This caramel tres leches cake takes an airy sponge cake, douses it three different types of milk mixed with caramel sauce, and the top of the cake gets covered in fresh whipped cream and dulce de leche. It's a very simple style of poke cake with Latin American origins that's just the right amount of sweet, with tons of flavor.
Why You'll Love This Recipe
This is truly the best base tres leches cake recipe that's been kicked up a notch with the dulce de leche to turn it into a caramel version. It's simple, easy, and perfect to make a day in advance since the cake is best after a full night of soaking in that deliciously sweet three-milk mixture.
Flavor - the simple sponge cake has only a very light sweetness, so all of the flavor comes from the milks and caramel. It's just sweet enough with that lovely caramelized note from the caramel, and the whipped cream on top has it feeling so refreshing!
Texture - this delicious dessert is a soaked cake, meaning it's like a moist cake, but multiplied times ten because the cake has absorbed a ton of liquid. It's soft, yet holds its structure, and is topped with a soft, pillowy whipped cream. It has such a delicious and unique mouth feel, but you should know going into it that it is quite wet.
Celebrations - because this is made in a large rectangular cake pan and serves quite a few, this caramel tres leches cake is a great cake for celebrations, a birthday party, and any special occasion or holiday like Cinco de Mayo. This is truly the type of cake that's perfect after a heavy meal or a lot of snacking since it's not overly sweet.
Why is it Called Tres Leches?
Tres leches in Spanish directly translates to "three milks," which is the number of kinds of milk needed to make and soak the cake. This recipe uses whole milk, evaporated milk, and sweetened condensed milk that gets turned into dulce de leche, which is a super thick, slowly cooked caramel. This caramel version is an elevated version of the more traditional cake.
Is Tres Leches Cake Spanish or Mexican?
The origins of the tres leches cake are rather convoluted and don't have a clear origin. While the name of the cake is in the Spanish language, the actual cake is of Latin American origin. It is specifically popular throughout Nicaragua, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guatemala.
The cake is believed to have originated when milk started to get preserved in cans (hence the evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk) and was a great way to revive stale cake or bread to limit waste. Read more about the origins of the tres leches cake.
- All-purpose flour. Cake flour can also be used for a more tender crumb, but I find that all-purpose is just perfect.
- Baking powder.
- Eggs. These will get separated and whipped in two separate batches, then folded together to make the cake batter.
- Sugar. Granulated sugar is used in the cake and powdered sugar is used in the whipped cream topping.
- Heavy whipping cream. Be sure to get whipping cream and not just standard heavy cream. This will get whipped to soft-stiff peaks (a medium peak, if you will) and spread over the cake.
- Sweetened condensed milk. This will get cooked and turned into dulce de leche. You can also buy a jar of dulce de leche if you don't want to make your own.
- Evaporated milk.
- Regular milk. Whole milk should be used for the cake and the soaking liquid.
See recipe card for full ingredients list and quantities.
Substitutions & Variations
- Use store-bought dulce de leche if you don't want to make your own.
- A standard caramel sauce (like from this caramel apple pie) can also be used (homemade or store-bought). The cake will not have quite the same depth of flavor as using dulce de leche.
- Half the recipe and make the cake in a springform pan for a smaller, round version.
- Add a bit of flaky sea salt to the caramel or the top of the cake for a salted caramel tres leches cake version.
How to Make This Recipe
Timing tips! Plan to start the caramel tres leches cake a full day before you serve it. In the morning, make the dulce de leche and allow it to cool for the day. In the afternoon or evening, make the cake and add the milks to soak it. The ideal time is 12 hours. The next day, make the whipped topping and spread it on the cake before serving.
How to Make Dulce de Leche
There are a few ways to make this caramel from a can of sweetened condensed milk. The method I most prefer is the closed can boiling method:
- Remove the wrapper from the can.
- Add the can to a large pot and cover with at least two inches of water.
- Bring the water to a low boil and boil the can for three hours. Keep an eye on it and be sure to add more water as needed so it's always 2-inches above the can. Bring it back to a boil each time.
- Carefully remove the can using tongs or a slotted spoon and place it on a dish towel. Slowly cool for about 3-4 hours prior to using.
Check out more ways to make dulce de leche to see what you'd prefer and what best fits into your baking schedule!
Making the Sponge Cake
One: Whip the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form, then transfer it to a large bowl.
Two: In the mixing bowl, beat together the egg yolks and sugar on medium speed until pale yellow and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl then drizzle in the milk and mix to combine.
