Tres leches, a milky affair

LIGHT AND FLUFFY SPONGE CAKE SOAKED IN VANILLA FLAVORED THREE MILKS MIXTURE.

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 8×8 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, or more like, 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 Tiramisú. 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 Nicaragua, so her over achievement 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.

 

TRES LECHES (Makes an 8 x 8 inch tray. About 8-10 portions).

3 eggs (at room temperature)

1 cup all purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup milk (at room temperature)

1 can condensed milk

1 can evaporated milk

1 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon vanilla essence

 

Preparation:

*Turn the oven on to 350 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 1/2 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.

 

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Comments

  1. Oh my GOSH! I think I just stepped into Dessert heaven! I love this recipe! I’ll be bookmarking it and returning. Def. a recipe I want to do during my next family gathering. Mil gracias!!!

  2. Mmmm looks positively delish! I’m trying to learn to make Latino recipes (or learn how to COOK in general haha) and this looks like something I’m definitely gonna have to try! Gracias!

    • De nada chicas! Its actually easier than it looks, you just need to go ahead and DO IT! :) Good luck, y provecho!

      • Carolyn says:

        Hi!

        Thank you for sharing this awesome cake. I tried to make it tonight and something weird happened. I started to poke holes with a fork and cake pieces/chunks were coming right out with the fork! The sides were good. Any idea why this happened?? lol

        Thanks again!

        -Carol

        • Peru Delights says:

          It was probably not cooked enough, Carolyn. When this happens, you should bake it for a few more minutes, and poke again. If it’s still not ready, bake some more. Every oven is different, so in many cases you need to adjust the baking time a little.

  3. Ola!, nice article! I will keep reading your homepage ;)

  4. WOW! That looks so delicious! I wish I had some right now! :)

  5. Just wanted to tell you that I’m loving your blog so much! Soy peruana y se me hace agua la boca cada vez que vengo de visita!

    Thank you sooooo much!! Y sigan adelante!!

  6. Wow… my mouth watered! Que rico se mira!

  7. My favorite cake! I love adding a chorrito de ron to the mix ;)

  8. I had NO idea it was a classic in Peru. I know it’s native to Nicaragua and that others have variations, but no clue about Peru. Love it! Nice garnish!

  9. This looks so great…. I always insist on a tres leches cake for my birthday every year.

  10. Mmmmm!!! Tres Leches is one of my favorites!!! And I love how you topped yours with meringue instead of whipped cream. I am definitely going to try that next time I make tres leches. :)

  11. As I’m reading this, I’m snacking on carrot sticks but I’d so much rather have this right now!

  12. Madre, mia!

    I love Tres Leches…and my Miami favorite: Cuatro Leches!

    Thanks for not making this seem intimidating…and please take me to Peru with you!

  13. This looks delicious and SO easy! I love your step-by-step photos, and the way you phrase the instructions, it’s like you’re having a conversation with a girlfriend. Thanks for sharing!

  14. This sounds amazing.

  15. Tres leches is my favorite dessert, but I am always so concern about so many calories :( but it´s worthy to get some extra calories when you eat such a delicious cake!

    • Peru Delights says:

      Ahhhh, tres leches!!! This is one of my comfort desserts… Don´t worry about the calories and do like I do: a medium portion once in a while, and enjoy it!!

  16. I have a dinner party and I am thinking of making this, but with the cup presentation that you show, but in a larger serving plate…

    Do you suggest making the cake a day before, then break it in chunks and put them on the larger serving plate, and pouring the milks and merengue on top the same day of the dinner party?

    • Peru Delights says:

      I suggest you make it as usual and transfer it to the serving plate you want to use the night of the dinner party, OR, transfer the cake right out of the oven and pour the milks while still warm, then when it has cooled down put the meringue on top, and into the fridge. The meringue will prevent the cake from getting dry on top. In this case I would suggest using confectioners sugar for the meringue, cause when you do it with normal sugar the next day the meringue becomes very sandy, you can feel the grains of sugar. If you don’t want to use meringue, put a lid or film to cover the tres leches so it doesnt dry a bit on top. I hope this helps!

  17. This looks fantastic! I’ve been searching for a really good tres leche cake. I can’t wait to try this one!

    • Peru Delights says:

      Katja, you won’t regret it. This recipe has been in our family for decades and it’s THE BEST tres leches we’ve tried.

  18. This looks delicious, and your descriptions of a fav best-ever family favorite won me over–my question: if I don’t make the meringue, I guess its sort of plain? But still good? I’m leaning toward leaving out the meringue step.

    • Peru Delights says:

      Sometimes I don´t cover the cake with meringue, and I swear there is nothing plain in this dessert! Your family will love it, with or without meringue. Let us know how did you like it?

      • thank you for the answer. I plan on making this tomorrow for my sister in law’s birthday (who is from Peru). I’m nervous. :)

        • Peru Delights says:

          Awww! Don’t be :) I’m sure your sister in law will love it. The most important tips are:
          make sure the mixer is very clean and dry.
          make sure the eggs grow a lot (you should beat at high speed for about 5-10 minutes)
          use room temperature milk in the cake mixture (not cold)
          use room temperature eggs
          pinch everywhere AS SOON as it comes out of the oven and add the milks, making sure you cover ALL the corners
          and finally, we like it better when it’s cold, so I would let it sit overnight for optimum results! :) Let us know how you did!

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