This weekend, I made one of my favorite desserts, Tres Leches cake. This is a Latin American specialty that consists of a simple sponge cake soaked in a mixture of milks - three of them, as the Spanish name suggests - with whipped cream on top. I love this cake. Mine is a simple one, made in a glass baking dish, but Tres Leches cake can also be made in a much fancier style, using thin cake layers sandwiched with whipped cream. Tres Leches is comfort food, soft, creamy and sweet, like pudding or custard. It makes you feel like a little kid again.
Tres Leches cake is made in the tradition of European soaked cakes, like English rum cake, or Italian tiramisu, where a sponge cake is doused with a liquid or syrup, becoming dense and moist. Tres Leches cake's origins are disputed; some say it comes from Central America or the Caribbean region, while others insist it has roots in Mexico. Either way, it's popular in parts of the USA with Hispanic cultural influence, like where I live. In bakeries and cafes around Albuquerque, Tres Leches cake can often be found on the menu. I like all the varieties I've tried; I don't think I've ever had a bad Tres Leches cake. It's hard to go wrong with copious quantities of milk, sugar, eggs and butter - the primary ingredients in this sweet, milky concoction.
(for the cake)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 to 1/3 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
14 oz can of sweetened condensed milk
12 oz can of evaporated milk
2 cups whole milk
(for the whipped cream)
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 9-by-13 baking dish.
Sift the flour and baking powder together, set aside. Cream butter and granulated sugar until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating to incorporate. Stir in milk, vanilla, flour and baking powder.
The batter will be fairly stiff and golden yellow from all those eggs. Spread the batter in the baking dish and bake for about 30 minutes, until the top is brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
The cake will be pretty thin, and you'll wonder where all that milk will go. Let the cake cool completely on a rack before you do the next step.
Once the cake is cooled, use a fork to poke holes all over the top surface, taking care not to rip the cake (it's delicate). Mix together the whole milk, condensed milk and evaporated milk with a whisk (I like to do this in a bowl with a pour spout), and pour the milk mixture over the cake a little at a time, letting the milk soak into the cake after each application. It's a lot of liquid (42 ounces total!), but trust me, it gets in there.
Refrigerate the cake for several hours to ensure good absorption and a nice, moist texture (this cake needs to be refrigerated at all times, due to the milk).
Just before serving, whip the heavy cream with powdered sugar and vanilla. Spread the whipped cream over the cake and serve. If you won't be serving the entire cake at once, you might consider whipping only part of the cream now and the rest at another time, since the cream will eventually go back to liquid. But cream soaked into an already rich, moist cake wouldn't be so bad. You'd just have to call it Cuatros Leches instead.