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How To Make Tres Leches Cake: A Popular Costa Rican Dessert

How To Make Tres Leches Cake: A Popular Costa Rican Dessert

Last updated on April 7th, 2020 at 02:14 pm EST

Costa Rican food at home

What if June Clever was a Tica (Costa Rican)? She would likely spoil her husband, Ward, on a nightly basis with hearty helpings of rich and flavorful Costa Rican dishes like casado, tamales, and olla de carne. She might accompany those dishes with a glass of horchata or a bottle of Imperial, and for dessert, she could serve flan de coco, arroz con leche, or one of a number of other sweet delicacies. The options are endless. Leave it to Beaver, and we bet he’d choose to indulge in one of Costa Rica’s most popular postres (desserts): Tres leches (three-milk) cake.

Though I’m hardly a traditional homemaker in the June-Clever sense, I love to incorporate traditional Costa Rican cooking in my own home. One of my favorite things to bake, which is (thankfully) very easy to make, is tres leches cake.

Don’t miss our related blog posts:

Costa Rica Food Guide: 30 Things To Eat In Costa Rica And When To Eat Them

Costa Rica Drink Guide: 20 Things To Drink In Costa Rica (Alcoholic And Non-Alcoholic)

Our tres leches cake health disclaimer

It’s worth noting that the preparation of tres leches cake breaks just about every food rule that I try to follow because it’s unhealthy in a multitude of ways. Since Ricky and I maintain a fairly strict, healthy diet that’s saturated with nutrient- and vitamin-packed foods, our consumption of tres leches cake is essentially taboo. This being said, as an occasional treat that we give ourselves only once or twice each year, we thoroughly enjoy the cheat. If you can get past the use of white flour, processed white sugar, and egg yolks; the high fat content that comes from using butter, evaporated milk, and condensed milk; and the dessert’s astronomical sugar content overall, tres leches cake is worth a taste.

tres leches cake
Delicious tres leches cake!

How to make tres leches cake: What to know before you start

Tres leches cake is ridiculously simple to make

Little technical skill is involved in making tres leches cake and there’s little opportunity for something to go wrong. The dessert consists of three main parts: the cake base, a three-milk mixture that’s poured over the cake base, and a whipped-dessert cake topping.

Tres leches cake is best served straight from the fridge a few hours after it is prepared

In a pinch, though, tres leches cake can be prepared and served somewhat quickly, so long as you give yourself at least two hours to assemble the ingredients, construct the cake, and allow it time to cool.

The recipe I use requires the cake base to be made from scratch

If you choose to prepare the cake base from a store-bought cake mix, which typically produces light and fluffy cakes, note that the cake will struggle to maintain its structure and will likely crumble when cut. The cake base that I make from scratch produces a much denser foundation. This helps the base support the three-milk mixture it absorbs, which in turn helps the cake maintain its shape.

The recipe I use relies on Dream Whip to produce the whipped dessert cake topping

Traditional Costa Rican tres leches cake uses a cake topping comprised of whipped heavy cream. Personally, I prefer the lighter taste of Dream Whip. If you want to use whipped heavy cream (or if you do not have access to Dream Whip), that’s no problem. For convenience purposes, if you’d rather use a different kind of whipped topping such as Cool Whip, that’s okay too.

The recipe I use works for Ricky and I

I am neither a baker nor a chef, and I don’t doubt that there is a more professional way of tackling tres leches cake than the method described below. However, the article below sums up the quickest and easiest way I know to produce a dessert that looks and tastes close enough to how Ricky’s Costa Rican ancestors produced it, which is good enough for us. For anyone living in Costa Rica who wants to try their hand at replicating tres leches cake, or anyone who has just returned home from a trip to Costa Rica who wishes they could eat more of the dessert they fell in love with while on vacation, the below recipe should do the trick.

