Easy Scratch Tres Leches Cake (Three-Milk Cake)
Homemade Tres Leches cake starts with an easy sponge cake that’s soaked in a combination of three kinds of milk. The results are a spongy vanilla-scented cake soaked in sweet milk syrup and topped with freshly whipped cream.
Tres leches cake is a must every time we go out for Mexican!
In Texas, we are beyond blessed when it comes to panaderias! In fact, more than one bakery comes to mind when I think of the best tres leches in Houston. And at one point, I kid you not; we made up excuses to grab one!
After ‘researching’ tons and tons of slices, I think I’m finally ready to share my homemade Tres Leches Cake recipe. The best thing about this three-milk cake is that it’s ideal for making for parties you’re hosting because it almost demands being made a day in advance. Which, let’s admit, is the best news ever when you’re hosting a get-together! It uses mostly simple ingredients and is perfect to make for birthday parties, quinceanera’s, Memorial Day, 4th of July, Graduation parties, and of course, Cinco de Mayo!
What is tres leches cake?
Tres leches is a traditional Latin American dessert that uses a genoise sponge that is soaked in a three-milk mixture. This three-milk cake is said to have originated in Nicaragua, though it is commonly made in several countries such as Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Guatemala, and many others.
What is a genoise sponge cake?
A genoise sponge is made using whole eggs instead of separating the yolks from the egg whites and beating them separately, or what is called the foaming method. Whole eggs are beaten with sugar until the sugar dissolves, and the egg mixture is light, fluffy, and falls back in a ribbon-like movement. Genoise sponge usually contains little to no butter or oil. Instead, all or most of the fat comes from the egg yolks used in the batter. A genoise sponge is ideal for this recipe as the sponge will soak up all of that delicious milk mixture.
What ingredients do you need to make tres leches cake from scratch:
- Flour: I use unbleached all-purpose flour for this recipe. Combining the flour with cornstarch and sifting it a couple of times will create a homemade cake flour that will produce a cake that has a better texture.
- Cornstarch: gives the cake a more silky and tender texture. We’re only using a tablespoon here, but it will essentially create homemade cake flour.
- Leavening, salt, and flavorings: We’re using a smidge of baking powder to help leaven the sponge cake. Consider it an insurance policy just in case we didn’t whip the eggs enough for the sponge! We’ll also use salt, a pinch of cinnamon, and Mexican vanilla extract.
- Eggs: play a critical role in a sponge cake. They create structure and stability in the genoise cake batter. They also give the cake a yellow hue and lend most of the fat in this recipe.
- Sugar: sweetens the cake. We whip the sugar with the eggs until it dissolves and creates a ribbon-like mixture.
- Oil: just two tablespoons go in at the end to give the batter some shine and to add a bit more moisture, so we don’t end up with a dry sponge cake!
- 3 kinds of milk: We’ll use three kinds of milk to make the milk syrup. I use half and half, evaporated milk, and a can of sweetened condensed milk.
How to make Tres leches cake at home:
- Whip the eggs and sugar. The first step in creating the sponge cake is to get the eggs and sugar going in the electric mixer. While the eggs are whipping, I sift together all the dry ingredients using a mesh sieve: flour, cornstarch, baking powder, salt, and ground cinnamon. Once you sift this mixture, sift it once more so that that flour is airy and light. When the eggs are pale yellow, light, and fluffy, stop the mixer. Make sure that the beaten eggs are falling back into the bowl in a smooth ribbon-like movement.
- Make the cake. At that point, you can add the vanilla extract with the mixer running on the stir setting. It’s essential to add the extract with the eggs first so that the flavor of the vanilla carries throughout the recipe. Then, slowly add ⅓ of the flour mixture and continue to allow the cake batter to stir. Add the remaining flour in two more batches. Stop the mixer and using a silicone spatula, scrape the bottom of the bowl to make sure there are no hidden flour pockets! Then, with the mixer back on the stir setting, add the oil and let it combine. Pour the batter into a greased baking dish and bake the cake until a toothpick comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool completely before soaking in the milk syrup.
