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Tres Leches is the perfect dessert for entertaining.  It’s rich, delicious and must be made ahead of time.  Did I mention it’s mind-bendingly delicious?  You really can’t overstate the delicious-ness quotient.  If you haven’t experienced tres leches, you need to do so immediately, if not sooner.   At any rate, let me break it down for you.  Tres Leches is first a cake, drenched in a “custard” of three milks (tres leches??), redolent with vanilla.  This lovely elixir soaks into the cake, oozing it’s deliciousness into every pore.  This object of pure bliss is then topped with either a fluffy, slightly chewy meringue or whipped cream.  And here’s the best part, it needs to be refrigerated for at least eight hours, but overnight is better, making it the perfect company dessert.

I think almost every country in Latin America makes a version of this, and the recipes are all pretty similar.  Now, you will usually see this referred to as “Tres Leches Cake”, because it is, most of the time presented as a one or two-layer cake, which is frosted with either the whipped cream or meringue, as mentioned.  I call it a dessert, as I don’t usually try to cut it into squares to serve, but rather scoop it out into bowls.  I usually serve a bit of extra whipped cream on the side and some fresh, seasonal fruit.  This is a very sweet dessert, as are many Latin American desserts and I find that the fruit helps balance that out a bit.  Berries, peaches and nectarines are particularly delicious.

Now, you can make your favorite simple yellow cake or spongecake from scratch, and I encourage you to do so.  But, I use a yellow cake mix…that’s right.  The Goddess does make cake mixes.  She has a lazy streak.  Disappointed?  You’ll have to get over that…moving on.  What makes this version of tres leches different?  The custard is cooked.  The lovely woman who shared this recipe with me was a bang-up, fantastic cook, as well as just a brilliant woman, a delightful hostess and great human being.  After all, she shared this recipe with us, right?  Anyway, when she got the recipe, she didn’t like the “raw” flavor of uncooked eggs (not all versions use eggs), as well as the more liquid-y consistency.  She cooked the custard. She was right.  I told you she was brilliant.  She served it with a spoon, rather than cut into pieces and I do, as well.  Tradition?

To make your tres leches custard, place the three milks and egg yolks in a heavy-bottomed saucepan.  Whisk it all up, place the pan over low heat and whisk constantly, or at least very frequently, until you see some steam rising and the mixture thickens.  It will coat the back of a spoon and be a little thicker than heavy cream, but still a “pourable custard”.  We will assume you have already baked your cake and it is cooling.  While the custard is doing it’s thing, poke holes in the cake.  I use a two-tined fork or a skewer.  If you’re going to serve the dessert in “scoops”, then if you very gently make a few cracks (maybe 3 or 4) in the cake, that isn’t entirely a bad thing.  It will allow the tres leches custard to seep into the cake more quickly and easily.  If you are intending on cutting the dessert into squares, then stick with the holes onlyI also run a table knife around the edge to loosen it from the pan.  By the way, you should have your cake in the dish you intend to serve it from.  When your custard is perfect and still hot,

slowly and gently pour just enough to completely fill the space allowed, without spilling over the edge of the dish.

Allow that to soak in, then pour some more over the cake; repeat until all the custard is used.  Let cool to room temperature.  Now you have a choice to make—

  • If you’re making the meringue, do that (see the recipe for instructions) and spread the still quite hot meringue to the very edge, sealing the custard/cake in completely.  It will sort of resemble a blanket of snow.  I put toothpick randomly over the dessert to keep the plastic wrap from touching the meringue.  The meringue will stick to the plastic if it touches the plastic.  Chill for at least 8 hours, but overnight is much, much preferred. 
  • If you’re topping with whipped cream, cover the cooled cake with plastic wrap and chill for at least 8 hours, but overnight is much, much preferred.  Then, just before serving, whip 1-2 cups heavy cream to almost stiff peaks.  Stir in some vanilla extract and gently “frost” the dessert, covering it completely with the whipped cream.

