Covered with coconut and filled with fresh strawberries and guava puree, tres leches cake is perfect for Cinco de Mayo. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Contra Costa Times)

Posted on Wed, May. 05, 2004

Traditional tres leches bucks all the trends

GOT MILK? Got milk? Got milk? You'll need three kinds to make the classic Latin American tres leches cake.

For those of you whose Spanish is limited to Taco Bell menus and Ricky Martin ditties, tres leches refers to the three milks -- usually whole, condensed and evaporated -- that soak this egg-and-butter-rich sponge cake to a gooey, custardy consistency, after which it's covered with tangy meringue or sweetened whipped cream.

Tres leches, simple and decadent, is traditionally a special-occasion cake. And there's no better time to plan or whip up a tres leches cake than today. Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican holiday, which, contrary to frat-boy belief, celebrates the Mexican army's victory over French invaders at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862 -- not the introduction of Budweiser into Latin America.

Tres leches cake is so popular throughout Latin America that virtually every country south of the Rio Grande and north of the Antarctic Circle claims it as its own creation.

You'll find tres leches cake at Mexican restaurants, Neuvo Latino restaurants, Brazilian barbecue houses, Nicaraguan bakeries and even an Italian-American bakery in the heart of San Francisco's Latino-dominated Mission District. Virtually every place you find Latino populations -- from the Southwest to Chicago to New York -- you'll find tres leches cake. Why, in the Bay Area, you can even buy tres leches cake at Costco and Safeway.

Milky mystery

Like the mystery of the Incas, no one can say for sure where or when tres leches cake was created. One popular theory traces the cake's origin to a recipe on the back of canned milk sold in Central America. Another credits an exiled Cuban homemaker with creating the cake in Miami. My favorite version of the tres leches creation myth credits little old ladies of southern Mexican Indian tribes, who soaked their cakes with a syrupy goat-milk-and-raw-sugar brew called cajeta.

Tres leches is a perfect warm-weather cake that pairs beautifully with tropical fruit fillings and garnishes such as papaya and mango. It's also best served cold, as chilling gives the milk-soaked layers integrity.

Tres leches is not a fancy cake. It is split into two or three layers, with the three-milk mixture poured over each layer. Once the soaked layers have firmed up in the refrigerator, the layers are spread with fruit puree or jam and assembled before being covered with lime-infused meringue or whipped cream that's been sweetened with sugar or tempered with sour cream.

It's also a versatile cake. It can be baked in round or rectangular pans. It can be served by the slice or in squares, on a dish or in a margarita glass with fruit garnish and a little extra three-milk mixture. Tom Schnetz, chef-owner of Restaurante Dona Tomas on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, learned to make tres leches cake from his mother, based on a recipe handed down through family in the northwestern Mexican state of Sonora.

Schnetz first makes a 10-inch round genoise sponge. He splits the cake into two layers and soaks each layer in a mixture of evaporated milk, half and half and cajeta, which he makes with goat milk and raw Mexican sugar called piloncillo. Schnetz fills his tres leches cake with macerated strawberries and covers the cake with a thin layer of whipped cream sweetened with sugar and spiked with Mexican vanilla. Sliced strawberries ring the top of the cake.

Seasonal specialties

"Growing up, we used to have it for birthdays," Schnetz says. "My birthday is in September, so I'd have it with blackberries. Sometimes my mom would whip berries into the cream."

It's the cake's adaptability to so many variations that makes it such a popular cake across such a wide region with so many different styles of cooking and regional ingredients. As long as you use three milks -- cow milk, goat milk and usually either or both condensed and evaporated milk -- it's still a tres leches cake. For a lighter, or lactose-free version, you can even use coconut, soy or almond milk.

"People hear 'three milks,' and they tend to think 'cholesterol,'" says Ed Bonoso, the pastry chef at Zarela, a Mexican restaurant in New York City, who uses heavy cream, sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk, plus a splash of amaretto, kahlua or rompope, a Mexican eggnog that's heavy on the rum. Bonoso makes his sponge cake in full sheets, using about 11/2 quarts liquid to soak the cake. He serves biscuit-size portions with a dollop of whipped cream or fruit sauce.

"It's a lovely cake that's just wonderful by itself because it's so moist," Bonoso says.

Ed Murrieta lives and bakes in San Francisco. Reach him at


Serves 12

For an extra treat, cover the cake with sweet coconut after applying the whipped-cream topping.

Milk Cake, see recipe

Tres Leches Milk Mixture, or Cajeta, see recipes

Macerated fruit or jam filling, optional

Whipped Cream Topping or Meringue Topping, see recipes

1. Split completely cooled cake in two layers.

2. With a fork or sharp knife, poke several holes in cake layer. Pour about one-third of the milk mixture over cake layer. The cake will let you know when it's had enough -- it will refuse to soak up any more. Refrigerate until firm.

