Tres Leches Cake

A simple vanilla sponge cake soaked in a sweet three-milk glaze and covered with freshly made whipped cream, Tres Leches Cake is delightfully moist and rich. This easy-to-follow recipe guarantees the perfect balance of sweet cake and custardy texture for a truly decadent dessert!

overhead view of a tres leches cake covered in whipped cream and sliced strawberries.

Despite the vast number of cake recipes on this site, I’m going to go ahead and admit something: I don’t actually love (most) cakes. Much of this stems from the fact that I don’t really like frosting. And of course, frosting and cake go hand-in-hand most of the time.

There is one cake, however, that has always been the exception to the rule: tres leches cake. In case you’re not familiar, a tres leches cake is a spongey vanilla cake with — you guessed it — three kinds of milk poured over the top.

The milk soaks into the cake and creates a creamy, dreamy, custardy texture. And then the whole cake is topped with fluffy whipped cream and YES, PLEASE.

No one actually knows the origins of the cake, though the two main lines of thought seem to be Mexico or Nicaragua. Recipes for milk-soaked cakes date as early as the 19th century in Mexico, though whether this originated there is up for debate. You’ll often find tres leches cakes on the menu at Mexican restaurants, but with the helpful tips I’ll include below, now you can make them at home!

Tres leches cakes do require a little more work than just dumping ingredients together and baking. You’ll have to whip egg whites (the secret to the fluffy sponge cake!) and while you could use store-bought whipped cream, making your own at home is really so much better for this.

But don’t worry! Even if you’ve never whipped an egg white before, I have all the tips and tricks you need to make this truly spectacular cake.

side view of a square slice of tres leches cake on a pink scalloped plate.

Ingredients and Substitutions

Let’s start with a quick rundown of all the ingredients we need to make Tres Leches Cake!

  • Flour: Use all-purpose flour, weighed or leveled and spooned. For a gluten-free version, substitute a 1:1 gluten-free baking mix.
  • Baking Powder
  • Salt
  • Cinnamon: I love the addition of cinnamon in tres leches – but if you’re particularly sensitive, feel free to leave it out.
  • Eggs: Large eggs, room temperature, and separated! The whites will be whipped separately and folded into the batter.
  • Sugar
  • Whole Milk: Whole milk provides a better texture than non-fat milk, but non-fat, 2%, or even half-and-half or heavy cream can be substituted.
  • Evaporated Milk
  • Sweetened Condensed Milk
  • Vanilla Extract
  • Heavy Cream
  • Powdered Sugar
overhead view of all the ingredients needed to make a tres leches cake.

Sponge Cake for the Perfect Texture

One of the characteristics of the cake is a light texture with lots of air bubbles.  This allows the cake to soak in two cups of milk mixture without getting super soggy. We achieve this by using a sponge cake, or genoise, as the base.

A sponge cake is naturally airy and can absorb a lot of liquid without falling apart, thanks to the whipped egg whites. When we whip the egg whites to stiff peaks, we’re creating a network of proteins that trap air. This network expands during baking, resulting in the sponge-like texture of the cake. The stability of this protein network is essential for the cake to hold up to the soaking process without becoming soggy or falling apart.

spatula lifting one slice of tres leches cake from a sheet pan.

Three Milk Mixture

Once the cake is baked, we’ll pour a mixture of three milks: evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and heavy cream, onto the cake. Each type of milk plays an important role in the flavor and texture of the final cake.

  • Evaporated Milk: provides a concentrated milk flavor without added sweetness
  • Sweetened Condensed Milk: adds sweetness and a thick,syrupy consistency that helps bind the liquid to the cake
  • Heavy Cream: contributes richness and a silky texture

Once the cake cools, you’ll poke holes all over the cake with a fork. Why is this important, rather than just pouring the mixture on top of the cake? We can answer this with my favorite subject… kitchen chemistry!

Kitchen Chemistry

The porous structure of the sponge cake allows it to act like a sponge, absorbing the milk mixture through capillary action. The small holes we poke in the cake increase the surface area and create more pathways for the milk to penetrate, ensuring even absorption.

As the cake absorbs the milk mixture, the proteins and starches in the cake are hydrated, transforming the cake from a dry sponge into a moist, flavorful, custardy dessert. It’s like magic! (But really, science.)

slice of tres leches cake in a sheet pan showing the custardy milk mixture left in the bottom of the pan.

Foolproof Tres Leches Recipe

1. Prepare the Cake Batter

Preheat your oven to 350°F (175°C) and grease a 9×13-inch baking dish. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon.

white mixing bowl containing flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon

In a separate large bowl, beat the egg whites on medium speed until soft peaks form. Turn the speed up to high and continue to beat until stiff.

mixing bowl filled with egg whites whipped to stiff peaks.

In a third bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar until pale yellow and thick. Stir in the milk and vanilla extract. Gradually add the flour mixture, mixing until just combined.

mixing bowl with a combination of beaten egg yolks and sugar with flour sprinkled on top.

Gently fold the egg whites into the batter, being careful not to deflate them.

a hand holding a spatula gently folding whipped egg whites into a cake batter.

2. Bake the Cake

Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish and smooth the top. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool in the pan on a wire rack.

3. Soak the Cake

Once the cake is cool, poke holes all over the surface using a fork or skewer. This will help the cake absorb the milk mixture.

hand holding a fork poking holes all over the surface of a cake.

