Tres Leches Cake {Cake Mix OR From Scratch}

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Tres leches cake, the classic Latin American dessert made from a vanilla cake soaked in three milks, is a delicious and easy treat to make from scratch OR you can use the even faster prep method with a boxed cake mix and whipped topping.

A square slice of tres leches cake is on a plate with a fork. You can see the three milks drizzling down the side of the vanilla cake and cinnamon is sprinkled on top of the whipped cream frosting.

We are so lucky to have a wonderful local bakery that specializes in the most amazing tres leches cake: the classic Latin American dessert which involves a sweet vanilla cake soaked in three milks with a creamy whipped topping.

Suarez Bakery has long been one of my favorite places for a treat, especially when we visit them at Optimist Hall Charlotte.

During a recent visit, my girls and I sampled their tres leches cake and they've been asking to go back ever since.

In honor of our September book club book of the month, The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, I decided to try my hand at making a tres leches cake for a book club treat.

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Why This is the Best Recipe

When I'm baking a special dessert for a party or a birthday, I love to pick delicious from-scratch recipes but sometimes you have to balance your energy and time.

Taking the boxed cake mix short cut when you need but dressing it up with homemade frostings or garnishes is a great way to save time but still have an amazing dessert.

I think this is the best tres leches cake recipe because:

  1. From Scratch: When you have time, make the 100% from-scratch recipe for the vanilla cake.
  2. Cake Mix: When you need the shortcut? Use a boxed cake mix. I've included instructions for both.
  3. Sweet Comfort Food: This is what is affectionately known as a "nursery dessert" because it is so popular with children. If you love vanilla and creamy sauces, this cake is totally for you.

Which is Better: Cake Mix or From Scratch?

There are definitely differences between the two cake methods. Which one will work best for you?

From Scratch:

The from-scratch method requires a stand mixer with a whisk attachment.

It also includes lots of extra steps including whipping egg whites, layering in milk and flour, and folding in the egg whites.

But the from-scratch cake results in a firmer vanilla cake that can hold up very well to the three milks soak.

You will have a cake you can cleanly slice and serve in neat squares.

Cake Mix:

A cake mix is absolutely easier to prep and bake. This method will save you tons of time.

However, most boxed cake mixes result in a very soft and spongey vanilla cake that will not hold up quite as well to the three milks soak.

Your cake slices will be much softer and milky and may not hold their shape when sliced.

In fact, you may prefer to serve your cake by spooning it with a large serving spoon and putting it in bowls instead of plates.

You'll have all the wonderful creamy vanilla flavor but lose something in the texture.

See my assembly tips below to have the best luck with this method.

Ingredients

The ingredients to make the vanilla cake base are on the counter.

To make the tres leches vanilla cake base from scratch, you will need:

  • Flour
  • Sugar
  • Eggs
  • Butter
  • Baking Powder
  • Kosher Salt
  • Vanilla Extract
  • Milk

Or you can just use a vanilla boxed cake mix and prepare it according to the instructions on the box.

The three milks and vanilla are on the counter.

To make the tres leches sauce for the cake soak you will need:

  • Sweetened Condensed Milk
  • Evaporated Milk
  • Heavy Cream
  • Vanilla

How to Make a Tres Leches Cake from Scratch

Spray a 9 x 13-inch cake pan with cooking spray and set it aside.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

In a separate mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set them aside.

Place your stand mixer on the counter with the whisk attachment in place.

Separate the egg yolks and whites, placing the whites in the stand mixer and the yolks in a separate small bowl.

Whisk the egg whites until frothy.

Increase the speed and while the eggs are being whipped, add just 1 cup of the sugar very slowly, just 2 tablespoons at a time, until stiff peaks form.

Scrape the egg whites into a clean bowl and set it aside.

The step by step photos show how to beat the egg whites and then beat the sugar and butter with egg yolks.

Return the mixing bowl to the stand mixer and switch the whisk attachment to the paddle attachment. (You don't need to clean the bowl.)

Add the softened butter and remaining cup of sugar. Beat them together until well combined.

Add the egg yolks, one at a time, to the butter mixture and stir them in well. Add the vanilla and stir once more.

Scrape the butter-eggs mixture into a large mixing bowl.

You could do this step right in the same stand mixer bowl but I wanted you to be able to see the next steps really clearly so I chose a clear glass mixing bowl.

Add the milk and the flour to the butter mixture in stages.

Start with just 1/4 cup of the milk and stir it in well.

Add about 1/3 cup of the flour and stir it in.

Repeat with another dose of milk and then another dose of flour and keep repeating till they are all stirred in and smooth.

The step by step photos show how to combine the butter mixture with the milk and flour in stages to create the tres leches cake batter.