3. Spread soaked layer with your filling of choice. Place next layer on top and press down. Poke with holes. Pour more of the milk mixture on cake layer (you may not need all the milk mixture. Any remaining milk mixture can be poured over individual servings.) Refrigerate until firm.

5. Decorate top and sides of cake with whipped cream or meringue with an icing spatula or pastry bag. Chill cake until ready to serve. To brown the meringue, flame with a blow torch or place in a super-hot oven just until points caramelize.

Per serving (based on 12 without filling and using whipped cream topping and milk mixture): 770 calories, 16 g protein, 87 g carbohydrates, 41 g fat, 285 mg cholesterol, 300 mg sodium, trace fiber. Calories from fat: 48 percent.

-- Times analysis


Makes 1 10-inch cake

21/2 cups all-purpose flour

11/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup milk, room temperature

Finely grated zest of 1 lime

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3/4 cup butter, at room temperature

11/2 cups sugar

9 eggs, separated, at room temperature

1/3 teaspoon cream of tartar

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 10-inch springform pan. Sift together flour, baking powder and salt and set aside.

2. Combine milk, lime zest and vanilla and set aside.

3. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beat for 3 minutes with mixer at high speed. With spatula, alternately fold in dry and wet ingredients, in four separate increments.

4. In a separate mixer bowl, whip egg whites at medium-high speed. When foamy, add cream of tartar. Increase speed and whip until stiff but not dry.

5. Gently fold in one-quarter of the whipped egg whites into batter. Fold in remainder, being careful not to deflate the air in the mixtures.

6. Deposit batter into pan.

7. Bake approximately 50 minutes, or until the top is golden and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool cake completely.

Per slice (based on 16): 270 calories, 6 g protein, 35 g carbohydrates, 12 g fat, 145 mg cholesterol, 125 mg sodium, trace fiber. Calories from fat: 41 percent.

-- Times analysis


Enough for a 10-inch cake

1 12-ounce can evaporated milk

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

1 cup heavy cream or milk or Cajeta (see recipe)

• Combine milks in a sauce pot, stir and scald over medium heat. Remove from heat and let cool.

Per recipe: 2,550 calories, 59 g protein, 257 g carbohydrates, 148 g fat, 560 mg cholesterol, 960 mg sodium, 0 fiber. Calories from fat: 52 percent.

-- Times analysis


Enough for 1 10-inch cake

A couple of tablespoons of sour cream added at the end lends tang and reduces sweetness.

2 cups heavy whipping cream, well chilled

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

• In a well-chilled bowl, whip cream until soft peaks form. Slowly add sugar and whip until stiff. Add vanilla extract in final few seconds of whipping.

Per recipe: 2,030 calories, 10 g protein, 113 g carbohydrates, 176 g fat, 650 mg cholesterol, 180 mg sodium, 0 fiber. Calories from fat: 78 percent.

-- Times analysis


3/4 cup water

1/2 cup sugar

Juice of 1 lime

6 egg whites

Pinch of salt

1/3 teaspoon cream of tartar

1. In a heavy-bottomed sauce pan, combine water, sugar and lime juice. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.

2. When syrup begins to boil, begin whipping egg whites at medium-high speed. When foamy, add cream of tartar and salt; continue whipping at high speed until soft peaks form.

3. When syrup registers 238 degrees on a candy thermometer (soft ball stage), reduce mixer speed and pour syrup into whipped egg whites in a slow, steady stream, aiming for the sides of the mixer bowl and away from the whip.

4. Turn mixer up to medium-high speed and whip until the meringue is stiff, about 6 minutes.

Per recipe: 490 calories, 21 g protein, 102 g carbohydrates, 0 fat, 0 cholesterol, 620 mg sodium, 0 fiber. Calories from fat: 0 percent.

-- Times analysis


Makes approximately 1 cup

This is different from the thick caramel mixture commonly sold in jars as dulce de leche. This cajeta should be golden brown and pourable, with the consistency of a thin chocolate sauce that will soak into the cake. Goat milk has a distinctive musky flavor and can be found at Trader Joe's and other markets. Piloncillo is a raw Mexican sugar available in cone form in most supermarkets.

11/2 cups goat milk

1/2 cup sugar, piloncillo if possible

11/2 teaspoons honey

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 tablespoon water

1. Combine goat milk, sugar and honey in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan. Bring to a simmer, stirring.

2. Dissolve baking soda in 1 tablespoon water. Remove the sauce pan from the heat and add baking soda mixture, stirring to keep mixture from bubbling.

3. Return pan to heat and reduce flame so the mixture simmers steadily. Stir regularly as the mixture reduces by half, approximately 30 minutes.

Per recipe:

670 calories, 13 g protein, 125 g carbohydrates, 15 g fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 810 mg sodium, 0 fiber. Calories from fat: 21 percent.

© 2004 Contra Costa Times and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.