Tres Leches Cake

This authentic Latin American dessert, tres leches cake, is made with a light and airy sponge cake soaked in a sweet three-milk mixture and topped with a luscious whipped topping. Perfect for cinco de mayo and other summer celebrations!

A piece of tres leches cake on a plate with a fork.

Why You’ll Love This Recipe

Tres leches cake is quite possibly the best poke cake on the planet!

It’s a beautiful vanilla cake, soaked in a sweet blend of milks, with a topping of luscious fresh whipped cream. In Mexico, it is a popular dessert to serve at any celebration.

The Spanish words “tres leches” literally translate to “three milks”, which are exactly what rounds out the ingredients of this light sponge cake. Those three kinds of milk are sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and half and half (or in some cases, heavy cream).

The Ingredients

Ingredients for tres leches cake prepped and labeled on a counter.

For the most authentic flavor, use the ingredients below, without substitutions except where noted:

Key Ingredients for the Cake:

  • Cake flour: This flour is lighter than all-purpose. It has less protein, so it makes for a fluffy and wonderfully tender cake. Substituting all-purpose flour will affect the texture of the cake. If you do not have cake flour or can’t get it, make this substitution: whisk together ¾ cup sifted all-purpose flour + 2 tablespoons cornstarch for each cup of cake flour.
  • Butter: Use unsalted butter at room temperature for the best results.
  • Eggs: Use size large eggs for best results.
  • Vanilla extract- Use the best quality extract possible; Mexican vanilla is even better.

Ingredients for the Three-Milk Mixture:

  • Evaporated milk: This is canned, concentrated milk.
  • Sweetened condensed milk: This milk is reduced and then sugar is added. It has a thick, syrupy consistency.
  • Half and half: This is a dairy product in the U.S. that falls between whole milk and heavy cream. If you cannot get it where you live, substitute half whole milk and half heavy cream.

Ingredients for the Whipped Cream Topping:

  • Heavy cream: Be sure to use unsweetened heavy whipping cream.
  • Sugar: For this recipe, we use granulated sugar, NOT powdered sugar.
  • Vanilla extract: Again, best quality possible.

Step-by-Step Directions

This is a simple vanilla sponge cake recipe that uses a creaming method to bring everything together.

Step #1: Make the Cake

  • Prepare for baking: Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease a 9×13-inch baking pan; set aside.
  • Whisk dry ingredients: In a medium bowl, whisk together the cake flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.
  • Beat butter: In a large bowl, beat the butter with an electric mixer on medium speed until fluffy, about 1 minute.
  • Add sugar: Decrease the speed to low and with the mixer still running, gradually add the sugar over 1 minute. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl, if necessary.
  • Add the eggs, one at a time, and mix thoroughly to combine. Add vanilla extract and mix to combine.
Step by step photos of making tres leches cake batter.
  • Mix in flour: Add the flour mixture to the batter in 3 batches and mix just until combined.
  • Pour into baking pan: Transfer the batter to the prepared baking pan and spread into an even layer. (This will appear to be a very small amount of batter.)
  • Bake 20-25 minutes, or until the cake is lightly golden and reaches an internal temperature of 200°F.
Step by step photos of the final mixing of tres leches cake batter and pouring into pan.
  • Cool the cake: Remove the cake to a cooling rack and allow to cool for 30 minutes.
  • Poke the top of the cake all over with a skewer or fork.
  • Cool completely: Allow the cake to cool completely and then prepare the glaze.

Step #2: Make the Three-Milk Mixture

The three milk mixture comes together quickly, but the key is to pour is nice and slowly so that it soaks in evenly.

Poking holes and pouring milk glaze over tres leches cake.
  • Whisk together the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and half and half in a four-cup measuring cup.
  • Pour the milk glaze evenly over the fully-cooled cake, being sure to fill all the holes you poked into it.
  • Chill the cake in the refrigerator for at least four hours.

Step #3: Make the Whipped Cream Topping

When you realize how easy it is to make the best whipped cream you’ll ever taste, you’ll never want to buy it again.

