Tres Leches is our family´s all time favorite dessert. The reason for this is very simple: my mom has the best recipe in the whole wide world. This is not an overstatement, there is no close second that we´ve ever come across. Growing up in Lima, all our friends were crazy about it too, and were very happy that two large containers of cold, incredibly wet Tres Leches could very often be found in our fridge when they visited our house. The large containers never lasted more than a couple of days, and I´m afraid the largest portion always ended up in my grateful belly. We would have it for dessert after lunch and dinner, take huge portions of it in our lunchboxes to school, and I don´t know about the rest of the family, but I would even have it for breakfast (not very wise, but back then I didn´t even know the meaning of the word “health”). All I knew was that two 8 x 8 inch expressways to pleasure land were staring at me every time I opened the fridge. There was no way I could resist.
Tres Leches is a typical dessert in most Latin American countries and nobody really has a clear idea where it comes from originally, and we all say it´s ours. Some people believe it´s a Latin American take on the European tradition of soaking cake in a liquid, like Rum Cake or Tiramisu. Some condensed milk companies claim they made up the recipe and put it on the back of the cans to increase the popularity of their products and sell more. But one thing most historians agree on is that it was first made in Nicaragua. My mom grew up in that country, so her over achievement at preparing this dessert fitted the picture. Ironically, she found her kick-ass recipe in a cookbook edited in Peru, but signed by a famous Nicaraguan pastry chef who had moved here.
I never really tried another Tres Leches until a couple years ago, even though it´s a classic in Peru and can be found virtually everywhere. I haven´t been particularly impressed by any of the ones I´ve had in restaurants, so I now know I was right when I used to tell everyone that ours was the best. The problem is that most places sell a commercial Tres Leches that uses pre-made mixes, (like brownies from a box, which are nothing compared to an old-school homemade batch). Another problem is that some are too dry, not soaking in enough milk. Some are too sweet, especially when covered with meringue, as many people do. A little meringue for decoration is ok, but a layer of meringue over a layer of sweet cake can be too much. In any case, when you do it yourself, you can put less sugar in your meringue if you want to control the sweetness. Some people decorate it with whipped cream instead, and even this can be too heavy.
The secret for a good Tres Leches is to keep the cake light and fluffy. Making something denser like a butter cake for a base won´t have very good results. The milk mixture doesn´t get absorbed very well this way, or the dessert becomes too heavy and mushy. Making a perfectly light sponge cake, and soaking it with the milks as soon as it comes out of the oven, helps it absorb the liquid evenly and keeps it light, making you want more. The original recipe calls for 3 egg yolks in the milk mixture, but with salmonella running wild these days you may want to skip this step. The result is fantastic anyway, so you won´t miss it. I love to eat it incredibly humid and cold, after a couple days in the fridge, when it has settled and acquired an almost creamy texture. I also think the coldness somehow balances the sweetness.
Three years ago I found myself in Lima trying to learn how to make a Tres Leches for the first time, as I started a dessert business and one of my customers wanted to add it to her menu. She wanted the original recipe, that she had heard was from Nicaragua. “I´m your girl”, I jumped immediately. Our recipe, as we knew would happen, was a total hit. I also made a more Peruvian take on it with Lucuma, a typical fruit from the Andes that is used for many desserts such as mousses, cheesecakes, ice creams, etc. What I did was blend some of it into the 3 milk mixture, et voilà ! It took longer to be absorbed by the cake, as it was more viscous, but the result was amazing. Only problem: it´s shelf life was shorter than the regular Tres Leches, because the fruit went bad faster.
Here is our fail-proof recipe for you to enjoy with your loved ones. It´s guaranteed to make everyone secretly want to lick the plate, (or be shameless like me and actually do it). If you want you can add some Lucuma flavor for a little extra Peruvian-ness and yummie-ness. If you find Lucuma powder in the supermarket or grocery store, just add 2 tablespoons to the milk mixture. You can be the judge of how much is enough. Last year we took a huge tray to a Thanksgiving dinner in Virginia, and it was gone before anyone could say Tres Leches. Compliments abounded. Why don´t you try it? You may become the dessert rock star of your next social gathering.
- 3 eggs (at room temperature)
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 1½ teaspoon baking powder
- ½ cup sugar
- ¼ cup milk (at room temperature)
- 1 can condensed milk
- 1 can evaporated milk
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon vanilla essence
- Turn the oven on to 350º F.
- Sift the flour together with the baking powder.
- Beat eggs at the highest speed for about 5 minutes. They have to grow to about 3 times the volume (or more) from when you started beating them. Make sure your mixer is completely dry before you pour the eggs in it, otherwise they won´t grow. Same advice goes when preparing the meringue.
- Add the sugar little by little while still beating the grown eggs.
- Turn the beater down to slow speed and add a third of the flour, then a third of the milk, then a third of the flour, and so on, till all the ingredients blend completely.
- Transfer to an oven proof container (I use Pyrex), and bake for 30 minutes.
- In the meantime, mix the 3 milks with the vanilla and set aside.
- To make sure the cake is ready, pinch with a knife and it should come out clean, otherwise leave it in the oven for a few extra minutes till the knife comes out clean.
- Pinch the cake everywhere with a stick or with a fork. Do it as soon as it comes out of the oven so it´s still hot. Pour the cold milks over the cake immediately, making sure you do this evenly and cover every part of the cake, including the sides and corners.
- Let it cool, and then serve, or put in the fridge to serve cold (I prefer the latter). It keeps well in the fridge for several days, even better if covered with a lid or plastic film.
- If you want to decorate it with meringue, here are the instructions:
- Beat 2 egg whites at full speed till they grow and start getting the consistency of soft meringue. (Again, make sure your mixer is completely dry and that there´s absolutely no trace of yolk, otherwise the whites won´t grow). Pour ½ cup confectioner´s sugar (or to taste), tablespoon by tablespoon, while still beating. You may want to do this on a low speed so it doesn´t bring up a sugar cloud in all your kitchen, and when it´s properly mixed with the egg whites start beating fast again. Stop beating when the meringue has the consistency you want and looks shiny and silky. If you keep beating past this point the meringue gets ruined, so better to stop early than late.