Tres leches cake is a delightful dessert made with a decadently light white cake, a creamy 3 milk mixture, and a fluffy whipped topping. This delicious Mexican dessert is just sweet enough to satisfy your sweet tooth and because the cake is kept cold, it is extra refreshing on hot summer days! Dress your tres leches cake up with fresh berries, fruit, a sprinkling of cinnamon, or simply enjoy the whipped cream topping as-is!
Homemade Tres Leches Cake
Tres leches cake is a Latin American classic for good reason. The creamy combination of sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and whole milk soaked up with fluffy white cake and covered in whipped cream makes for a delightfully rich dessert.
It’s a beautiful dish to serve at a party or on a weeknight, and I’m particularly fond of it because it’s not overly sweet. Perfect for those days when you just need a little something without all the sugar.
There are many theories about the origin of the tres leches cake. One of the more likely ones is that the inspiration came from England in the Middle Ages.
Trifle cakes were popular, and tres leches is technically a trifle. Using a liquid to soak an old cake was used as a way to save food and repurpose those that had gone stale.
While there isn’t a consensus, lots of people associate tres leches with Nicaragua. This makes a lot of sense because Nicaragua was colonized by–you guessed it–England. Spain was there first on the west coast, and just a few years later, the English made their way to the east coast.
As was common in the days of colonization, it was followed by a period of culinary experimentation where immigrants attempted to make their favorite dishes from home using only the local ingredients they had available.
Condensed milk came out in the 1850s and evaporated milk was created in the 1870s. It is rumored that a tres leches recipe was pasted on the back of the evaporated milk cans and sales took off (likely sometime in the early 1900s).
It’s called the “three milks” cake because of the addition of evaporated milk, sweetened condensed, and heavy cream. This mixture poured over the baked cake creates a sweet, moist and creamy result that is exceptionally decadent.
Most of the items on this list are your basic baking ingredients. The defining factors are the three types of milk that are combined and poured over the cake after it’s baked!
- Eggs - 5 large eggs, yolks and whites separated.
- All-Purpose Flour - 1 cup spoon and leveled.
- Baking Powder - 1 ½ teaspoons.
- Salt - ¼ teaspoon.
- Granulated Sugar- 1 cup divided into a ¾ cup portion and ¼ cup portion.
- Whole Milk - ⅓ cup.
- Vanilla Extract - 1 ½ teaspoons.
- Evaporated Milk - 1 12-ounce can.
- Sweetened Condensed Milk - 1 14-ounce can.
- Whole Milk - ¼ cup.
- Heavy Whipping Cream - 1 pint.
- Powdered Sugar - 3 tablespoons.
- Vanilla Extract - ½ teaspoon, or up to 1 teaspoon. Vanilla bean caviar or vanilla paste can also be used.
*Be sure to see the recipe card below for ingredients, amounts & instructions!*
🔪 How To Make Tres Leches Cake
There are three parts to a tres leches: the cake, the milk mixture, and the whipped topping. It’s pretty straightforward, but it will take some time.
Keep in mind the cake has to be refrigerated for at least an hour after covering it with the milk mixture.
Making The Cake
- Prep. Preheat your oven to 350°F (175°C) and spray a 9x13 baking pan (*see note) with non-stick cooking or baking spray.
- Separate the eggs. Separate your egg yolks from the whites in 2 small bowls.
- In a new, clean bowl, combine 1 cup of all-purpose flour, 1 ½ teaspoons of baking powder, and ¼ teaspoon of salt and set it aside. Then, to the bowl with just the egg yolks, add ¾ cup of sugar and mix on high speed until the yolks are pale yellow in color. Add the whole ⅓ cup whole milk and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract and stir until well combined.
- Combine wet and dry ingredients. Pour the egg yolk mixture into the bowl with the flour mixture. Stir gently just until thoroughly combined and set aside. Be careful not to over-mix the batter.
- Whip the whites. Use your electric beater to whip the bowl of egg whites on high speed. When stiff peaks begin to form, mix in the remaining ¼ cup of sugar. Gently fold the beaten egg whites in with the rest of the batter.
- Bake. Pour your white cake batter into your prepared baking pan and use a silicone spatula to smooth the top. Bake at 350°F (175°C) for 25-35 minutes or until a toothpick entered into the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and set aside until completely cooled.
Making The Milk Mixture
- Combine the milks. Once your cake has fully cooled, combine a 12-ounce can of evaporated milk, a 14-ounce can of sweetened condensed milk, and ¼ cup of whole milk in a bowl. Use the tines of a fork or a bamboo skewer to poke many holes all over the top of your cake.
- Pour milk over the cake. Slowly pour the milk mixture all over the cake, making sure to get all holes and edges. Cover and refrigerate the cake for at least an hour or up to overnight (this gives it time to soak up the milk).
Making The Whipped Topping
- Whip. In a medium mixing bowl, combine 1 pint of heavy cream, 3 tablespoons of powdered sugar, and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. Whip until stiff peaks form.