Spreading whipped cream over the top of tres leches cake.
  • Whip the cream, sugar, and vanilla extract in the bowl of an electric mixer on low speed.
  • Beat the mixture on low until you reach soft peaks.
  • Increase the speed to medium until the mixture is luscious and thick.
  • Spread the whipped cream over the cake and refrigerate until serving time.

Recipe Success Tips

  • Thin Cake – You’ll notice when the cake comes out of the oven that it is not exceptionally high, but don’t worry! Once it absorbs all of that liquid, it will plump up beautifully.
  • Poking Holes – Try not to hit the bottom of the pan when you poke your holes, which will keep the most liquid in the cake. Some will naturally seep out as it soaks, but by not penetrating the bottom of the cake, you keep the most liquid possible inside the cake.
  • Pour Slowly! – When pouring the milk mixture over the poked holes of the cake, go as slowly as possible. If you rush the process, the cake won’t be able to absorb everything. Even if it takes you 10 to 15 minutes, take it slowly. Drizzle a little bit evenly over the surface, let it sink in, then do a bit more. It is well worth the patience!
Pan of tres leches cake with strawberries around the border.

Topping Suggestions

You can serve the cake as is, chilled of course. In Mexico, an authentic tres leches cake recipe isn’t as sweet as this one, so in Mexico, they serve it with slices of fresh fruit on top. Some of the most common toppings include:

  • Strawberries
  • Peaches
  • Mangos
  • Pineapple
  • Toasted coconut
  • Pecans

Different Flavor Options

An authentic tres leches cake is typically vanilla which makes adapting for other flavors easy and fun! Some other flavor options you might try include:

  • Caramel: My caramel tres leches cake is made with dulce de leche.
  • Mocha: Replace some or all of the half and half with brewed coffee.
  • Coconut: Use coconut cream in place of sweetened condensed milk and top with toasted coconut.
  • Chocolate: Make a chocolate cake base and keep everything else as-is, OR replace some/all of the half and half with chocolate milk, OR add chocolate syrup to the three milk mixture, then top the whipped cream with shaved chocolate for a triple chocolate finish!!

Storage and Making Ahead

  • Storage: The cake can be stored in the refrigerator, covered, for up to 4 days.
  • Make-Ahead: This is a fabulous make-ahead recipe because it needs to chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours after you pour over the milk mixture, and overnight is even better! For the best flavor and texture, I recommend serving it the day after you pour over the milk, but leftovers will keep in the refrigerator for another couple of days.
  • Freezing Instructions: You can freeze the plain cake after it has baked, but not the soaked, assembled cake (it would be too mushy). To freeze the cake, cool completely, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and foil and freeze for up to 3 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator, then proceed with the recipe to poke holes, pour the milk mixture, and top with whipped cream.
Close up photo of cut tres leches cake in pan.

More Mexican Recipes

Sweet and refreshing, this easy-to-make tres leches cake is the ultimate poke cake! A light vanilla sponge cake soaks up a sweet three milk glaze and is topped with a silky smooth whipped topping for the perfect Cinco de Mayo dessert.

If you make this recipe and love it, remember to stop back and give it a 5-star rating – it helps others find the recipe! ❤️️

Tres Leches Cake Recipe

Servings 12 servings
Prep 1 hour
Cook 20 minutes
resting time 4 hours 30 minutes
Total 5 hours 50 minutes
Course: Dessert
Cuisine: American
Author: Michelle

This authentic tres leches cake recipe is made with a vanilla sponge cake soaked in a three milk mixture and topped with a luscious whipped topping!