Quick tres leches cake recipe item list

Products you will need

  • All-purpose flour (1 1/2 cups)
  • White sugar (1/2 cup)
  • Baking powder (1 teaspoon)
  • Large eggs (5)
  • Unsalted butter (1/2 cup, plus an extra 1 teaspoon for greasing the baking dish)
  • 1% or 2% milk (2 cups, plus an extra 1 cup if using Dream Whip as the dessert topping)
  • Evaporated milk (1 can)
  • Sweetened condensed milk (1 can)
  • Vanilla (1 teaspoon, plus an extra 1 teaspoon if using Dream Whip as the dessert topping)
  • Packages of Dream Whip whipped topping (2 packets / 1/2 box, if using Dream Whip as the dessert topping)
  • Cinnamon (optional)

Equipment you will need

  • Baking dish (9×13, or similar); ideally a glass dish with a lid (for viewing and storing purposes)
  • Large mixing bowl
  • Blender
  • Electric mixer (optional; ingredients may be mixed by hand)
  • Spatula
  • Fork (or similar piercing tool, such as a toothpick)
  • Sharp knife

How to make tres leches cake – Part #1: Constructing the cake’s base layer

Step #1: Prepare the cake batter

For this step you will need

  • All-purpose flour (1 1/2 cups)
  • White sugar (1/2 cup)
  • Baking powder (1 teaspoon)
  • Large eggs (5)
  • Unsalted butter (1/2 cup)
  • Vanilla (1 teaspoon)
  • Large mixing bowl
  • Electric mixer (optional; ingredients may be mixed by hand)

Before you begin to prepare the cake base’s batter, set your oven to preheat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

  1. Combine the butter (room temperature or slightly warmed to soften) and sugar in a bowl. Mixed until the batter becomes fluffy and grainy.
  2. Add the eggs and only 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract to the batter, then mix until the batter becomes runny and bubbly.
  3. Add half of the flour (3/4 cup) and baking powder to the batter, then mix. When combined, add the remaining flour (3/4 cup) and mix again. The flour will thicken the batter; by the time all of the flour has been added, the batter should have a doughy consistency.

Step #2: Baking the cake

For this step you will need

  • Butter (1 teaspoon)
  • Baking dish (9×13, or similar); ideally a glass dish with a lid (for viewing and storing purposes)
  • Spatula

Before you begin to bake the cake, ensure your oven has reached 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

  1. Grease the baking dish with a teaspoon of butter (or oil, if you prefer it).
  2. Pour the batter into the baking dish. Use a spatula to ensure the batter is evenly distributed across the dish.
  3. Place the baking dish in the middle rack of the oven.
  4. Set the oven timer to bake the cake for 30 minutes.

Step #3: Piercing the cake

For this step you will need

  • Fork (or similar piercing tool, such as a toothpick)
  • Sharp knife

Before you begin to pierce the cake, ensure that it is cooked throughout. The cake should be dense to the touch (not loose, especially in the middle). It should be beige in color on top and light brown in color around the edges.

  1. Soon after the cake is removed from the oven, run a sharp knife around the baking dish’s edges to separate the cake from the walls of the dish. The cake should be dense enough for you to slide the knife under the bottom of the cake’s corner and slightly lift the cake with ease.
  2. Before the cake cools completely, use a fork to pierce holes throughout. Start by piercing holes in one direction across the entire cake, then pierce the entire cake once again in the opposite direction. The holes should be close enough to each other to allow for ample milk absorption, yet not so close that the cake’s structure breaks or crumbles.

How to make tres leches cake – Part #2: Creating and applying the three-milk mixture

Step #1: Prepare the three-milk mixture

For this step you will need

  • 1% or 2% milk (2 cups)
  • Evaporated milk (1 can)
  • Sweetened condensed milk (1 can)
  • Blender

This step couldn’t be easier, yet it makes the tres leches cake what it is.

  1. Combine the 1% or 2% milk, evaporated milk, and condensed milk into a blender and mix for one minute. As a tip, I leave the lid on the can of the condensed milk so I can prop the can up on the top of the blender to let all of the sticky contents drain out (as displayed in the image above). When completely combined, the mixture should be runny and resemble milk, but slightly more beige in colour.

Step #2: Apply the three-milk mixture to the cake base

For this step you will need

  • Cooked case base
  • Three-milk mixture
  • Sharp knife

With the cake base cooked and partly cooled, the dessert is ready for its showstopper!

