Food & Cuisine

In Costa Rica, there is one dessert menu item that is an international success: Tres Leches (“Three Milks”). It is a vanilla sponge cake soaked in three kinds of milk: evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and heavy cream and topped with whipped cream or meringue. Definitely not for the lactose intolerant

Costa Rica Dessert Tres Leches with berries on top

While Costa Rican food is always fresh and satisfying, it isn’t really a culinary tourist destination, and it is especially not known for its desserts. For the most part that is, well let’s just say, “I will pass on dessert”. Almost every local restaurant offers a pitiful few dessert options, like coconut flan (custard) or ice cream or fruit cocktail. But If Tres Leches is offered, BUY it!!

Is Costa Rica the sole proprietor of this milky delight? Not Really. Tres Leches is popping up all over the world–the Americas, the Caribbean, Canary Islands, and—surprisingly–Albania and Turkey.

Costa Rica didn’t invent the recipe. Tres Leches became popular in Latin America about a generation ago, although liquid soaked cakes have existed in many countries throughout the centuries. There are the sherry-soaked British trifle and Italy’s tiramisu—dripping with coffee and mascarpone—to name just a couple.

Tres Leches Costa Rica

Tres Leches is part of a “long and respectable tradition of [liquid soaked cakes] that extends back through colonial Mexican history to medieval Europe,” reports M. M. Pack who investigated the history of Tres Leches for The Austin Chronicle in 2004. According to Pack, Tres Leches gained momentum in the 1940s when the Nestle Company (the manufacturer of 2 of the canned milks) put a recipe on their cans and distributed it all over Central America. Tres Leches became the cake of choice for Mexican celebrations.

Costa Rica Tres Leches

A quick Google search reveals that everyone has a recipe for this confection, including Emeril Lagasse, Alton Brown, Bon Appetit, Food and Wine, Food Network, The Pioneer Woman, Martha Stewart, and–not to be outdone–Betty Crocker, to name just a few.

There are many ways to tweak and vary the cake’s flavor profile. You can find recipes for chocolate, coffee, eggnog, and cinnamon roll Tres Leches. There is even a shortcut recipe which uses store-bought pound cake and spray type whipped cream. You can even incorporate fresh fruits or pureed fruit into the mix and really make it a tropical treat.

Tres Leches

Haagen-Dazs and Blue Bell introduced a Tres Leches flavor ice cream a few years back. I think those should have been “Cuatro Leches” (Four Milks)??

So, next time you eat at a restaurant in Costa Rica, Ask the server before you order if they offer Tres Leches. If they do make sure to save room for an order of this rich, creamy, decadent dessert called Tres Leches. And if you are adventurous enough to make it on your own, here is a recipe so that you can have a whole cake to yourself. Add a little dark rum to the “milks”—you won’t regret it!

This recipe is copied from where almost 1000 reviewers gave it 5 stars:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup white sugar
5 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Soaking liquid:
2 cups whole milk
1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1 (12 fluid ounce) can evaporated milk
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour one 9×13-inch baking pan. Sift flour and baking powder together and set aside. Cream butter or margarine and the 1 cup of the sugar together until fluffy. Add eggs and the ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract; beat well. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture 2 tablespoons at a time; mix until well blended. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for 30 minutes. Pierce cake several times with a fork.
Combine the whole milk, condensed milk, and evaporated milk together. Pour over the top of the cooled cake.
Whip whipping cream, the remaining 1 cup of the sugar, and the remaining 1 teaspoon of vanilla together until thick. Spread over the top of cake. Be sure and keep cake refrigerated.

Enjoy! Send me a note if you tried to make Tres Leches, I would love to know how it turned out.

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