This coconut tres leches cake has a fluffy vanilla sponge cake that gets soaked in a variety of coconut-flavored milks and topped with silky whipped cream and crunchy toasted coconut flakes.
It's the perfect cake to make ahead, as it has to soak overnight, and is a refreshing tropical-tasting cake. The sponge cake base soaks up all of the flavorful milk mixture, yet keeps its structure leading to a perfectly textured bite every time.
Why You'll Love This Recipe
Texture - This tres leches cake with coconut milk is all about texture. You'd think the cake would get mushy with all of the liquid added, yet it holds its structure perfectly but gets incredibly moist.
Coconut flavor - Between the coconut milk, coconut extract, and toasted coconut flakes, this is the cake for an ultimate coconut lover! While it's not overpowering, it's perfectly tropical and refreshing.
Make ahead - This coconut milk cake is best served after a night in the fridge, which allows the sponge cake to really soak up all of that moisture and flavor. Because of the fridge time, this is the perfect cake to make the day before a party or gathering, and finish the toppings the day of!
What is Tres Leches Cake?
Tres Leches Cake, tres leches pastel, or "three milks cake" is of Latin American origin and most countries have their own version! Traditionally, the three milks used for soaking are sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and heavy cream.
This light and airy sponge cake is soaked with the three milks overnight, and turns into a gloriously soft, luscious treat. While the concern for most people is that it will be soggy, that's actually not the case at all! The sponge cake (similar to angel food cake consistency) absorbs everything perfectly, while also keeping its structure. I’m here to assure you that it is not mushy by any means and the texture is fabulous.
Finally, this cake is meant to be eaten cold. Again, may feel a bit unusual with so many recipes telling you to let your baked goods come to temperature before enjoying. However, this is part of what I love best about this cake - it is so refreshing and a nice change up from the usual routine.
- Eggs. This is the base of the sponge cake recipe, and get separated into yolks and whites and combined at two separate times.
- Eggs. Eggs are used as the base of the sponge cake recipe, and get separated into yolks and whites and get combined at two separate times.
- Baking powder. This ingredient is used to help the cake rise and cannot be substituted with baking soda.
- Coconut Milk. Look for the canned variety of coconut milk. You'll want to shake the can vigorously before opening it to try to combine the coconut cream and coconut milk.
- Evaporated milk. If you can find evaporated coconut milk, use that! Otherwise, use standard evaporated milk.
- Sweetened condensed milk. If you can find sweetened condensed coconut milk, use that! Otherwise, use standard sweetened condensed milk.
- Coconut extract. This is a necessary ingredient, especially if you're not using all coconut milk-based products. The flavor won't come through correctly without the extract.
- Heavy whipping cream. To make the fluffy topping! This should be heavy whipping cream (not heavy cream) and contain at least 36% milk fat.
- Unsweetened coconut flakes. Any unsweetened coconut (shredded or flaked) will work. I found that sweetened shredded coconut made the cake much too sweet. I often find the flakes under Bob's Red Mill brand.
See recipe card for full ingredients list and quantities.
Substitutions and Variations
- Use sweetened condensed coconut milk or evaporated coconut milk in place of normal. You can find this at some specialty stores or in the organic section of some grocery stores.
- Make it as a trifle, ripping up the cake pieces, soaking, and layering with whipped cream and topping with toasted coconut.
- Add 1oz rum to milk mixture for a boozy version!
- Make into 15 cupcakes, baking for 25-30 amount, then poking, soaking, and frosting. Be sure to use tulip cupcake liners to account for the rise and also to hold the milk mixture in.
How to Make This Recipe
One: Separate the eggs into two separate large mixing bowls. Take care not to get any yolks in the whites.
Two: Whip the egg whites (and some of the sugar) until stiff peaks form. Set aside.
Three: Beat the egg yolks until fluffy, then add the milk.
Four: Add the dry ingredients and mix until completely combined.
Five: Fold the egg whites into the cake batter in two batches until smooth.
Six: Add the batter to a 9x13" pan and spread evenly to meet the edges. Bake.
Hot tip! Take care not to deflate the batter when adding the egg whites, and take your time scooping to the bottom and up the sides in a "J" motion. Be sure there are no chunks of egg whites remaining.
Seven: Use a fork to puncture the cake every inch, including the very edges.
Eight: Whisk together the coconut milk, sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and coconut extract. If chunks remain, blend it up or pass through a sieve.
Nine: Pour the milk mixture over top of the cake in the center. Use all of the milk! Cover and refrigerate at least 6 hours, overnight is best.
Ten: Before serving, whip the ingredients for the whipped cream together until soft to stiff peaks form.
Eleven: Spread on top of the soaked cake, getting the whole way to the edges.