- Spread. Spread the whipped topping over the cake. Top with fresh fruit if desired, and serve.
Tres leches cakes are delicious after any kind of meal, but I love keeping to a Latin American theme with dishes like sopa de chícharos or albondigas. To garnish the cake, top with a few fresh berries and mint leaves.
💭 Angela's Tips & Recipe Notes
- You can use a packaged cake mix. If you want to save time or simply prefer the taste, use a box of white cake mix instead of making it from scratch. Be sure to let it cool completely before making the milk mixture.
- Vary pans for your individual use. This recipe calls for a 9x13-inch baking pan, but if you prefer another form or even multiple cakes, you swap it out for a 2-inch deep 10–inch cake pan, a 9 to 10-inch springform pan, or even 2 8- or 9-inch cake pans. Anything goes. Just be aware that cooking time may change.
- Top with Mexican cinnamon. A sprinkle of cinnamon makes a beautiful and tasty decoration on a tres leches cake. This is a favorite during seasons where fresh fruit is not at its peak!
To Make A Tres Leches Cake In Advance
To streamline your process, bake your cake ahead of
time. Let it cool completely, then wrap it in aluminum foil or plastic wrap.
You can keep it in the freezer in an airtight container for up to 3 months. When you’re ready to eat it, and not before, thaw the cake in the fridge overnight. Add the milk mixture and whipped topping, and it’s ready to go!
To keep your tres leches cake as fresh as possible after making it, keep it covered in the fridge. It will be good for 2-3 days.
While you can freeze the cake before adding the milk and whipped topping (see notes about making a tres leches cake in advance above), don’t freeze a fully assembled cake. It will not be good when it thaws.
🍰 More Delicious Cakes!
- Plum Cake
- Rainbow Cake
- Mandarin Orange Cake
- Bisquick Coffee Cake
- Jamaican Black Cake
- Chocolate Banana Cake
Tres Leches Cake
- 12 oz evaporated milk (1 12-ounce can)
- 14 oz sweetened condensed milk (1 14-ounce can)
- ¼ cup whole milk
- 1 pint heavy whipping cream
- 3 tablespoon powdered sugar
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Making The Cake
- Preheat your oven to 350°F (175°C) and spray a 9x13 baking pan (*see note) with non-stick cooking or baking spray.
- Separate your egg yolks from the whites in 2 small bowls.5 large eggs
- In a medium, clean bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt and set it aside. Then, to the bowl with just the egg yolks, add ¾ cup of sugar and mix on high speed until the yolks are pale yellow in color. Add the whole milk and vanilla extract and stir until well combined.1 cup all-purpose flour, 1 ½ teaspoon baking powder, ¼ teaspoon salt, 1 cup granulated sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, ⅓ cup whole milk
- Pour the egg yolk mixture into the bowl with the flour mixture and stir gently just to blend the ingredients, be careful not to over-mix. Set aside.
- Use your electric beater to whip the bowl of egg whites on high speed. When stiff peaks begin to form, mix in the remaining ¼ cup of sugar. Gently fold the stiffly beaten egg whites in with the rest of the batter.
- Pour the cake batter into your prepared baking pan and use a silicone spatula to smooth the top. Bake at 350°F (175°C) for 25-35 minutes. The cake is done when a toothpick entered into the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and set aside until completely cooled.
Making The Milk Mixture
- Once your cake has cooled, combine the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and whole milk in a bowl. Use the tines of a fork or a bamboo skewer to poke many holes all over the top of your cake.12 oz evaporated milk, 14 oz sweetened condensed milk, ¼ cup whole milk
- Slowly pour the milk mixture all over the cake, making sure to get all holes and edges. Cover and refrigerate the cake for at least an hour or up to overnight (this gives it time to soak up the milk).
Making The Whipped Topping
- Just before serving, add the heavy whipping cream, powdered sugar, and vanilla extract to a bowl and whip until stiff peaks form.1 pint heavy whipping cream, 3 tablespoon powdered sugar, ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- Spread the whipped topping over the cake. Top with fresh fruit if desired, and serve.
- If time is a concern or you simply prefer to, you may use packaged white cake mix to make the cake. Let it cool completely then continue with making the milk mixture.
- In place of a 9x13 baking pan, you could also use 2 8" or 9" cake pans, a 2" deep 10" cake pan (pictured), or a 9-10" springform pan.
- A sprinkling of Mexican cinnamon would be perfect for topping this cake.
- To make this cake in advance, bake the cake as directed and allow it to cool. Wrap tightly with foil or plastic wrap and freeze it in an airtight container for up to 3 months. Do not add the milk mixture or whipped topping until thawed and ready to serve.
- Storing: Keep tres leches cake covered in the refrigerator for 2-3 days. Do not freeze after adding the milk mixture.
Angela is an at home chef that developed a passion for all things cooking and baking at a young age in her Grandma's kitchen. After many years in the food service industry, she now enjoys sharing all of her family favorite recipes and creating tasty dinner and amazing dessert recipes here at Bake It With Love!