I confess, the idea of a tres leches cake did not initially appeal to me. A dry sponge soaked in a variety of tinned milks sounds, at best, like bland nursery food and, at worst, tooth-achingly saccharine. ‘Milky’ has never been one of the words that I hope to see in connection with anything other than ‘coffee’ or ‘Way’. But I saw it likened to trifle and curiosity got the better of me – and I’m so glad it did.
Actually, a tres leches cake is not terribly like a trifle at all, although I can see where the comparison came from. Soaked puddings are nothing new, and that’s really what a tres leches cake is. Meaning ‘three milks’, it is made from a simple, vanilla-scented sponge, which is then soaked with three different milks: condensed milk, evaporated milk, and thick cream; on top is a thick layer of barely-sweetened cream. Served cold from the fridge – as it should be – it is sweet and cool and squidgy, unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before. Yes, a little like a trifle, but creamier; a little like cake but saturated, without becoming soggy. It will sit proudly on your plate in a neat square, but you’ll need a fork to eat it. It has that distinctive, slightly nostalgic flavour of condensed milk, but the barely sweetened fresh cream stops it from becoming cloying.
The cake is beloved across Latin America, and there are recipes from Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, and Panama. It’s not entirely clear from where precisely the cake originated; some point to the opening of a Nestle factory in Mexico around the time of the second world war, and the marketing technique used by Nestle of putting recipes on the sides of their tins of condensed milk. But others think that that’s putting the cart before the horse, that the recipe Nestle used was taken from local cooks.