Finally, gently scrape the egg whites into the mixing bowl.

Very gently fold them into the cake batter.

The final batter should be nice and smooth with no large chunks of egg white in the mix. But don't use too heavy of a stir or you'll completely break the egg whites.

Pour the cake batter into your prepared baking dish and bake for 40 - 45 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

The final step by step photos show how to fold in the egg whites to the cake batter and smooth it into a 9 x 13-inch cake pan.

How to Make a Tres Leches Cake from Cake Mix

Now that you've seen the steps it takes to make the cake from scratch, you might be tempted to make it from a cake mix.

If you choose this route, simply bake your vanilla cake according to the directions on the box.

Be sure to let the cake cool completely before moving on to the tres leches soak.

Make the Tres Leches Milk Sauce

Add the sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, heavy cream, and vanilla to a medium sized mixing bowl and whisk them together.

This step is the same whether you make the from-scratch cake or the cake mix cake.

Soak the Vanilla Cake

Now the most important step: soaking the vanilla cake with the tres leches sauce.

Use a fork or a skewer to poke holes all the way through the cake from top to the bottom of the pan and all over the surface of the cake.

This will allow the three milks to soak all throughout the cake.

Slowly pour the tres leches over the cake and let the pan rest for a few moments. As the milks start to soak in, cover the cake with plastic wrap and chill it for at least 3 hours or overnight.

I was in a rush to finish the cake so you can see in Step 2 that my cake did not completely soak in all the milk before I frosted it. That's how far it got in 3 hours, so I'd definitely give a from-scratch cake overnight to soak if you have the time.

The step by step photos show how to pour the three milks sauce over the cake and how it soaks into the baked cake. The last photos show how to spread the whipped topping over the top.

The last step is to frost the cake with whipped cream.

You can choose to make a homemade whipped cream or a prepared whipped topping like Cool Whip.

I chose Cool Whip because I wanted the cake to hold its shape for the next day.

If you plan to serve it immediately after frosting, you may prefer a from-scratch whipped cream too. There are instructions in the recipe card below if you like.

A Note on Soaking a Cake Mix Cake:

If you baked a cake mix cake, the quantity of tres leches sauce may be more than you need.

I suggest poking the holes in the cake surface and spooning the tres leches sauce over the top in smaller doses.

Let the spoon fulls of milks soak into the cake and keep ladling the sauce over the top until it won't soak in any more.

Simply discard the remaining sauce. This will help prevent the cake from being too wet and mushy.

Frost the Tres Leches Cake

The last step is to frost the cake with whipped cream.

You can choose to make a homemade whipped cream or a prepared whipped topping like Cool Whip.

I chose Cool Whip because I wanted the cake to hold its shape for the next day.

If you plan to serve it immediately after frosting, you may prefer a from-scratch whipped cream too. There are instructions in the recipe card below if you like.

The cake is finished and sprinkled with cinnamon on top.

Make Ahead Tips

Tres leches cake is the perfect make ahead dessert since it needs to soak up the tres leches sauce for several hours, or even better overnight.

Store it in the fridge covered with plastic wrap so the milk has the chance to soak into the vanilla cake completely.

Don't try to frost the cake until just before serving if you are using homemade whipped cream.

If you use whipped topping, you can frost it up to 24 hours in advance.

Variations

Cinnamon Tres Leches Cake: Garnish your cake with a sprinkle of cinnamon.

Strawberry Tres Leches Cake: Add fresh strawberry garnish over the top of the cake.

Serving Suggestions

The serving of tres leches cake is on a plate, the cake pan is in the background and you can see the space where the cake slice is missing.

A homemade tres leches cake makes a fun dessert for any Mexican-themed party you plan to host.

It would be a delicious family dinner dessert for Taco Tuesday / Cinco de Mayo or even a sweet way to celebrate finishing this year's Spanish Class at school.

More Cake Recipes

I think a 9 x 13-inch cake is a fun way to make a party dessert. Sometimes I make them from scratch, sometimes I dress up a boxed cake mix.

Here are a few other easy cake recipes you may enjoy:

📖 Recipe

A square slice of tres leches cake is on a plate with a fork. You can see the three milks drizzling down the side of the vanilla cake and cinnamon is sprinkled on top of the whipped cream frosting.

