Costa Rican Tres Leches Recipe

Milk cake garnished with mint.

Tres leches cake is a favorite Costa Rican recipe- and the most delicious dessert. It’s a sponge cake baked from scratch with sugar, flour, eggs and vanilla. Add three types of milk- evaporated milk, heavy cream and sweetened condensed milk and top with whipped topping for an incredibly rich flavor.  

In this post you’ll find the Costa Rican Tres Leches Recipe, FAQs, Variations, substitutions and serving suggestions. At the bottom of the article, you’ll find a printable recipe too!

cross section of costa rican moist cake topped with strawberries and mint

About This Recipe

In the cooking world, you have to earn your street cred. This is definitely true for me- a non-Costa Rican cooking Costa Rican food for a living. 

I earned my street cred with this recipe a few years back. We had gone to a party to celebrate Costa Rican Independence day. The party was a potluck, and I chose to bring a Costa Rican tres leches cake. If you aren’t familiar, it’s a moist cake soaked in three types of milk (tres leches means three milks in Spanish).

Anyway, at the party, I put the cake on the table and went to socialize since I didn’t see anyone eating yet.

Not even 30 minutes later, the entire cake was gone. I didn’t even get a single piece.

And that’s when I knew that I’d earned my street cred in the Costa Rican tres leches department. Add in the requests from the ticos to share the recipe, and I knew I had to post the recipe.

Costa Rican Tres Leches Cake Recipe

Yield: approximately 24 small pieces, 12 large

(Printable recipe below)

Tres leches cake ingredients:

4 eggs, room temperature and separated yolk from the whites
1/2 cup milk (whole milk preferred)
1 cup of white granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (in Costa Rica we would use Vainol but I can’t get it here in the states)
1 cup white flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
Non-stick cooking spray

Milk Cake sauce ingredients:

1 cup sweetened condensed milk (leche condensada)
1 cup evaporated milk  (leche evaporada)
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk (optional- cuts down on the sweet taste of the sauce if you feel it is too sweet)

Tres leches topping ingredients: (See notes below)

1 pint heavy whipping cream
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla (optional)

Cooking Tools:

Hand or stand mixer (I love this hand mixer from Hamilton Beach. The beaters store in the body of the mixer and it’s cheap)
9 x 13 inch baking dish

milk cake garnished with mint

Cake Instructions:

    1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and lightly spray your baking dish with cooking spray. 

2. Separate the yolks from the whites for each of your eggs. I personally think that using room temperature eggs works better.

3. In your mixer or mixing bowl, add the egg yolks and beat on medium speed until the yolks turn a pale yellow.

4. While mixing the yolks, measure out dry ingredients into a medium bowl (flour, baking powder and salt) into a bowl and whisk until combined. 

5. Next, add 1/3 cup milk and vanilla to the yolk mixture and stir. Pour the whole thing over the flour mixture and stir until just combined. 

6. In a separate large bowl, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and beat until stiff peaks form (forme picos).

7. Add the eggs whites to the flour mixture and stir. Your cake batter should be light and airy. Pour into your baking pan and place in the center rack of the oven.

8. Bake this cake for about 20 to 25 minutes. It is done when a toothpick inserted comes out clean- up to about 30 minutes. 

9. While the cake is baking, you can stir or whisk together the three kinds of milk for the sauce. 

10. Allow to cool slightly- the cake will be spongy and naturally pull away from the edges of the baking pan. Poke holes into the cake with a fork, and pour the milk mixture over the entire cake until absorbed.

11. You can then top with your topping and serve, or keep refrigerated for up to three days. I love to eat this cake right after I make it, but it does also get better with age. 

slice of tres leches cake on a black slate board

Notes: 

1. This recipe halves nicely, and then you can just make a smaller cake in an 8 x 8 pan.  The calories in a piece of this are insane, so I will often just make half for our family of four. You can also make two cakes in two 8×8 pans- and then give one away! 

2. For the whipped topping- you can definitely make your own in the instructions above. Over the years though, I’ve found ways to top the cake that are much easier than making your own whipped cream. I will often buy whipped topping and just top it, or use the whipped cream from the can to individually decorate each piece with little florets. There is also a Dream Whip sold in a package that whips up nicely when you add milk.

For the topping: (optional)

There are several ways to make this topping, and some people don’t even add it. (This is a super sweet dessert and the topping makes it sweeter!)

Option #1: Dream Whip

Option #2: Whipped topping (like Cool Whip)

Option #3: Whipped cream from the can (like Reddi Whip), and spray as much as desired on each piece. (This is great because some people might like topping and others might not).

You can garnish with sliced strawberries, drizzled chocolate, maraschino cherries, etc.

tres leches cake with bailey's

FAQ

Can I make this cake ahead? – Absolutely! I think the cake is better when made a day in advance and the kinds of milk sort of soak and combine to add a super delicious and unique depth of flavor. 

Do I have to have a mixer to make this cake? – No- but I think it is a lot easier to whip the egg whites into stiff peaks using a motor.

Is this only a Costa Rican cake?– It’s not. This cake is popular throughout all of Latin America.  However, in many countries the recipe calls for cinnamon, and it’s not a traditional ingredient in Costa Rica.

