The Sweet & Creamy Evolution: A History of Tres Leches Cake

Sofia Jones
 | October 10, 2023

“Latinos like their cake mojadito.” At least that’s how the saying goes. And, what Latin American treat is more “mojadito” than Abuela’s tres leches cake? Quick answer: none!

Tres Leches cake is simply a sweet and indulgent dessert featuring a light and airy white cake soaked in a blend of whole milk, condensed milk, and evaporated milk — a trio that aptly gives the cake its name (signifying “three milk cake” in English).

Sure, tres leches is a delicious dessert all of us claim for our own, but its sweet origin? We found that it’s actually rooted in a variety of countries – from the Caribbean to Central America to Europe – making the exact origins whole-heartedly debated.

Key Moments (and Debates) in Tres Leches History

Tres Leches is often associated with Latin American cuisine, particularly Mexico, Nicaragua, and Cuba. It’s believed to have roots in the region, where dairy products and sweet treats are staples.

Popular narrative attributes the creation of tres leches to a Nestlé marketing campaign in the post-World War II era, in Nicaragua. The story goes that Nestlé printed a recipe for a cake using evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and regular milk on its condensed milk cans. This recipe is said to have gained popularity in Nicaragua.

Some theories suggest that the concept of soaking cake in a mixture of milk may have been influenced by similar soaked desserts in medieval Europe.

“Although tres leches cake was first created in Nicaragua, one of the main culinary techniques used in this dessert can actually trace its origins to medieval Britain. In fact, the idea of soaking sweet cakes in some type of liquid was popular in England as far back as 500 years ago,”  writer Hanna Rice notes in her story “The Fascinating Origin Story Of The Tres Leches Cake,” for The Daily Meal.

“ … the old British tradition of soaking cakes was combined with South American products, like rum and sugar, to create the predecessors to tres leches cake,” the daily meal explains. “In Nicaragua, sopa borracha, a type of cake softened with honey and moonshine, became particularly popular. Legend has it that in 1566, a local lady served it to the region’s governor, Don Alonso de Casaos, establishing soaked desserts as a regional staple.”

According to the Washington Post article “Creamy and sweet, tres leches cake is on the rise,” beyond the flavor profile, Nicaraguan chefs might have been guided by another factor in selecting three different milk types for this recipe: their religious beliefs.

The deeply ingrained Catholic culture in Nicaragua influenced the decision to potentially symbolize the Holy Trinity within the dessert. As described by the Washington Post, “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.”

Yet, others say the moist cake from Nicaragua originated in a region far from Latin America.

“North and South Americans know it as tres leches (‘trace lay-chess’), a festive celebration cake with Hispanic roots. But I first discovered it this summer in the Balkans, where it is called trilece or trileqe (the Albanian spelling) and pronounced ‘tree-leh-che.’” Blogger Blair Kilpatrick writes. “ … So what’s the difference? If any, is there between the American/Hispanic tres leches cake and the Balkan-style trilece? I would suggest that it comes down to two critical elements: topping and texture.”

Tres Leches: A Culinary Icon

Today, the Latin American version of the cake recipe is growing in popularity and has recently seen various adaptations, with some adding flavors like vanilla, cinnamon, or rum to the milk mixture.And, the cake itself is often featured in celebrations, including birthdays, weddings, and holidays – reflecting the joy and sweetness of life.

Lately, it seems like tres leches is everywhere, inspiring creative interpretations, such as Tres Leches cupcakes and coffee creamer. From Trader Joe’s Tres Leches cake mix  to Hagaan Daz’s Rum Tres Leches Ice Cream, it appears that the flavor of Abuelita’s moist cake is leading a modern day culinary and cultural evolution around the world – transcending borders and bringing people together through its irresistible sweetness.

Enjoy a simple recipe for Tres Leches cake.

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