Three: Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl then fold the flour mixture into the egg mixture until completely incorporated.
Four: Add the egg whites to the yolk batter in two additions, folding completely before adding the remaining egg whites.
Five: Add the cake batter into a prepared pan and spread it the whole way to the sides of the pan, making it as even as possible, then bake.
Six: Allow it to cool for a few minutes, then use a fork to poke holes all throughout the fluffy cake, being sure to get the edges.
Milk Mixture and Topping
Seven: Mix together the milks and caramel, then pour the milk syrup all over the slightly cooled cake. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Eight: Whip the heavy cream to soft peaks (in between soft and stiff), then spread on top of the cake.
Nine: Add small spoonfuls of the leftover dulce de leche on top of the whipped cream.
Ten: Use an offset spatula or butter knife to swoop the caramel into the whipped cream. Slice, and serve!
- Be sure the bowl of an electric mixer is totally clean prior to whipping the egg whites. Any grease or residue can cause the whites not to whip up properly.
- Get the whole way to the bottom and scoop upward while folding the cake batter together. The yolk portion of the cake has a tendency to sink to the bottom.
- Whatever you do, don't stir the mixture but use a nice folding motion to bring everything together instead.
- Allow the cake to soak for an absolute minimum of six hours. At least twelve hours will produce the best results.
- Only add the swoops of dulce de leche into the whipped cream right before you're ready to cut and serve the cake.
While they can be used as substitutes for one another in most recipes, they are not the same and are developed by different methods of cooking, with slightly different ingredients.
The cake portion only bakes for 25 minutes - until the cake is lightly golden, set in the center, and has pulled away from the sides.
While this is a caramel tres leches cake, you can omit the caramel and just make a standard version of the cake by following the same instructions, with the exception of cooking the sweetened condensed milk into dulce de leche (and using the full amount in the milk syrup).
Store the cake covered with plastic wrap or foil in the fridge for up to three days. Note that the dulce de leche in the frosting will begin to lose color and the whipped cream will begin to weep after about two days, but it will still taste great.
This cake should not be frozen.
More Caramel Recipes You'll Love
Caramel Tres Leches Cake
- Stand mixer with paddle and whisk attachment (or hand mixer)
- 13 x 9 inch pan
- Rubber spatula
- Offset spatula
- 1 cup all-purpose flour 120g
- 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- 5 large eggs separated
- 1 cup granulated sugar divided (200g)
- ⅓ cup whole milk 80ml
- 1 teaspoon vanilla paste or extract
- 12 oz evaporated milk
- 14 oz sweetened condensed milk cooked into dulce de leche
- ¾ cup whole milk 6 fl oz
- 1 pint heavy whipping cream
- 2 tablespoons powdered sugar 15g
- 1 teaspoon vanilla paste or extract
Dulce de Leche
- Begin by cooking the sweetened condensed milk into dulce de leche*.
- Remove the paper from the can and fill a large pot with water. Add the can and be sure the water is covering it by at least 2 inches.
- Bring the water to a boil, and keep it at a low boil for three hours. Add more water as needed to be sure the can is fully covered at all times, bringing it back to a boil as necessary.
- Remove and transfer the can (using tongs or a slotted spoon) to a dish towel and allow it to cool at room temperature for 3-4 hours before opening and using.
- 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, 1 ½ 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.
- 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.
- 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 stand mixer bowl and beat on medium high speed (using the paddle attachment) until the yolks are pale yellow (about 3-4 minutes).
- Scrape down the sides, then add the ⅓ cup milk (80ml) and vanilla and mix on low to combine.
- 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.
Soaking and Topping
- Combine the evaporated milk, ¾ can of the dulce de leche, and whole milk in a bowl and whisk until it comes together.12 oz evaporated milk, ¾ cup whole milk
- Using a fork, poke holes all over cake and slowly pour the milk mixture over the entire cake.
- Cover the cake with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 6 hours, but 12 hours is best. This allows the cake the absorb the milk mixture fully.
- Add the heavy cream, powdered sugar, and vanilla to a stand mixer with the whisk attachment and whip on medium speed until it starts to thicken, then increase the speed until medium peaks form.1 pint heavy whipping cream, 2 tablespoons powdered sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla paste or extract
- Smooth the whipped cream over the cake, then use the remaining dulce de leche to drizzle it on top of the whipped cream. Swoop the caramel into the topping, then slice and enjoy.