Twelve: Lightly toast the coconut (and let it cool completely) then sprinkle all over the top of the cake before serving.
- If the coconut milk does not whisk into the milks, use an immersion blender, blender, or pass it through a sieve to remove any chunks before pouring onto the cake.
- Be sure to poke the edges of the cake, but pour the milk slowly over the center of the cake to be sure the middle gets saturated. It will naturally fall to the edges.
- Add the whipped cream and coconut topping after the soak time in the fridge, but it can be up to 4-6 hours before serving.
- Be sure to let the coconut flakes cool completely after toasting before adding them to the whipped cream so it doesn't melt the whipped cream.
Yes. Because of the milk for soaking the cake and the whipped cream topping, this cake must be refrigerated. This cake is best eaten within three days, but can last up to five days before the structure deteriorates and whipped topping falls.
No! If you'd prefer to make a standard tres leches cake, simply use heavy cream in place of the coconut milk, and remove all coconut extract from the recipe.
I find it best to let it sit for at least 6-8 hours or up to 24 hours for the best results. This allows the milks to fully soak into the cake and lets the flavors develop.
Yes. Use tulip liners and fill each liner to half. You'll need 15-18 total. Bake the cupcakes at 350℉ for 25-30 minutes until browned. Then, poke the cakes with a stick the whole way down (don't poke through the liner), then saturate each until all milk is used up. Finish with the toppings.
Store the coconut tres leches cake covered in the fridge for up to five days. The whipped cream will begin to weep around day 2 or 3, but will still taste great for another few days.
This cake should not be frozen.
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Coconut Tres Leches Cake
- 9x13" baking pan
- Stand mixer with paddle and whisk attachment (or hand mixer)
- Rubber spatula
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1½ teaspoons baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- 5 large eggs separated
- 1 cup granulated sugar divided
- ⅓ cup whole milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla paste or extract
- 12 oz evaporated milk
- 14 oz sweetened condensed milk or sweetened condensed coconut milk
- 15 oz coconut milk canned version
- 2-3 teaspoons coconut extract
- 1 cup coconut flakes unsweetened
- 1 pint heavy whipping cream
- ¼ cup powdered sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla paste or extract
- ½ teaspoon coconut extract optional, for extra coconut flavor
- Preheat the oven to 350℉ and grease a 9x13" pan.
- In a bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.1 cup all-purpose flour, 1½ teaspoons baking powder, ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- In two separate bowls, separate the egg yolks from the whites, being sure not to let any yolks get into the whites or else they won't whip properly.5 large eggs
- Add the egg whites to a stand mixer bowl with the whisk attachment and whip on high speed until soft peaks begin to form. Gradually add ¼ cup (50g) sugar and continue to whip until stiff peaks form.1 cup granulated sugar
- Transfer the egg whites to another bowl, scraping out as much as possible (no need to wash it).
- Add ¾ cup (150g) sugar and the egg yolks to a stand mixer bowl and beat on medium-high speed (using the paddle attachment) until the yolks are very pale yellow (about 3-4 minutes).
- Scrape down the sides, then add the milk and vanilla and mix on low to combine.⅓ cup whole milk, 1 teaspoon vanilla paste or extract
- Add the flour mixture to the whipped yolks and fold it together until smooth.
- Fold the egg whites into the batter in two batches until just combined, careful not to stir and deflate the batter.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth it evenly with a spatula. Bake the cake for 25-30 minutes until completely set. The cake will have pulled away from the edges of the pan and be slightly browned. Allow the cake to cool slightly on a wire rack.
- Whisk together the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and coconut milk (shake the coconut milk vigorously in the can before opening to help it combine), and coconut extract in a bowl and whisk until it comes together.12 oz evaporated milk, 14 oz sweetened condensed milk, 15 oz coconut milk, 2-3 teaspoons coconut extract
- Using a fork, poke holes all over the cake and slowly pour the milk mixture over the entire cake.
- Note: Be sure to pour slowly into the center of the cake, focusing attention there so the middle gets very saturated. The liquid will naturally fall to the sides of the cake. Allow it to absorb in batches.
- Cover the cake with plastic wrap or foil and refrigerate for at least 6 hours, but 12-24 hours is best. This allows the cake to absorb the milk mixture fully.
- In a large pan over medium heat, toast the coconut flakes, stirring every 20-30 seconds, until lightly golden brown. Transfer to a plate to cool.1 cup coconut flakes
- Add the heavy cream, powdered sugar, vanilla, and coconut extract to a stand mixer with the whisk attachment and whip on medium speed until it starts to thicken, then increase the speed until lightly stiff peaks form.1 pint heavy whipping cream, ¼ cup powdered sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla paste or extract, ½ teaspoon coconut extract
- Smooth the whipped cream over the entire cake, then top with the toasted coconut.