Tres Leches Cake

5 from 41 votes
Tres leches cake, a classic Latin American dessert, can be made from scratch or from a boxed cake mix. Soak the vanilla cake in the traditional three milks sauce and frost with whipped cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
TOTAL TIME 4 hours 10 minutes
PREP TIME 45 minutes
CHILL TIME 3 hours
COOK TIME 40 minutes
YIELD 12 servings

Ingredients
  

For the Vanilla Sponge Cake *See Notes

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 5 eggs separate the whites and yolks
  • 2 cups sugar divided
  • 8 tbsp (1 stick) butter softened
  • 1 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 cup milk

For the Tres Leches Sauce

  • 1 (14 oz) can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 (12 oz) can evaporated milk
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla

For the Whipped Cream Topping *See Notes

  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • Sprinkle of ground cinnamon for garnish

Instructions

Prepare the Vanilla Sponge Cake

  • Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spray a 9 x 13-inch baking dish with cooking spray and set it aside.
  • Add the flour, baking powder, and salt to a mixing bowl and whisk them together. Set them aside.
  • Place the whisk attachment on a stand mixer and set a small bowl near the mixer. Separate the eggs by placing the egg whites in the mixer bowl and the egg yolks in the small bowl next to it. Reserve the egg yolks.
  • Whisk the egg whites in the stand mixer on medium speed until frothy, about 1 minute. Increase the speed another notch to medium high. Measure just 1 cup of the sugar and add it just 2 tablespoons at a time to the mixer while the whisk is running. Count to 10 and then add another 2 tablespoons. Repeat till the cup of sugar has been incorporated into the egg whites.
  • Increase the mixer speed to high and continue to whisk the egg whites until they are thickened, glossy, and stiff peaks form when the whisk attachment is pulled up. Be sure to stop the mixer once or twice and scrape down the sides of the bowl so there are no too-soft egg whites at the bottom.
  • Gently scrape the egg whites into a clean bowl and set aside. Return the mixing bowl to the stand mixer (there's no need to wash it.) Replace the whisk attachment with the paddle attachment.
  • Add the softened butter and remaining cup of sugar to the stand mixer. Beat them together on medium speed until well incorporated.
  • Add the egg yolks, one at a time, to the mixer and beat it until just combined. Scrape the bowl down and add another egg yolk. Repeat till they are all incorporated. Add the vanilla and stir one last time.
  • Remove the mixing bowl from the mixer stand so you have more room to work. Add roughly 1/4 cup of the milk to the egg yolk mixture and stir it in completely. Add about 1/3 cup of the flour mixture to the bowl of egg yolks and stir it in completely. Repeat adding the milk and then the flour in three more turns. This helps ensure the batter is smooth and well incorporated.
  • Gently scrape the reserved egg whites into the mixing bowl. Slowly and carefully fold the egg whites into the cake batter. Be sure to break up all the bits of egg whites but don't mix too hard or your cake will be dense.
  • Pour the prepared batter into the baking dish and bake for 40 - 45 minutes or until the cake is set in the middle and a toothpick comes out clean. Let the cake cool for one hour.

Prepare the Tres Leches Sauce and Chill the Cake

  • In a small bowl, whisk together the sweetened condense milk, evaporated milk, heavy cream, and vanilla.
  • Use a fork or skewer to poke holes all the way through the cake from the top to the bottom of the baking dish all over the surface of the cake. This will make space for the tres leches to soak in better.
  • Slowly pour the tres leches over the top of the cake making sure to cover every last little spot. Smooth it over the cake as needed.
  • Let the cake rest for 5 minutes so that the sauce can start to soak into the cake. Then cover the baking dish with aluminum foil or plastic wrap and transfer the cake to the fridge. Let it chill for at least 3 hours up to overnight.

Frost with Whipped Cream Topping

  • Just before you're ready to serve the cake, frost it with whipped cream on top.
  • To make the homemade whipped cream, whisk together the heavy cream, powdered sugar, and vanilla in the bowl of the stand mixer with the whisk attachment on medium-high. Whisk the cream until thickened and spreadable and smooth over the top of the cake.
  • You can sprinkle the ground cinnamon over the entire top of the cake before slicing or you can simply garnish each individual serving as you plate it for your friends and family.

Recipe Notes

Easy Tres Leches Cake from Cake Mix with Whipped Topping

If the from-scratch cake instructions and the homemade whipped cream don't fit your party prep timetable, you can make a significantly easier version of this tres leches cake with a boxed cake mix and container of Cool Whip style whipped topping.
Bake a vanilla cake mix in a 9 x 13 inch baking pan according to the box instructions. Let the cake cool completely and then poke holes in it with a fork or skewer.
Pour the tres leches sauce over the top and let it chill for 3 hours.
Spread one 8oz container of thawed whipped topping over the cake before serving.
Prepared whipped topping is an excellent choice if you want to frost your cake up to 24 hours in advance of your party since it will hold its shape better than homemade whipped cream.
COURSEDessert
CUISINELatin American

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The photo collage shows the slice of Tres Leches cake next to a photo of the cake soaking in the three milks sauce.

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