#32 tres leches

This special cake touches a weak spot in any true Latin-American dessert lover.  The simple traditional sponge cake receives a noteworthy upgrade with the addition of three kinds of milk: evaporated, condensed, & heavy cream – some argue that it should be called cuatro leches, since it also uses regular milk; but we’ll stick to the traditional name for documentation purposes!  It’s a surprisingly light cake, made with abundant air bubbles which give it a distinct texture: not letting it go soggy, despite being soaked in the three-milk mixture.

The cake is popular in Central & South America and its origins are disputed, but other distant cousins from the European continent also use the soaked-in-liquid method: the British Trifle & rum cake, the Italian tiramisu, or the Turkish Trileçe.  I was delighted in making the cake from scratch for the first time.  I had previously made a couple of less-than-successful attempts, once with a store-bought pound cake (that did not soak in the liquids as we would have hoped) and once with a boxed yellow-cake-mix which begged to stand up to the great tasting version we were used to at home.

So here I was, ready to make my very first tres leches from scratch.  Absolute scratch!  I even prepared the merengue topping (which definitely needs to be worked on), it seems fine for the first 10 minutes, then it just begins to shrink and ends up being a sad, sad addition to my cakes.  This time I even tried the extra-strength merengue recipe with added cornstarch to make it last, but nope, not a fabulous lasting result.  I’ll continue trying until I can guarantee a successful result for my blogging purposes, I promise!

For the Tres Leches Cake

  • 1 cup (130g) of all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons of baking powder
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 1 cup (200g) of sugar
  • 1/4 cup (60ml) of milk
  • 1/2 cup (115g) of heavy cream
  • 3/4 cup (250ml) of evaporated milk
  • 1 cup (305g) of sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 cup (240ml) of regular milk

Make sure all the ingredients are at room temperature before you begin your recipe – baking lesson learned!  Heat oven to 350°F (325°F if the pan is glass) / 180°C.  Grease a square baking pan.  Sift together flour and baking powder in a medium-sized bowl.  In a larger bowl,  beat the egg whites on medium speed until soft peaks form.  Gradually add 1 cup of sugar, beating on high speed.  Beat in the egg yolks one at a time.

Add one-quarter of the flour mixture at a time, beating on low speed just until incorporated and scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary.  Add the milk and beat just until the mixture is smooth and evenly mixed.  Scrape the batter into the baking pan and spread evenly.  Bake until the top springs back when lightly pressed, about 25 minutes.  Let cool in the pan on a rack.

In a large bowl, combine the heavy cream, evaporated milk, condensed milk, and regular milk.  Leaving the cake in the baking pan, prick it with a toothpick at 1-inch intervals.  Pour the milk mixture slowly over the cake, including the edges and the corners.  Keep warm in the oven.

For the Merengue Topping

  • 1 tablespoon of cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon of sugar
  • 1/3 cup of water
  • 4 large egg whites
  • 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup of sugar, superfine

Supposedly stabilized by the cornstarch, this merengue topping is meant to work wonderfully, even when refrigerated for days.  I need to keep trying this one out!  LOTS to learn.  It is important that the filling (or crust) be piping hot when the merengue is applied, which I did not do.  All that needs to be done is to keep the crust of the tres leches cake warm, and heat again when called for.  It’s also good to prepare the cornstarch paste beforehand.

Mix the cornstarch and sugar thoroughly in a saucepan.  Gradually stir in the water, making a smooth, runny paste.  Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring briskly constantly, then boil for a few seconds.  Remove the thickened paste from heat and cover.

Beat the egg whites in an extra clean & dry large glass or stainless steel bowl until foamy.  Add the vanilla and beat until soft peaks form.  Very gradually beat in the superfine sugar on high speed until the peaks are very stiff and glossy – but not dry.  Reduce the speed to very low and beat in the cornstarch paste 1 tablespoon at a time.  When all the paste is incorporated, increase the speed to medium and continue to beat for some more seconds.  Spread over the hot cake.


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