Tres leches cake, which translates to “three milks cake” in Spanish, is a popular Latin American dessert found in many forms across various countries. Tracing its origins is complicated as it has been around and popular for many years in Nicaragua, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, and Colombia. Some even claim that it’s reminiscent of the English trifle.
In my case, tres leches is a celebration cake we had on birthdays and for Christmas, and the cake I bake when I want to showcase my Colombian heritage. It's the ultimate comfort food.
Chocolate All Throughout
A chocolate tres leches cake is a chocolate sponge cake moistened with three kinds of milk after it is baked. The cake doesn't get soggy—it softens and becomes incredibly moist. This milk mixture is flavored with cocoa powder and ground cinnamon, reminiscent of hot chocolate. Then, the top of the cake is frosted with an airy chocolate flavored whipped cream. There is chocolate in every component of this cake.
Use high-quality chocolate—they contain more cocoa solids, which translates to more flavor. For the sponge cake, I recommend Dutch-process cocoa powder, not natural cocoa powder, which will result in a drier cake. Plus, a little bit of coffee is an excellent way to enhance the chocolate flavor. You won’t be able to taste the coffee at all.
About the Tres Leches
Not every tres leches cake is made the same. Some call for milk instead of heavy cream and some may even use four kinds of milk. I’ve even seen recipes that use coconut milk. This recipe calls for about 2 cups total of sweetened condensed milk, heavy cream, and evaporated milk. I like this creamier and silkier combination, but for something lighter, use half-and-half or whole milk instead of heavy cream.
Master the Chocolate Whipped Cream
Whipping cream creates a magical moment in the kitchen when the heavy cream transforms into something new and exciting with very little effort. Homemade whipped cream tastes better than store-bought and is also easy to customize. Here are some tips:
- Use heavy cream. You need fat to trap all those air bubbles that make whipped cream light and fluffy. A lower fat alternative won’t achieve that.
- Keep your cream and bowl cold by placing them in the fridge until ready to use. Cold heavy cream whips better because the fat is more stable and traps air bubbles better.
- Whisking by hand may feel like a little bit of a workout, but it’s the best way to avoid overwhipping. A grainy and curdle cream is over-whipped, which can't be fixed.
- Whisk from side to side instead of going round and round. It’s more efficient and your shoulder won’t get as tired.
Spice It Up!
Feeling creative and want to spice up the cake?
- Add a pinch of cayenne pepper and a teaspoon of vanilla extract for a Mexican hot chocolate-inspired flavors.
- Infuse the milk mixture with whole cardamom pods and strain it out before using.
- Dust the cake with a tiny bit of grated nutmeg for warmth.
- Who am I to tell you that Baileys is not milk? Swap out 1/4 cup of evaporated milk with the same amount of Baileys.
More Celebration Cakes
Chocolate Tres Leches Cake
Don't have instant espresso powder? Use 2 teaspoons of a strongly brewed coffee. Add it to the cake batter when you add the oil, eggs, and vanilla.
For the sponge cake
Nonstick cooking spray, for the cake pan
1 1/2 cups (300g) sugar
1 1/4 cups (178g) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 cup whole milk
1 1/3 cups (235g) chopped bittersweet chocolate
3/4 cup (75g) Dutch-process cocoa powder
2/3 cup vegetable oil
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the tres leches mixture
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup evaporated milk
2 tablespoons Dutch-process cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
For the chocolate whipped cream topping
6 ounces (170g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
1 3/4 cups very cold heavy cream, divided
Strawberries, raspberries, or maraschino cherries, for garnish (optional)
Your favorite chocolate bar, for garnish (optional)
Preheat the oven to 325°F.
Adjust the oven rack to the center of the oven. Lightly spray a 13x9-inch cake pan with nonstick cooking spray. Set it aside.
Make the sponge cake:
In a medium bowl, whisk the sugar, flour, baking soda, salt, and espresso, making sure to break any clumps, and set aside.
In a medium saucepan set over low heat, combine the milk, chocolate, and cocoa powder. Stir constantly until the chocolate melts and the mixture looks like a rich chocolate sauce. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
Then, whisk in the oil, eggs, and vanilla. Do not worry if it looks a little bit curdled at first—the oil will try to separate from the batter, but the eggs will emulsify and make it smooth. Continue whisking until it looks smooth.
Use a rubber spatula to scrape the mixture onto the dry ingredients and combine well.
Bake the cake:
Scrape the batter into the prepared cake pan. Gently tap the pan on your kitchen counter a few times to get rid of some air bubbles.
Bake the cake for about 30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through to ensure even baking. Insert a toothpick in the middle to check for doneness—the cake is ready when it comes out with a few crumbs stuck to it, but no wet batter. Place the cake pan on a wire rack to cool.
Meanwhile, make the milk mixture:
While the cake bakes, make the tres leches mixture. In a small saucepan set over low heat, combine the sweetened condensed milk, heavy cream, evaporated milk, cocoa powder, and cinnamon. Whisk vigorously until the cocoa powder and cinnamon are fully dissolved, and the mixture is heated through. It will be frothy. Set it aside to cool.
Poke and bathe the cake:
Poke the cake all over with a toothpick or a fork. It’s okay if the cake is still warm. Slowly pour the warm milk mixture evenly over the cake. Don’t worry if it looks like it is too much milk—it isn’t—the cake will quickly absorb all of it. Tightly cover the cake pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least an hour. You want the cake to be cold so that the whipped cream doesn’t melt off when you frost it.
Melt the chocolate:
Fill a medium pot with about 2 inches of water. Set it over medium-high heat to bring the water to a gentle boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and set a medium heat-proof bowl on top of the pot. Make sure the boiling water is not touching the bottom of the bowl. This is called a double boiler.
Add the chocolate chips and 1/3 cup heavy cream. Gently stir until the chocolate is fully melted. Set it aside to cool to room temperature.
Milk chocolate will give you a sweeter, lighter cream that balances out the deep chocolate flavors of the cake. If you want even more chocolate flavor, opt for bittersweet.
Whisk the cream:
In a medium bowl, whisk the remaining heavy cream until soft peaks start forming, being careful not to over-whip it. You can do this by hand with a whisk or with an electric handheld mixer. Then, gently whisk in the cooled melted chocolate until fully incorporated.
Decorate the cake:
Use the back of a spoon or an offset spatula to spread the chocolate whipped cream over the chilled tres leches cake. Create small peaks and swirls, if you’d like.
Garnish with your favorite berry, if you’d like—strawberries, raspberries, and maraschino cherries balance out the chocolate very nicely. I like to use the berries as a guide to indicate where to cut the portions.
Another way to decorate the cake: Use a vegetable peeler to make chocolate curls. Simply run the blade over a bar of your favorite chocolate over a plate. Sprinkle them on the cake.
Serve the cake:
Keep the cake chilled in the fridge until ready to serve.
This cake tastes even better the day after you make it—the milk mixture would have had a chance to really soak through the cake. Leftovers (though there normally isn’t any) can be refrigerated for up to 3 days tightly covered with plastic wrap. It’s not suitable for freezing as it will turn rubbery, and the whipped cream will collapse.
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|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 12 to 16|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 39g||50%|
|Saturated Fat 19g||93%|
|Total Carbohydrate 64g||23%|
|Dietary Fiber 5g||17%|
|Total Sugars 47g|
|Vitamin C 5mg||27%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|