Your ideal tres leches cake starts with this simple recipe

G Daniela Galarza

THE WASHINGTON POST – Tres leches, a sweet cake soaked with three kinds of milk, needs no fanfare or champion – it is already well-loved. “When I was a kid, tres leches was number one, and flan was number two,” Mezcalero chef and co-owner Alfredo Solis said, who grew up in Mexico City and now serves his mom’s recipe at his restaurant.

But as with every popular dish, personal preferences, familial traditions and regional variations dictate differences. Some cooks start with a boxed cake mix or a rich butter cake as a base, others prefer a light sponge. Some like it topped with meringue, others prefer whipped cream. The only must? The namesake trinity of milks, typically canned sweetened condensed, canned evaporated and whole, fresh milk or cream.

It is that freedom – and the fact that it is hard to make sweet cake soaked in sweet milk taste bad – that inspired bakers to get creative. There are many variations: It may be flavoured with chocolate, coffee or coconut. It could be layered with cajeta, caramel or dulce de leche. Many bakers top it with candied cherries or fresh or roasted fruit. There are marbled tres leches, ube tres leches and tres leches cheesecake. This dessert begs its maker to bend the rules.

If you are a classicist, make the cake as-is. But feel free to play around with it, too.

Tres leches cake. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

TRES LECHE CAKE

Active: 30 minutes | Total: three hours
12 to 18 servings

Makes one 13-by-nine-inch cake

There are many possible variations: Use coconut milk and cream to make it dairy-free; many stores carry canned coconut sweetened condensed and evaporated milks. Replace some of the milk with coffee, for a cafe con tres leches cake. Top it with fresh or roasted fruit to offset the sweetness, or add a layer of cajeta or dulce de leche if your sweet tooth wants more.

MAKE AHEAD: The cake can be made one day ahead, cooled and covered, and soaked up to one hour before serving. The cake can also be soaked up to five days in advance, with or without the whipped cream topping

The finished tres leches cake can be refrigerated, covered tightly, for up to five days.

INGREDIENTS

For the sponge cake

Six large eggs, cold

One cup granulated sugar

One teaspoon baking powder

Half teaspoon table salt

One third cup neutral oil, such as canola or corn oil or grapeseed oil

One-and-a-quarter cups all-purpose flour, sifted

For the milk soak

One 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk

One 12-ounce can evaporated milk

One cup whole milk

Two teaspoons vanilla extract

For the whipped cream

One cup heavy cream

One-and-a-half tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

Half teaspoon ground cinnamon

Pinch table salt


STEPS

Make the sponge cake: Position a baking rack in the middle of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees. Grease the bottom – but not the sides – of a nine-by-13-inch baking pan. (Leaving the sides ungreased gives this very airy cake batter something to cling to as it rises.)

In a stand mixer bowl fitted with the whisk attachment – or, if using a hand mixer, in a large bowl – combine the eggs, sugar, baking powder and salt. On medium speed, whisk until ingredients are well combined, about one minute, then beat on high speed until mixture is pale, fluffy and tripled in volume, four to eight minutes. (This takes just under five minutes in a six-quart stand mixer, but closer to eight minutes using a handheld electric mixer.)

Lower the mixer speed to medium-low and slowly pour in the oil. Lower the mixer speed to low, and sprinkle in the flour, a little at a time, just until the batter absorbed it. Turn the mixer off and, if using the stand mixer, remove the bowl. Using a plastic spatula, gently fold the batter over itself a few times to ensure all of the flour is incorporated and the batter is smooth.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and, using an offset spatula, gently spread the batter so it fills the pan in an even layer. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the cake is light golden brown and springs back when lightly pressed in the center with a finger. (The cake will not shrink away from the sides of the pan.) Let the cake cool on a wire rack for at least one hour. Using a fork or skewer, pierce the cake eight to 10 times evenly across its surface – this will help it absorb all of the milk soak.

Make the milk soak: In a large bowl, combine the sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, whole milk and vanilla. Using a whisk or a spoon, stir until smooth, for about 30 seconds. Set aside or refrigerate until the cake has cooled.

Once the cake is cooled, gently pour the milk soak evenly over the surface of the cake. It will look like there is too much milk at first, but the cake will absorb it. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour, overnight or up to five days before serving.

Make the whipped cream: When ready to serve, in a stand mixer bowl – or if using a hand mixer, in a large bowl – combine the heavy cream, confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon and salt. Beat on medium-high speed until soft peaks form, two to five minutes. Spread the whipped cream over the surface of the chilled cake, then slice the cake into squares and serve.

Nutrition | Per serving (based on 18): 317 calories, 7g protein, 38g carbohydrates, 15g fat, 7g saturated fat, 98mg cholesterol, 196mg sodium, 0g dietary fibre, 29g sugar