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Creamy and sweet, tres leches cake is on the rise

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Tres leches cake can be so simple: It’s often flavored with nothing more than a touch of vanilla or a splash of rum. But the dessert, named for its soak in three types of milk, is “sort of the quintessential cake throughout Latin America,” says D.C. chef Christian Irabien. And that might be because it’s so easily dressed up, with swoops of cream, swirls of meringue, a glossy slick of dulce de leche or candy-red maraschino cherries. Those accents allow the otherwise plain-looking sheet cake to be fit for a celebration, and, indeed, it’s often pulled out for birthday parties, baby showers and quinceañeras — or, at least, it used to be.

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These days, with any gatherings happening at a distance, tres leches is tinged with nostalgia.

Paradoxically, perhaps because of its use of shelf-stable milk and pantry staples — and the fact that it can last days in the refrigerator — it’s been growing in popularity during the pandemic. This past May, the month in which Trinity Sunday often falls, searches for “tres leches” were up 25 percent from May 2019. More than half a million posts are tagged #tresleches on Instagram, and on TikTok, nearly 25 million videos feature hands and pans whipping up batter for a tres leches cake. Its uniqueness today among layer cakes and milky puddings belies its history, which connects across continents, cultures and time.

Modern-day tres leches can be traced back to industrialization, which gave us shelf-stable canned milk in the 1800s, and colonization, which brought cows and wheat to the continent — along with enslaved people from Africa to herd and harvest them — two centuries prior.

In 2004, food writer and historian MM Pack looked into the lineage of soaked cakes for the Austin Chronicle. Several sources, including Maria Dolores Torres Yzabal’s “The Mexican Gourmet” and Patricia Quintana’s “The Taste of Mexico,” write that recipes for bread or cake soaked in wine or syrup were brought to the Americas from Europe in the 19th century. “If I could write the story again, I would take it back a few steps further. … The Spanish recipes I came across got me wondering if they could be traced back to the Arab conquest,” Pack says. “There are roots for syrupy, soaked cakes in Persian and Turkish texts, and they exist in other cuisines influenced by that century of conquest.”

Soaking old bread and cake in liquid has long been an effective way to preserve it or consume it after it’s dried up. A similar desire, in the 1800s, to preserve milk before widespread refrigeration offers another potential link: Milk was first condensed, with sugar, in the early 1800s, but it wasn’t widely available until the latter part of that century. Nestlé, one of the first major companies to produce condensed milk, says it printed a recipe for tres leches cake on cans produced in Latin America starting in the early to mid-1900s, although a spokeswoman said the company couldn’t find examples in its archives. Still, as Pack reported, home cooks recall seeing such a recipe on cans, which no doubt helped popularize the dessert.

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As the Latin American population grew in the United States, regional variations of the dessert started to appear. In “Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America,” author and chef Maricel E. Presilla draws a link between the dessert’s popularity in the 1980s and Los Ranchos restaurant in Miami, which put tres leches on its menu when it opened in 1981. It was so popular that the restaurant printed its recipe on fliers, which were distributed widely. In its 1997 edition, “The Joy of Cooking” included Presilla’s recipe for tres leches.

I suspect religious traditions played a part in the cake’s invention and evolution. Many pastries — including Italian sfogliatelle and Portuguese pastéis de nata — can trace their origins to convents, where nuns would spend their days shaping dough and baking treats. Throughout the early 20th century, in and out of the church, hot milk cakes, in which milk is scalded before being added to the batter, or the batter is baked directly in the hot milk, were popular across the Americas. One centuries-old recipe, from the state of Tabasco in Southeastern Mexico, called isla flotante or torta en leche, seems like a direct ancestor. As writer Michael Snyder reported for Food52, a lofty, meringue-like batter is baked atop a pool of hot, sweet, cinnamon-scented milk until it puffs. Once out of the oven, it settles into the milk, soaking it in like a sponge.

Triple the milk — in honor of God, his son and the holy spirit — and baptize the cake after it’s baked, and tres leches is born.

The cake’s long history and ubiquity make it ripe for riffing. Puerto Rican, Dominican and Cuban recipes often call for coconut milk as one of the trio. Some cooks add cocoa powder or coffee, as bitter flavors help offset its sweetness, which can be intense. Variations abound: gender reveal tres leches, red velvet tres leches and tres leches cheesecake. The cake has been tinted purple with ube, black with dark cocoa powder and Hulk green. It’s been frosted and tiered for wedding cakes, made into doughnuts and served in dainty jars.

Demand continues to grow. In 2018, Treacherous Leches bakery opened in Houston with a menu that includes piña colada tres leches, carrot cake tres leches and caramel tres leches topped with Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. Earlier this year, Cube Baking  in Seattle, owned by Kevin Moulder, converted its concept into Tres Lecheria, selling the cakes in flavors from matcha to sweet corn and honey. And for the first time in its history, legendary Los Angeles bakery Porto’s will start shipping its Milk’N Berries cake nationwide this year. The bakery has sold more than 1 million in the past decade; each $40 cake serves 10 to 12 people.

“We ate it for breakfast, lunch, dinner or dessert,” says Alfredo Solis, who grew up in Mexico City. The chef and owner of Mezcalero in D.C., Solis serves his family’s recipe, which he soaks to order. “I don’t like when the cake is too, too wet,” he says. “Everyone has their own way of making it, and I like it when it’s made with cream, not just milk, with a little vanilla, and the sweetened condensed milk. We top it with strawberries, and sometimes mango, and I like it with a little drizzle of chocolate, too.”

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Irabien, at Muchas Gracias, makes what he calls “a classic vanilla sponge,” which he soaks in half-and-half, sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk. He tops it with a lick of whipped cream and locally grown, seasonal fruit. Sometimes, as in the case with berries, the fruit goes on as-is; for pineapple and stone fruit, he likes to macerate or roast it in a syrup with Mexican vanilla. “We’re purists. This is just how my family always made it,” says Irabien, who grew up in Chihuahua, Mexico; El Paso; and Austin.

Mexican chef and writer Pati Jinich also likes to add fruit to what she calls a cuatro leches. “I’ve made so many versions, a traditional vanilla … one marbled with chocolate for my son who loves chocolate … but this one is my favorite because I add cajeta. This is the fourth milk, which adds more sweetness. But then I add a layer of plums, which are juicy and acidic, and cut the sweetness in a refreshing way,” she says. Jinich bakes two layers of cake, soaking one, spreading it with cajeta, topping it with fruit, and then adding the second layer before soaking it through. “But I always tell people, if you don’t like fruit, if you don’t like too much milk, you can adjust. You can make it your own — just have fun with it, play!”

Years ago, chef Eric Rivera of Seattle’s Addo made a high-tech tres leches ice cream that he served atop a slice of tres leches as part of a tasting menu. “It was meta, and super good,” he says. Rivera first encountered the cake in El Paso as a kid. To this day he prefers the sponge cake style he’s had in Texas to the buttery sheet cakes he says are popular on the West Coast. “People make it with boxed mixes, they make it with six kinds of milk, they make it chocolate or neon blue. This is a cake that can easily be almost anything you want it to be,” Rivera says, “which is probably why everyone loves it.”

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