In a large measuring cup or bowl, whisk together the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and heavy cream.

mixing together three kinds of milk in a glass mixing bowl.

Slowly pour the milk mixture over the entire cake, making sure to cover every part. Let the cake absorb the milk for at least 30 minutes, or refrigerate overnight for best results.

4. Make the Whipped Cream

In a large bowl, beat the heavy cream, powdered sugar, and vanilla extract until stiff peaks form. Spread the whipped cream evenly over the top of the cake and dust with additional cinnamon. Add berries, drizzled homemade caramel sauce, or even shaved chocolate for extra decoration.

spreading fluffy whipped cream on the surface of a sponge cake.

Recommended Tools

  • Stand Mixer: Either a stand mixer or hand mixer can be used to make the batter and whip the egg whites and whipped cream.
  • Mixing Bowls: This recipe uses several mixing bowls – this set includes all the sizes you’ll need!
  • 9 x 13-inch Metal Pan: Metal conducts heat better than glass so your cake will bake more evenly. Use a lighter colored pan to prevent the cake from browning too much.
  • Immersion Blender: An immersion blender with a whisk attachment is my favorite way to whip egg whites or heavy cream to make whipped cream!
two slices of tres leches cake with sliced strawberries next to cinnamon sticks.

Tips and Tricks for the Best Tres Leches Cake

  1. Room Temperature Eggs: Using room temperature eggs will help you achieve better volume when beating the egg whites and yolks.
  2. Fold Gently: When incorporating the beaten egg whites into the batter, use a gentle folding motion to avoid deflating the air bubbles. This ensures your cake remains light and airy.
  3. Check for Doneness: Every oven is different, so check your cake for doness by inserting a toothpick into the center. If it comes out clean or with a few crumbs and your cake springs back when pressed, it is done. If it’s still wet, bake for a few more minutes.
  4. Poking Holes: Don’t be shy when poking holes in the cake. The more holes, the better the milk mixture will soak in.
  5. Refrigerate Overnight: Letting the cake rest in the fridge overnight allows the flavors to meld and the milk to fully soak into the cake, resulting in a perfectly moist texture.
  6. Alternative Toppings: If you want to switch things up, try topping your cake with a meringue or a marshmallow frosting instead of whipped cream. Both options provide a unique texture and flavor.
  7. Add a Splash of Rum: For a more grown-up version of Tres Leches Cake, add a splash of dark rum or a coffee liqueur to the milk mixture. It adds a delicious depth of flavor.
  8. Decorate with Fruit: Fresh fruits like strawberries, mangoes, or kiwis not only add a pop of color but also complement the creamy, sweet cake beautifully.

Love Tres Leches? Try these other easy cakes!

Tres Leches Cake

Tres Leches Cake

Yield: Serves 16
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Cooling Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 2 hours

A simple vanilla sponge cake soaked in a sweet three-milk glaze and covered with fresh whipped cream.


  • 1 cup (120 grams) all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon, plus more for decorating
  • 5 large eggs, separated
  • 1 cup (198 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup (76 grams) whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 12-ounce can (339 grams) evaporated milk
  • 1 14-ounce can (392 grams) sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 1/4 cups (511 grams) heavy cream, divided
  • 1/4 cup (29 grams) confectioners' sugar


  1. Preheat the oven to 350 °F.  Butter and flour a 9×13 inch metal pan or line with parchment paper.
  2. Make the cake. In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon.
  3. In another bowl, beat the egg whites using an electric mixer. Start on medium speed, beating until soft peaks form.  Turn the speed up to high and continue to whip until egg whites are stiff but not yet dry.  Spoon the egg whites into a separate bowl.
  4. Add the egg yolks and sugar to the mixing bowl and beat on medium-high speed until the yolks are pale yellow and doubled in size, 3 to 4 minutes.  Stir in the milk and vanilla.  Add in the flour mixture, half a cup at a time, beating until just combined.
  5. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter.  
  6. Bake the cake. Pour the cake batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with a moist crumb and the surface of the cake feels springy when touched.  Allow the cake to cool in the pan.
  7. Add the milk mixture. While the cake cools, combine the condensed milk, evaporated milk, and 1/4 cup of the heavy cream in a large measuring cup or bowl.  Prick the surface of the cooled cake many times with a fork.  Slowly drizzle half the milk mixture over the cake, ensuring the driest edges are also thoroughly soaked.  Continue to slowly pour the rest of the milk mixture over the cake until no more liquid is absorbed.  Let the cake sit for 30 minutes to fully absorb the milk. If time permits, refrigerate the cake for several hours or overnight at this step.
  8. Make the whipped cream. To make the whipped cream, whip together 2 cups of heavy cream with 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar until thick.  Spread the whipped cream over the surface of the cake.
  9. Sprinkle additional cinnamon over the cake and top with fresh fruit slices, homemade caramel sauce, or shaved chocolate before serving.


After frosting with whipped cream, the cake should be stored in the refrigerator.  Tres leches cake will last 4-5 days under refrigeration but is best consumed within the first 48 hours.

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Tres Leches Cake: an easy recipe for an authentic homemade Tres Leches Cake!  A vanilla sponge cake soaked in a sweet three-milk glaze and covered with fresh whipped cream - this cake is the best!

This recipe was originally published in April 2017 and updated with new photographs and helpful tips in June 2024.