Got milk? Got milk? Got milk? You'll need three kinds to make the classic Latin American tres leches cake.
Simple and decadent, tres leches refers to the three milks – usually whole, condensed and evaporated – that soak this egg-and-butter-rich sponge cake to a gooey, custardy consistency, after which it's covered with tangy meringue or sweetened whipped cream.
In honor of Cinco de Mayo – a Mexican holiday that celebrates the Mexican army's victory over French invaders at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, not the introduction of Budweiser into Latin America -- here's a taste of tres leches.
Tres leches cake is so popular throughout Latin America that virtually every country south of the Rio Grande and north of the Antarctic Circle claims it as its own creation.
One popular theory traces the cake's origin to a recipe on the back of canned milk sold in Central America. Another credits an exiled Cuban homemaker with creating the cake in Miami. My favorite version of the tres leches creation myth credits little old ladies of southern Mexican Indian tribes, who soaked their cakes with a syrupy goat-milk-and-raw-sugar brew called cajeta.
Tres leches is a perfect warm-weather cake that pairs beautifully with tropical fruit fillings and garnishes such as guava and mango. It's also best served cold, as chilling gives the milk-soaked layers integrity.
Split into two or three layers, the three-milk mixture is poured over each layer. Once the soaked layers have firmed up in the refrigerator, the layers are spread with fruit puree or jam and assembled before being covered with lime-infused meringue or whipped cream that's been sweetened with sugar or tempered with sour cream.
It's also a versatile cake. It can be baked in round or rectangular pans. It can be served by the slice or in squares, on a dish or in a margarita glass with fruit garnish and a little extra three-milk mixture.
It's the cake's adaptability to so many variations that makes it such a popular cake across such a wide region with so many different styles of cooking and regional ingredients. As long as you use three milks – cow milk, goat milk and usually either or both condensed and evaporated milk – it's still a tres leches cake. For a lighter, or lactose-free version, you can even use coconut, soy or almond milk.
Tres Leches Cake
makes 1 9x13-inch cake, or 1 10-inch cake
9 eggs, separated, at room temperature