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Tres Leches Cake—with a Puerto Rican Spin

Puerto Rican tres leches cake

My husband is from San Juan, Puerto Rico and though we live in New York City, the majority of our family is based on the island. Three years ago, after the devastation of hurricane Maria, our city apartment provided succor for so many relatives and friends who were left without power at their island homes.

Around that time, I found relief from constant worry about the island’s recovery though cooking as many Puerto Rican foods as my olla could bear.

One recipe from that period stands out for me: pastel de tres leches (three milks cake). It is memorable to me not only because I rarely bake, but because I was able to adapt island flavors to this classic Latin American dessert, which originally hails from Nicaragua.

This sponge cake gains its luscious texture from three milk products—condensed, evaporated and fresh— and is topped with a fourth: whipped cream.

As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal, this comforting confection, based on a recipe from Ronnie’s family, reflects Puerto Rico itself to me.

Its texture calls to mind the island’s humid, tropical climate. Its use of canned dairy—imperishable, no need for refrigeration—speaks to the stamina and grit of the people. Its use of three milks pays homage to the island’s triad of cultural influences: Africa, Spain and the U.S. mainland. And a lacing of rum commemorates the island’s agriculture, and fondness for the spirit, in a delightfully sweet way to toast a place and people so very close to my heart.

For more Boricua traditional dishes, check out one of our favorite abuela cooks Doña Felipa and her family-famous arroz con gandules, bacalaitos fried cod fritters, and the island’s signature take on arroz con pollo with the perfect pegao—that fought-over layer of caramelized, slightly burnt rice at the bottom of the pan. Que rico.

Ready to Try a Puerto Rican Take on Tres Leches Cake?

Tres Leches Cake: The Taste of Puerto Rico Itself

4 from 12 votes
Recipe by Kathleen Squires Cuisine: Puerto Rican
Servings

10

servings

Ingredients

  • The Cake
  • 1 Tbsp 1 butter, for greasing pan

  • 5 5 large eggs, yolks and whites separated

  • 1 cup 1 granulated sugar

  • 1 cup 1 all-purpose flour

  • tsp baking powder

  • 1/3 cup 1/3 milk

  • 2 tsp 2 coffee liqueur such as Kahlua

  • 1 can 1 evaporated milk (12 oz)

  • 1 can 1 sweetened condensed milk (14 oz)

  • 1 can 1 coconut milk (13.5 oz.)

  • 2 Tbsp 2 Puerto Rican rum (añejo)

  • Whipped Cream
  • 2 cups 2 heavy cream

  • 4 Tbsp 4 confectioner’s sugar

  • 1 tsp 1 vanilla extract

  • 1 dash 1 ground cinnamon

  • 1 dash 1 ground nutmeg, freshly grated

Directions

  • Butter bottom and sides of a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat egg whites on high until stiff peaks form, about 2 minutes. Reduce speed to medium and gradually beat in sugar. Then beat in yolks one at a time. Sift together flour and baking powder, and fold into wet ingredients. Mix in milk and coffee liqueur. Pour mixture into buttered baking dish.
  • Bake until golden and a toothpick inserted into center of cake emerges clean, about 30 minutes. Let cool 15 minutes. After cooling, use a toothpick or skewer to puncture cake’s surface at 2-inch intervals.
  • In a large bowl, whisk together all canned milks and rum until well combined. Carefully pour onto cooled cake. Cover cake pan with foil and refrigerate at least 2 hours.
  • In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat together heavy cream, confectioner’s sugar and vanilla on high, until stiff peaks form: 4 to 5 minutes.
  • Spread whipped cream on top of the chilled cake. Finish by sprinkling with ground cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg. Serve immediately.

Notes

  • Serve this cake cold—its milky-sweet flavors will shine that much brighter.
Tres leches
This tres leches cake actually uses four types of dairy: condensed, evaporated, fresh and heavy cream plus one one more type of milk: coconut milk.
Kathleen Squires and Hernan Ronnie Rodriguez
From left, Kathleen Squires and her husband, Ronnie Rodriguez, of New York City.

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