- Three-milk mixture. While the cake is cooling, you can make the milk mixture. It’s super easy! Combine the half and half, evaporated milk, and condensed milk and continue to whisk until the condensed milk dissolves. When the cake has cooled, use a fork or a wooden skewer to poke holes in the cake. Slowly drizzle the prepared milk mixture evenly over the cake. It’ll look like there’s too much at first, but the cake will soak it all up as it sits. Cover the cake and refrigerate it for at least 4 hours, and ideally, you want to let it sit for anywhere between 8-12 hours.
- Finish and serve. When you’re ready to serve, whip the heavy cream, sugar, and vanilla together in a stand mixer on medium-high speed until soft peaks form. Allow the mixer to keep going until *just* slightly stiffer. You can use a piping bag, an offset spatula, or a regular tablespoon to spread on top of the cake as desired. I like to use strawberries to decorate, but pineapple slices, raspberries, or blueberries would work well too!
FAQs about homemade tres leches cake:
- Do I have to use Mexican vanilla extract? You don’t! Regular vanilla will also work just fine for this recipe. When I’m making a recipe from a specific part of the world, I try my hardest to honor the culture/recipe by using authentic ingredients to get the closest flavor possible.
- I don’t have a stand mixer with a whisk attachment; what can I use? You can use a hand mixer for this recipe as well, but since the hand mixer doesn’t have a whisk attachment, you’ll need to whip the egg and sugar mixture for a bit longer for it to get just as fluffy. It’ll take closer to 13-15 minutes for the eggs to reach the ribbon stage.
- Can I skip the whipped topping and use a prepared whipped topping from the freezer section? You can; however, it might make your tres leches cake slightly sweeter (not a bad thing if you prefer your desserts a little sweeter anyway!)
Tres Leches Cake:
- 1 ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- ⅛ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 6 large eggs, room temperature
- ¾ cup granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons Mexican vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons oil
- 1 cup half and half (or whole milk)
- 1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
- 1 (9-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
- 1 ½ cups heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- ¼ teaspoon Mexican vanilla extract
- Fresh fruit, for decorating (optional)
- PREP: Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350ºF. Spray a 9x13 baking dish with cooking spray; set aside for now.
- CAKE BATTER: In a small bowl, sift together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon. Then, repeat by sifting the mixture a second time; set it aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the eggs and granulated sugar. Using the whisk attachment, combine the ingredients on medium-high speed for 10-12 minutes or until pale yellow and fluffy. Then, stop the mixer check, and make sure the batter ribbons back slowly with a rubber spatula. Add the vanilla extract with the mixer running. Add ⅓ of the sifted flour mixture to the batter, and combine on the 'stir' setting. Repeat this step two more times until all the sifted flour mixture is added to the batter. Using a rubber spatula, scrape the bottom of the bowl to make sure there are no hidden flour pockets. Slowly stream in the oil with the mixer running. Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish, spread it out evenly. Bake for 25-28 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the enter comes out clean. Remove the cake from the oven and let it to room temperature.
- MILK: Prepare the milk mixture while the cake is cooling. In a large 4-cup measuring cup, whisk together the half and half, evaporated milk, and condensed milk until the condensed milk dissolves completely. When the cake has cooled, pierce the cake with a fork or a wooden skewer all over so that the milk mixture soaks up evenly. Slowly drizzle the prepared milk syrup evenly over the cake. Allow the cake to cool for several hours, covered in the refrigerator (at least 4 and ideally, overnight.)
- WHIPPED CREAM: add heavy cream, granulated sugar, and vanilla to the bowl of a stand mixer, using the whisk attachment, whip on medium-high speed until soft peaks start to form; about 3-4 minutes. Allow mixer to keep mixing until the peaks are just slightly stiffer (about 15 seconds.) You can use a piping bag to pipe the whipped cream, or an offset/silicone spatula to spread on top. I like to use strawberries to decorate but pineapple, raspberries, or blueberries would all work well or you can serve on its own!
- Regular vanilla will work for this recipe too, but when I’m making a recipe from a specific part of the world, I like using ingredients that are authentic to get the best, most authentic flavor!
- Leftover cake can be covered and refrigerated for up to 5 days.