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The Long-Winding History of the Milk-Soaked Tres Leches Cake from the Heart of Latin America

solar_calendar-linear Nov 24, 2023 10:00:00 AM

Homenavigation-arrowArticlesnavigation-arrowThe Long-Winding History of the Milk-Soaked Tres Leches Cake from the Heart of Latin America

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The Tres Leches cake has a long history that evolved with colonization, and for a certain time was only enjoyed by the uber-rich in Latin America, until the ingredients used to make the cake became cheaper and more accessible.

The Long-Winding History of the Milk-Soaked Tres Leches Cake from the Heart of Latin America

The Tres Leches cake has a long history that evolved with colonization, and for a certain time was only enjoyed by the uber-rich in Latin America, until the ingredients used to make the cake became cheaper and more accessible.

Living up to its name, the Tres Leches Cake contains three different forms of milk.”Tres” means three, and “leches” means milk, so namely whole milk, condensed milk and evaporated milk. These are absorbed by the dough, which results in a moist and milky cake that is simply irresistible.

Unless you have been living in dessert oblivion so far, you might know that tres leches cakes are being sold in every bakery in town—from the upscale ones to the medium fancy ones. It might have been an influencer, it might have been an experimental baker, we are not sure, but a slice of tres leches cake is hot right now, and we don’t know who started the trend.

What Makes Up the Tres Leches Cake?

At the heart of any tres leches cake lies the moist, tender sponge cake layers that form its structure. The batter is usually a light, airy concoction incorporating eggs to produce a soft crumb. These layers are then stacked together to complete the base.

But what truly sets the tres leches cake apart is its signature milky soaking liquid. First, sweetened condensed milk is poured generously over the layers. Its high sugar content provides intense sweetness. Then comes evaporated milk, contributing a rich creaminess. Finally, heavy whipping cream is added for an extra luxurious texture.

As this divine combination of three milks—condensed, evaporated and cream—seeps into the cake, it transforms it into an utterly moist and flavorful creation. The sponge becomes saturated, yet remains light and soft.

Once fully soaked, the top is often finished with a fluffy frosting of whipped cream to balance the milk's sweetness with an airy lightness. Sometimes, a hint of cinnamon or other spices is mixed into the milk mixture or frosting to enhance the flavors even more.

The History

The exact origins of the tres leches cake can be traced back to 19th century Mexico, where soaked cakes and sponges were a tradition. The tradition of soaking cakes in milk originated in the Mexican state of Tabasco. There, a simple cake called "Torta de Leche" involved baking a cake batter directly in a pan of scalded milk. This resulted in a moist cake with a delicious milky flavor. By the late 1800s, similar recipes had emerged in the states of Oaxaca and Sinaloa. Dishes like "Sopa Borracha" and "Ante de Suecas" became popular soaked cakes in southern Mexico.

This tradition spread to neighboring Nicaragua in the early 1900s. At the time, Nicaraguan society was highly stratified, with the upper classes enjoying imported luxuries. Recipes using sweetened condensed milk, which was invented in 1853, became a status symbol.

However, most Nicaraguans could not afford or access condensed milk. This changed in the 1930s when the U.S. and Nicaraguan governments collaborated to boost the dairy industry. Condensed milk became more affordable and available nationwide.

At home, bakers began experimenting with new ways to use condensed milk, likely inspired by the Mexican-soaked cake tradition. The idea to soak the cake in multiple milks—condensed, evaporated, and cream—was thought up to honor the Catholic holy trinity.

A key development was a leading food and beverage company establishing factories in Central America in the early 1900s. The company promoted condensed milk usage through recipe ideas printed on product cans. Some historians believe one of these recipes was an early version of the tres leches cake.

The cake grew more popular in Nicaragua through the mid-20th century. It was firmly cemented as a national dessert by the 1970s political unrest, as many Nicaraguan refugees fled to Miami and brought the tres leches cake tradition with them. This helped introduce the dessert to a global audience.

Now that you have the winding history of the tres leches cake from the heart of Latin America, why not try making one?

Tres Leches Cake Recipe

tres-leches-2

Ingredients:

  • 180 gm all-purpose flour
  • 120 gm granulated sugar
  • 5 gm baking powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3 large eggs, separated
  • 120 gm evaporated milk
  • 120 gm sweetened condensed milk
  • 120 gm heavy cream

For the delicate glaze:

  • 120 gm condensed milk
  • 120 gm evaporated milk

Instructions

  • Preheat your oven to 180°C. Grease a 20 x 20 cm baking pan with butter and line with baking paper for easy removal later.
  • In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt until well combined.
  • In a separate bowl, beat the fluffy egg yolks until pale and creamy. Slowly stir in the evaporated milk.
  • Pour the wet ingredients into the dry mixture and gently fold together with a spatula until just moistened.
  • Using clean beaters, softly whip the egg whites until soft peaks form. Carefully fold the whites into the batter.
  • Pour the tender batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
  • Allow the cake to cool for a bit, then ever so gently poke holes all over with a skewer.
  • Blend the three kinds of milk together for the glaze. Slowly pour the milky mixture over the warm cake, allowing it to be absorbed.
  • Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 relaxing hours before serving.