Can I halve the recipe?– Yes! This makes a lot of cake. You can cut the recipe in half, or you can also make the cake in two smaller pans. 

tres leches cake topped with peach slices and strawberries

Variations

Once you have the recipe down, there are a ton of variations. You can add a teaspoon of cinnamon to the batter or the topping. This makes the recipe a bit more Mexican in style- (cinco de mayo party anyone?). 

Costa Ricans will sometimes add a half teaspoon of lime juice to the topping to give the cake a bit of a fresh and tangy taste. 

Topping ideas- you can top this cake with all kinds of delicious things:

    • fresh fruit (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries)
    • canned peach slices
    • chocolate syrup
    • chocolate shavings
    • maraschino cherries
    • sprinkles
    • sprig of mint


Substitutions

You can substitute the whole milk really for any other type of milk you prefer- fat-free milk, 1%, 2% or even almond milk. 

Some people make this a boozy cake by exchanging the evaporated milk for Bailey’s. 

moist tres leches cake with cherries and chocolate

Serving Suggestions

This cake is typically served either at birthday parties or during the afternoon coffee tradition. You will serve it with traditional Costa Rican coffee. Many people also serve it with agua dulce (a traditional Costa Rican hot water with brown sugar), or hot tea. I like to eat it with Diet Coke or a nice cold glass of water.

Other popular Costa Rican Dessert Recipes:

Printable Recipe

Yield: 24 pieces

Costa Rican Tres Leches Milk Cake Recipe

Slice of tres leches cake on a black slate board.

Tres leches cake is a favorite Costa Rican dessert recipe. A simple sponge cake moistened with three types of milk for a delectable treat.

Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 25 minutes
Additional Time 10 minutes
Total Time 50 minutes

Ingredients

  • Tres leches cake ingredients:
  • 4 eggs, room temperature and separated yolk from the whites
  • 1/2 cup milk (whole milk preferred)
  • 1 cup of white granulated sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (in Costa Rica we would use Vainol)
  • 1 cup white flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • Non-stick cooking spray
  • Milk Cake sauce ingredients:
  • 1 cup sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 cup evaporated milk 
  • 1 cup sweet cream
  • 1 cup whole milk (optional. I never had seen this ingredient, after all it is TRES leches, but it cuts down on the sweet taste of the sauce if you feel it is too sweet)
  • Tres leches topping ingredients:
  • (See notes below)
  • 1 pint heavy chipping cream
  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla (optional)
  • Cooking Tools:
  • Hand or stand mixer (the cake really doesn't come out very well if you try to beat it by hand)
  • 9 x 13 inch baking dish

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and lightly spray your baking dish with cooking spray. 
  2. Separate the yolks from the whites for each of your eggs. I personally think that using room temperature eggs works better.
  3. In your mixer or mixing bowl, add the egg yolks and 3/4 cup of granulated sugar and beat on medium speed until the yolks turn a pale yellow.
  4. While mixing the yolks, measure out dry ingredients into a medium bowl (flour, baking powder and salt) into a bowl and whisk until combined. 
  5. Next, add 3/4 cup of the granulated sugar (leaving 1/4 cup behind) 1/3 cup milk and vanilla to the yolk mixture and stir. Pour the whole thing over the flour mixture and stir until just combined. 
  6. In a separate large bowl, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and beat until stiff peaks form (forme picos).
  7. Add the eggs whites to the flour mixture and stir. Your cake batter should be light and airy. Pour into your baking pan and place in the center rack of the oven.
  8. Bake this cake for about 20 to 25 minutes. It is done when a toothpick inserted comes out clean- up to about 30 minutes. 
  9. While the cake is baking, you can stir or whisk together the three kinds of milk for the sauce. 
  10. Allow to cool slightly- the cake will be spongy and naturally pull away from the edges of the baking pan. Poke holes into the cake with a fork, and pour the milk mixture over the entire cake until absorbed.
  11. ou can then top with your topping (see notes below) and serve, or keep refrigerated for up to three days. I love to eat this cake right after I make it, but it does also get better with age.

Notes

1. This recipe halves nicely, and then you can just make a smaller cake in an 8 x 8 pan. You can also make two cakes in two 8x8 pans.

2. For the whipped topping- you can definitely make your own in the instructions above. Over the years though, I've found ways to top the cake that are much easier than making your own whipped cream. I will often buy whipped topping and just top it, or use the whipped cream from the can to individually decorate each piece with little florets. There is also a Dream Whip sold in a package that whips up nicely when you add milk.

There are several ways to make the topping, and some people don't even add it.

Option #1: Dream Whip

Option #2: Whipped topping (like Cool Whip)

Option #3: Whipped cream from the can (like Reddi Whip), and spray as much as desired on each piece. (This is great because some people might like topping and others might not).

You can garnish with sliced strawberries, drizzled chocolate, maraschino cherries, etc.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

24

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 216Total Fat: 9gSaturated Fat: 5gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 3gCholesterol: 69mgSodium: 174mgCarbohydrates: 29gFiber: 0gSugar: 24gProtein: 5g

Please verify this information with your preferred nutrition calculator.

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Crystal Anderson
    May 22, 2020 at 2:37 pm

    I made this recipe last night for my husband’s birthday dinner! Best tres leches I’ve ever made! Be careful with the directions though. Step 5 says to add 3/4 cup sugar but that was added with the yolks. So I didn’t add an additional 3/4 cup. I also didn’t add the extra whole milk bc it still isn’t too sweet! So very good! This will be my go to recipe from now on! Thanks!