Tres Leches – A brief history

Tres Leches

Being the self-described foodie and aspiring chef that I am, I could not accept that the very “Mexican” pastel de tres leches that I grew up eating in my hometown of El Paso, Texas came from within a box of conveniently premixed yellow cake mix.

I was baking a tres leches for my very own going away party at work (yes I did this by choice and with a very enthusiastic disposition) and I needed a recipe that would wow everyone. I wanted to share a little slice of my heritage with my fellow co workers because the world speaks in food. Anywhere you go, this is a truth! So I called my mother and discovered that two generations of women in my family had given in to the efficiencies of the boxed cake mix. Bummer!

I started to look for my own recipe but the internet is overflowing with tres leches recipes claiming to be Mexican, European, Nicaraguan….etc. Confusion ensued.

Theory of Origin #1: There is a very confounding theory online which traces the origins of Tres Leches, as it is know to Latin American countries, to the corporation Nestle. Nestle distributed its canned milk products throughout Latin America during WWII when it set up manufacturing plants in Mexico. A quick call to my grandmother confirmed that she did indeed use recipes from the canned milk labels., although she couldn’t confirm the tres leches recipe was one of them.

Theory of Origin #2: Other stories tell of tres leches originating in Europe (think desserts like the popular tiramisu, which is another dessert that is soaked in sweet liquid before serving).

All in all, identifying the exact origin of this popular dessert proved to be a very difficult task. So I decided to start my own version with bits and pieces taken from different sources.

The Recipe : Sponge Cake from my prized America’s Test Kitchen Baking book 

If you want to step away from the boxed cake mix, this is the perfect cake recipe to use for tres leches. Soft with a springy feel, this airy cake will not get overwhelmingly mushy when I soak it with milk. Instead, it will absorb just enough to give it a crumbly and moist texture.

  • 1/2 cup plan cake flour (I substituted with AP flour without a problem)
  • 1/4 cup unbleached AP flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3 Tablespoons milk
  • 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 5 large eggs, room temp
  • 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  1.  Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F. Grease two 8 inch cake pans and cover the bottoms with parchment paper cut into rounds.
  2. Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt  together in a large bowl. It is recommended that you sift it to break up any lumps.
  3. Heat milk with butter in saucepan, add vanilla and keep warm and away from heat.
  4. Separate 3 eggs and place the whites in a mixing bowl of a stand mixer. Place the yolks in a bowl with the other 2 whole eggs.
  5. Beat the whites at medium speed until they become foamy. Increase speed gradually and add 6 TBS of sugar until the whites form soft peaks. Move the egg whites to another bowl
  6. Add the whole egg + yolks mixture to the now empty mixing bowl, add the rest of the sugar and beat at medium high speed until they are thick and a pale color.
  7. Add these beaten eggs and sugar into the egg whites.
  8. Carefully sprinkle the flour mixture into this egg mixture and fold gently with a rubber spatula until all of the flour is thoroughly combined. The original recipe suggests 12 times but it may take slightly more.
  9. Pour the milk and butter into a well made on the side of the bowl. Mix until there is no trace of dry flour.
  10. Pour the batter into prepared cake pans and bake for approximately 20 minutes or until the top appears to be a golden color and a toothpick inserted to the center of the cake comes out clean.
  11. Run a knife along the perimeter of the cakes. This will loosen them up so that they can be turned over and removed from the pans.
  12. Place cakes on a baking rack and place in the refrigerator until fully cooled.

Three Milks – For this one I just kind of played it by ear (remember I am creating my own recipe). I used heavy cream, sweetened condensed milk, and half and half at a ratio of  1 – .50 – .50. So I used 2 cups of liquid altogether and wanted to avoid an overtly sweet milk blend. I grated a bit of cinnamon into the milk. Many people like to spike it with some kind of liquor. I will definitely do that next time.

Divide the milk into two equal portions. Poke holes throughout the cakes with a fork and slowly drizzle the milk blend into each cake. Pause while the cake absorbs most of it, then come back and continue to drizzle more in. You will find that the milk will start to ooze out of the bottom as the sponge becomes more and more saturated. You could  probably take that milk and reuse it if you wanted to.

Decoration  – This calls for a standard whipped heavy cream topping. I grated some lemon zest (1/2 tsp) and added honey to taste until it was sweet enough for me. Whipped the cream to stiff peaks on a stand  mixer.

Before spreading it on the cake, I spread a thin layer of raspberry jam on top of one cake, then topped it with the other cake layer of equal size. Then once this was set in place, I spread the whipped cream evenly throughout until smooth. This is a blank canvas now, ready to be decorated with fresh fruits, pecans, almonds, or anything else that you may have available!