Ingredients:

For the Cake:

  • cups
    cake flour
  • 1
    teaspoon
    baking powder
  • ½
    teaspoon
    kosher salt
  • ½
    cup
    unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1
    cup
    + 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 5
    eggs
  • teaspoons
    vanilla extract

For the Three-Milk Glaze:

  • 12
    ounce
    can evaporated milk
  • 14
    ounce
    can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1
    cup
    half-and-half

For the Whipped Cream:

  • 2
    cups
    heavy cream
  • 1
    cup
    + 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1
    teaspoon
    vanilla extract

Directions:

  1. Make the Cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9×13-inch baking pan; set aside.

  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the cake flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.
  3. Beat the butter with an electric mixer on medium speed until fluffy, about 1 minute. Decrease the speed to low and with the mixer still running, gradually add the sugar over 1 minute. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl, if necessary. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, and mix to thoroughly combine. Add the vanilla extract and mix to combine. Add the flour mixture to the batter in 3 batches and mix just until combined. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and spread into an even layer. (This will appear to be a very small amount of batter.)
  4. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the cake is lightly golden and reaches an internal temperature of 200 degrees F. Remove the cake to a cooling rack and allow to cool for 30 minutes. Poke the top of the cake all over with a skewer or fork. Allow the cake to cool completely and then prepare the glaze.
  5. Make the Three-Milk Glaze: In a 4-cup measuring cup, whisk together the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and the half-and-half. Once combined, slowly pour the glaze evenly over the cake. Refrigerate the cake for at least four hours, or overnight.

  6. Make the Whipped Cream: Using an electric mixer, whisk together the heavy cream, sugar and vanilla on low speed until stiff peaks form. Increase to medium speed and whip until thick. Spread the topping over the cake and allow to chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve. Leftover cake should be covered and refrigerated for up to 1 day.

Recipe Video

Recipe Notes:

  • Cake Flour: Cake flour contains less protein than all-purpose flour and will create a fluffier, more tender cake. Substituting all-purpose flour will affect the texture of the cake. If you do not have cake flour or can’t get it, make this substitution: whisk together ¾ cup sifted all-purpose flour + 2 tablespoons cornstarch for each cup of cake flour.
  • Half & Half: This is a dairy product sold in the U.S. If you cannot get it where you live, substitute equal amounts whole milk and heavy cream (or all heavy cream for an even richer cake).
  • Thin Cake: You’ll notice when the cake comes out of the oven that it is not exceptionally high, but don’t worry! Once it absorbs all of that liquid, it will plump up beautifully.
  • Poking Holes: Try not to hit the bottom of the pan when you poke your holes, which will keep the most liquid in the cake. Some will naturally seep out as it soaks, but by not penetrating the bottom of the cake, you keep the most liquid possible inside the cake.
  • Pour Slowly! When pouring the milk mixture over the poked holes of the cake, go as slowly as possible. If you rush the process, the cake won’t be able to absorb everything. Even if it takes you 10 to 15 minutes, take it slowly. Drizzle a little bit evenly over the surface, let it sink in, then do a bit more. It is well worth the patience!
  • Serving Suggestions: You can serve the cake as is, chilled of course. In Mexico, an authentic tres leches cake recipe isn’t as sweet as this one, so in Mexico, they serve it with slices of fresh fruit on top; most often, slices of strawberries, peaches, mangos, and pineapple. Toasted coconut and pecans are also popular toppings.
  • Storage: The cake can be stored in the refrigerator, covered, for up to 4 days.
  • Make-Ahead: This is a fabulous make-ahead recipe because it needs to chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours after you pour over the milk mixture, and overnight is even better! For the best flavor and texture, I recommend serving it the day after the milk mixture is poured over, but leftovers will keep in the refrigerator for another couple of days.
  • Freezing Instructions: You can freeze the plain cake after it has baked, but not the soaked, assembled cake (it would be too mushy). To freeze the cake, cool completely, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and foil and freeze for up to 3 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator, then proceed with the recipe to poke holes, pour the milk mixture, and top with whipped cream.
  • Recipe from Alton Brown
Nutritional values are based on one serving

Nutrition:

Calories: 589kcal
Fat: 31g
Saturated fat: 19g
Cholesterol: 169mg
Sodium: 220mg
Potassium: 339mg
Carbohydrates: 67g
Sugar: 54g
Protein: 10g
Vitamin A: 1145%
Vitamin C: 1.8%
Calcium: 244%
Iron: 0.6%

Did you make this recipe?

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Photography by Dee Frances