  1. Pour 1/3 of the three-milk mixture directly from the blender over the top of the cake base. Try to pour the three-milk mixture evenly across the cake. Wait a few seconds for the milk to soak into the cake through the holes.
  2. Pour 1/3 of the three-milk mixture directly from the blender over the top of the cake base once again and wait a few seconds for that round of liquid to absorb. Aim to pour more of the mixture into the holes in the middle of the cake. Naturally, the milk will flow toward the edges of the baking dish, allowing the edges of the cake to absorb more milk than the center. By pouring the mixture primarily in the middle of the cake, you can help the center absorb as much milk as the edges.
  3. Pour the remaining 1/3 of the three-milk mixture directly from the blender over the top of the cake base, ensuring that each section of the cake receives ample liquid. Use a sharp knife to slightly pull back the cake from the baking dish’s edges to ensure that the mixture can reach the cake’s corners (the advantage to using a glass baking dish is that you will be able to trace the liquid’s trail). If need be, use the knife to drag puddles of the mixture that collect around the baking dish’s edges into the middle of the cake.
  4. Place the baking dish in the fridge for 10 minutes to allow all remaining liquid to seep into the cake. The absorption process is complete when you can no longer see puddles of the three-milk mixture on the top of the cake. When ready, the cake itself will appear lighter in color and be mushy to touch.

How to make tres leches cake – Part #3: Create and apply the whipped dessert cake topping

Step #1: Prepare the whipped dessert cake topping

For this step you will need

  • Packages of Dream Whip whipped topping (2 packets / 1/2 box, if using Dream Whip as the dessert topping)
  • 1% or 2% milk (1 cup)
  • Vanilla (1 teaspoon)
  • Mixing bowl (washed/dried, if using the same bowl as the one you prepared the cake batter in)
  • Electric mixer (optional; ingredients may be mixed by hand)
  • Cinnamon (optional)

The first instruction provided below is the same instruction provided on the Dream Whip product’s packaging.

  1. Combine the milk, vanilla, and Dream Whip product in a bowl. Mix rapidly for three to four minutes, or as soon as the whipped mixture forms peaks.
  2. If desired, sprinkle cinnamon liberally over the top of the cake. This instruction is entirely optional. Since Ricky doesn’t really care for cinnamon, I choose not to sprinkle the spice over the tres leches cakes that I bake. I love cinnamon, however, so I keep a cinnamon shaker close by for whenever I cut myself a piece.

Step #2: Apply the whipped dessert cake topping to the cake base

For this step you will need

  • Cooked cake base with three-milk mixture absorbed
  • Whipped dessert cake topping
  • Spatula

Pull the cake out of the fridge; it’s time to add the finishing touch!

  1. Scoop the Dream Whip mixture out of the mixing bowl and onto the cake base. Spread the mixture evenly across the cake using the spatula.

Tres leches cake tips

Store the cake in the fridge and serve it cool

Though the cake will last for a number of days, the longer you wait to eat it, the soggier it will be. We recommend consuming the cake within 2 days of preparation.

Cut/serve the cake from the same dish the cake was prepared in

Given the wetness of the cake’s composition, tres leches cake can be difficult to transfer once constructed. Since the dessert can be messy to deal with, it’s best to minimize movement across plates.

If you would prefer to bake the cake in a smaller dish, reduce the recipe quantity

Alternatively, if you use the same quantity of ingredients with the intent of creating a taller/thicker/fuller cake as opposed to the relatively thin cake that a 9 x 13 baking dish produces, the end result won’t the same. With a taller cake, the majority of the three-milk mixture will sink to the bottom half of the dessert, which will leave the top half of the tres leches cake rather dry and flavorless. For this reason, tres leches cake is best served as a short and wide cake, not a tall and thick cake.

If you would prefer to make a low-fat tres leches cake, use low-fat evaporated milk and low-fat condensed milk

I have baked tres leches cakes using low-fat ingredients and I noted little difference in cake quality, apart from the low-fat cakes tasting slightly less rich. If you want to use low-fat milk, do not use less than 1% milk.

Don’t be put off by the cake batter’s bitter taste/smell

Unlike the standard birthday cakes you’re probably accustomed to baking, a tres leches cake’s base isn’t meant to be sweet and tasty. The dessert’s sweetness and flavor are provided by the three-milk mixture, which is added to an otherwise dense, boring, and slightly bitter-tasting base layer.

Nikki; loving the tres leches cake!

QUESTION TO COMMENT ON: Have you tried tres leches cake in Costa Rica? What did you think? Have you attempted to bake it on your own? How did it go?

Pura vida!

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How To Make Tres Leches Cake: A Popular Costa Rican Dessert
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How To Make Tres Leches Cake: A Popular Costa Rican Dessert
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Want to know how to make Costa Rica's infamous tres leches cake? We provide a tres leches cake recipe, preparation instructions, photos, and tips!
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The Official Costa Rica Travel Blog
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