The Middle Son wanted to see if we could cut squares, so we did.  It worked just fine, too.  So you have options.  We served it with sliced, “sweet donut nectarines”, with a splash of lemon juice, on the side.  Store any leftovers in the fridge.  Leftover will keep for several days and this is truly a wonderful breakfast…just sayin’!

This is a rather lengthy recipe, as written, but it really isn’t that complicated.  It’s actually more of a challenge to explain, than to prepare.  Give it a shot…you won’t be sorry.  And that’s ever-so deliciously…it!

Betty's Tres Leches Dessert

  • Servings: 4-10
  • Difficulty: Moderately Easy, but takes a bit of Time
  • Print

  • 1 yellow cake (9×9-inches)–see NOTE
  • Tres Leches Custard:
  • 1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
  • 1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 1/2 cups half-and-half
  • 3 large egg yolks, (save the whites for the meringue!)
  • 2-3 teaspoons vanilla extract or paste (adjust to your taste)
  • Meringue:
  • 1 cup white corn syrup
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 eggs whites (from the above eggs)

After you let your cake cool, poke holes in the cake with a two-tined fork or a skewer; set aside.

Combine the three milks and egg yolks in a heavy-bottomed pan.  Place over low heat, and whisking constantly cook until the mixture thickens slightly.  It will be slightly thicker than heavy cream—a pourable custard.  Remove from the heat; whisk in the vanilla extract.  Immediately pour the hot custard very slowly over the cake, allowing it to soak into the cake before adding more.  The cake should take all of the custard.

Here is where we have options—If you are making a meringue:  In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and corn syrup.  Bring to the boil and cook until all the sugar is dissolved; usually this happens even before it boils.  While the this mixture is heating, in a grease-free bowl, beat the whites until thicken and just beginning to peak.  With the mixer running, on medium-low, slowly pour the syrup in along the very edge of the bowl and beat until they mixture is very thick and shiny, about 2 minutes total.  The mixture will be very hot.  Drop spoonfuls of the meringue evenly over the cake; using an off-set spreader (or spatula) spread the meringue to the edge, completely sealing the cake.  You may wish to do some decorative swirls.  Let cool; insert tooth picks randomly around the cake.  This is to prevent the plastic wrap from coming in contact with the meringue.  Cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, if possible.  If you are covering the cake with whipped cream:  Let the custard-soaked cake cool completely.  Cover with plastic wrap; chill overnight.  Just before serving, whip 1 1/2 cups heavy cream to firm peak stage.  With a spoon, drop the whipped cream evenly over the cake.  Use an off-set spreader (or the spoon) to spread the whipped cream evenly over the cake.  This can be done up to one hour before serving.

Refrigerate leftovers.

NOTE:  If using a cake mix, use 2/3 of the prepared batter for a 9-inch cake.  Bake the rest in a small ramekin.  My original recipe called for carefully scraping off the browned top of the cake, but I find this is unnecessary and can make frosting with the meringue more difficult; crumbs, left behind, like to get into the meringue!  It is best to use a serving dish that has at least 1/2-inch “head room” above the cake, and optimally have about 1/4-inch space around the cake.  This allows for the custard to settle better and you’re less like to have spillage.  You don’t want to waste a drop!  I use a deep glass oval dish for my Tres Leches Dessert.  I bake my cake in a 9X13-inch pan, then cut it just slightly smaller than my serving dish.  I turn the cake upside-down into the serving dish, poke holes in the cake and proceed with the recipe as directed.  If the cake happens to break, because it will be frosted, no one will know!  Particularly, if you serve it with a spoon.  It’s more of an issue, if you wish to cut the cake and serve it in a more traditional manner.

This is excellent served with unsweetened fresh fruit.

Betty’s Tres Leches Dessert Recipe©Marcia Lahens 2019.  All rights reserved.