

  11. Cathlyn on August 31, 2013 at 11:31 pm

    Hey Hilah,

    I’m waiting for my milks to soak in, I’m a little concerned. Your milk seemed to absorb pretty quickly. It’s been 10 minutes for me and still not absorbed. I’ve tried poking more holes. I’m keeping my toes crossed that it’ll be perfection in the morning!

    • Hilah on September 1, 2013 at 11:33 am

      Hi Cathlyn!
      How is it looking? The first 90% of the milk soaks up in the first 5-10 minutes, then the rest goes in overnight. So hopefully it’s good this morning?

  12. Willi on October 9, 2013 at 1:35 am

    Amazing. Made this cake following your recipe exactly but with coconut milk as the whole milk substitute. It was a huge success. Everyone who is a tres leches fan loved the tres leches cake. Thank you. Will definitely make again.

    • Hilah on October 9, 2013 at 1:24 pm

      Oh YES! Thanks, Willi! That’s great to hear. Coconut milk sounds delicioso!

  13. Selina on January 1, 2014 at 9:58 am

    Hi Hilah! I love your recipes and I do have a question
    What is the difference between a 9×13 inch and a 9 inch baking pan and can I use a 9inch springform pan for this recipe?

    • Hilah on January 1, 2014 at 11:46 am

      Hi Selina!
      A 9×13 inch pan is rectangular and has a capacity of about 14 cups and a 9×9 inch baking pan is square (I assume that’s what you meant) and only holds 8-10 cups. A 9″ springform holds 10 cups. So if you were to use another size pan for this, you would end up with a much thicker cake that would take longer to bake.
      Ideally, lacking a 9×13 pan, I’d say to divide the batter between the 9″ cake pan and the springform to get 2 cakes of approximately the same depth.
      If you must, you could try baking the whole batch of batter in one 9″ springform, and reduce the heat by about 25ºF and bake for an additional 10-15 minutes (I’m only guessing here) until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
      Best of luck!

  14. Lonell on February 4, 2014 at 10:34 am

    I am going to try the springform pan as I want this cake out and on a cake plate…experimenting for my own wedding cake. What if you use baking nails or even bake strips? And would you fill the pan(s) 1/2 way or 3/4 way? These will be single layer cakes on separate tiers 6″; 8″; 10″ and 12″.

    • Hilah on February 4, 2014 at 11:27 am

      Hi Lonell,
      I don’t know about the baking nails or strips. I’ve never used them. I think I’d fill them 3/4 of the way to have thicker layers that will maybe hold up better outside of the pan. Good luck!

  15. nikki on February 22, 2014 at 4:12 pm

    hi, hilah! i baked this cake, following your directions and i waited overnight for the 3 milks to soak in, and they didnt. i dont know why and i want to try this cake again!

    • Hilah on February 23, 2014 at 1:03 pm

      Hi Nikki,
      It’s hard to say, without seeing exactly what you did. Maybe next time, poke more holes, or when you make the batter, be sure to mix it really well after each egg to make it light and fluffy to have room for the milks to soak in.
      Hope you do try it again! And I hope it was still tasty, even if it wasn’t perfect. 🙂

  16. Larry Kimball on July 1, 2014 at 9:45 pm

    Very excited here – I’m making my very first tres leches cake! I watched your video, and I’m using your recipe. Cake is cooling now, then I will do a drum solo on it with wood scewers and pour the milks over it. Tomorrow finishing it up with whipped cream, and I ‘ll post pics on Facebook and twitter, with shout-outs to Hilah! Can’t wait!!

    • Hilah on July 2, 2014 at 4:10 pm

      Yay Larry! This is my birthday cake every year. Chris has gotten really good at making it. 🙂

  17. Shonny on October 1, 2014 at 4:15 pm

    Hi Hilah,

    I was wondering if I could use all purpose flour instead of cake flour ?

    • Hilah on October 1, 2014 at 4:24 pm

      Hi Shonny,
      You can, but reduce the amount to just 1 1/2 cups AP flour.

  18. Neena on April 4, 2015 at 2:03 pm

    I watch your video several times and appreciate this recipe . I never heard about it ever. But I will surely do it in the coming days. Thank you Hillah.

  19. Maribeth on November 22, 2016 at 3:11 am

    I soaked the cake overnight, but not all of the milk soaked in. Should I pour the excess off before putting the whipped cream on top or just leave the excess on? Help! This is for an office party!

    • Hilah on November 22, 2016 at 7:29 pm

      Hi Maribeth! It’s fine to leave it unless it’s a whole lot. If it’s just a few tablespoons of milk, don’t worry

  20. Shelly on December 6, 2017 at 2:29 pm

    Hello I want to make this looks great but I am a little confused on the very first part of the recipe about the measurements can you break it down for me is this for the flour thank you

    • Hilah on December 7, 2017 at 8:47 am

      The first part (6 3/4 ounces) is if you want to measure the flour by weight. The second measurement is if you’re using regular American measuring cups and spoons.

  21. Shelly on December 9, 2017 at 3:06 pm

    Hi hilah I’m gonna be trying to make the tamales and tres Leche cake for Xmas my husband is from Guatemala I’m American and I know these dishes are important to him on Xmas so I am gonna do my best to make these dishes hope they come out as good as yours. So with the tres leches cake is it 6 cups of flour or is it just 3/4ounces or 1 1/2 cups now if I use the cake flour is it the same amount thank you

  22. Shelly on December 9, 2017 at 3:16 pm

    Ok I think I got it it’s 1 1/2 + 3 tablespoons of flour it’s that right hilah thanks

    • Hilah on December 10, 2017 at 10:50 am

      It’s 1 1/2 cups plus 3 tablespoons OR 6 3/4 ounces by weight

  23. Shelly on December 27, 2017 at 12:20 pm

    Happy holidays hilah I just wanna say thank you for the recipes my tres leches came out perfect my husband and his family are from Guatemala and they could not believe how delicious this cake was now my husband said can you make another one I said maybe New Years also the tamales came out perfect they could not believe how good they came out so again thanks if it wasn’t for you my holiday dinner and dessert would have not done so well lol thanks

    • Hilah on December 29, 2017 at 4:26 pm

      AWESOME!!! Yay! Thank you for the update, Shelly! So happy to hear your holiday meal was a success with your family 😀

  24. Jose on June 9, 2019 at 5:53 am

    I’ve already made this recipe a few times already. Let me tell you it NEVER disappoints! I’ve even made a red velvet variation and it was a hit! Father’s day is coming up and my dad loves his coffee and chocolate so, I want to make a mocha tres leches cake for him. Now, my question is, in your own personal opinion, would you recommend baking chocolate or cocoa powder and how much do you add to the recipe?

    • Hilah on June 9, 2019 at 7:42 am

      Hi Jose!
      I haven’t tried this but my best guess is to use cocoa: Sift it into the flour, maybe just a couple tablespoons, and perhaps a teaspoon or so of instant coffee/espresso. You could add a little cocoa and instant coffee to the whipped cream topping, too.

  25. traci on August 18, 2019 at 12:52 pm

    I am making this cake for the first time for a friend’s birthday – trying to get the timing right considering i will be making it on a work day! will it work to bake in the evening, cool, do the three milks, and then let it refrigerate 24 hours before adding the whipped cream and fruit topping? or better to do the whipped cream topping after 12 hours and then let it stay refrigerated until the evening? does it matter? thanks!

    • Hilah on August 19, 2019 at 10:02 am

      Hi Traci! I’d wait until as late as you can to add the whipped cream to make sure it stays fluffy as possible.

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