There are a lot of tres leches cake recipes out there, but I decided to use one by Ree Drummond (aka The Pioneer Woman). As she rightly points out, there's actually FOUR kinds of milk used in the cake, so it should arguably be called cuatro leches cake. The three milks name probably comes from the fact that after the cake is made, it's then soaked in three milks (the fourth is in the batter).
What are the three milks? It's not health food, it's yummy food. Heavy cream, sweetened condensed milk, and evaporated milk. What's the difference, you might ask? Heavy cream, at least in the U.S., has at least 36 percent fat, and is the stuff typically used in ice cream and to make whipped cream. Sweetened condensed milk (also sometimes known just as condensed milk) is cow milk that's had its water content removed and sugar added, which makes it a thick, creamy substance that's awesome just stirred into hot coffee or tea. When buying condensed milk, look at the label. There should be as few ingredients as possible (in fact, 2 is best: milk, sugar), with sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup. Evaporated milk (aka dehydrated milk) is shelf-stable milk that's had about 60 percent of its water removed. Since you'll be making more of the cream mixture than you actually need for the cake, don't throw away the remainder; save to use in coffee or tea (unless, of course, you don't like milk or sugar in your hot beverages).
The cake is light and airy, due to the batter requiring meringue. There are lots of little air pockets in the cake, all the better to soak up the three milks. Right after pouring you might notice that some of the milk hasn't soaked in yet -- don't worry, the cake is a greedy sponge and the milk will eventually get absorbed while it's sitting. TPW suggests letting the cake absorb the milk mixture for 30 minutes. This is not, in my opinion, nearly enough time. I served the cake after about 40 minutes of soaking and it was disappointingly dry. The next day, however, the milk had totally soaked through and it was as moist as can be. So I recommend letting it soak for several hours or overnight before frosting, to really get every bit of the cake soaked. This is actually good in terms of convenience, because it means you can make the cake the day before and the only thing you need to do day of is make whipped cream to spread on the cake.
The dry milk in the 'frosting' is optional; it's just a way to stablize the whipped cream (which I find more necessary when it's being used as a cake frosting).
Tres Leches Cake (adapted from The Pioneer Woman)
For the cake
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 tsps baking powder
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 5 eggs, separated
- 1 cup sugar, divided
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1/3 cup whole milk
- 1 12oz can evaporated milk
- 1 14oz can sweetened condensed milk
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 1 pint heavy cream
- 2 tbsps sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1 tsp dry nonfat milk (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray a 9 x 13 inch baking pan with cooking spray.
- Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.
- Beat egg yolks with 3/4 cup sugar on high speed until yolks are pale yellow. Stir in the milk and vanilla.
- Pour the egg yolk mixture over the flour mixture and stir very gently until combined.
- Beat egg whites in a clean bowl on high speed until soft peaks form. With the mixer on, pour in remaining 1/4 cup sugar and beat until egg whites are stiff but not dry.
- Fold the egg white mixture into the batter very gently until just combined.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread into an even layer.
- Bake for 35-45 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Turn the cake out onto a rimmed baking sheet or serving platter and allow to cool.
- Combine the condensed milk, evaporated milk, and heavy cream, preferably in a container that has a spout. When the cake is cool, carefully pierce the surface all over with a fork. Drizzle all but about 1 cup of the milk mixture, including the edges of the cake.
- Allow the cake to absorb the milk mixture for several hours or overnight in the fridge.
- Right before serving, whip heavy cream with sugar, vanilla, and dry milk (if using) until thick (though don't overwhip or you'll have butter). Spread over the cake. Best served with something tart and fruity, like strawberry sorbet.