Basic tres leches cake with added rum. Here’s the recipe from Bake Or Break.  Add some fruit garnish. Here’s the recipe from Renee’s Kitchen Adventures.  Go chocolate, with this recipe from The Domestic Rebel.  Go fancy for a special occasion. Here’s the recipe from Vika’s Home Goods.
First: There is a recipe for a specialty Tres Leches cake below, Caramel Coconut Tres Leches Cake.
Tres Leches cake is a vanilla sponge cake that is baked, perforated and soaked in three different milk products: evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and whole milk. The cake absorbs the milks, making it moister and richer.
It is then frosted with whipped cream or meringue, and often garnished with caramel, chocolate, coconut, liqueurs, nuts and tropical fruits. It’s not your grandmother’s sponge cake.
The different types of sponge cakes.
The different categories of cake.
Tres Leches has been a favorite cake for celebrations throughout Central America since at least World War II era, and become popular in the U.S. at the end of the 20th century (Jenna Bush Hager served it for her wedding cake).
It is kin to other sponge cakes and angel food cakes, which are light and airy because they use beaten eggs to rise. Chiffon cake and génoise are two you may be familiar with. Here are:
THE HISTORY OF TRES LECHES CAKE
Popular in Central America since the 19th century, pastel de tres leches (pastry with three milks)
While the origin lacks clean documentation, food historians believe that tres leches cake most likely originated in Nicaragua in the early 1900s. The recipe was printed on the label of sweetened condensed milk cans to spur sales of the product.
A number of recipe sources place the origin of the tres leches cake in Nicaragua, born from a recipe on the label of Nestle’s sweetened condensed milk. (More than a few recipes, from cheesecake to Chex Party Mix and Rice Krispies Marshmallow Treats, began in the development kitchens of manufacturers to promote more uses for their products.)
Some sources say the recipe dates to 1875—but that’s the year Nestlé began distributing its condensed and evaporated milks, and seems to soon (their original purpose was to provide milk in areas where fresh milk was not available).
Nestle Mexico cannot confirm a date, but did say that the company had published a recipe for Tres Leches Cake on the labels of milk cans sold in that country, and that the firm began manufacturing milk products in Mexico around World War II.
Whatever the truth, “soaked” cakes had been a European tradition since medieval times: British rum cake, trifle, and fruitcake; Italian zuppa inglese and tiramisu, not to mention the soaked foods of the poor, bread pudding and pain perdu (French toast).
The missing link is believed to be a Mexican cookbook with a recipe for “antes,” a bread soaked in wine and layered with milk custard, that appeared in Mexico in the 19th century [source].
A search of Mexican cookbooks by journalist M.M. Pack produced these related recipes:
Torta de leche (milk cake), cake batter poured into a pan of sweetened scalded milk, baked, and served floating in its milk sauce.
Antes, bread soaked in wine and layered with milk custard and fruit or nuts, which appears in Mexico in the 19th century.
Sopa Borracha and Ante de Almendra, two soaked cakes from Oaxaca.
Cookbook author Patricia Quintana, in her book The Taste of Mexico, opines that Tres Leches comes from Sinaloa, a state on the country’s west coast across from Baja. She provides a colonial-era recipe for Viceroy’s Cake: sherry-drenched layers of cake, custard, fruit, and meringue.
And then, a cake called Tres Leches emerges.
As the recipe traveled from region to region, local bakers added their own touches. In the rum-focused Caribbean islands, rum was added to the “soak.” In U.S. chefs added caramelized milk to create a cuatro leches cake [source].
Modern Tres Leches Cake
Tres Leches Cake began to get noticed north of the border toward the end of the 20th century.
In 1997, Rich’s, an American food manufacturer, began to sell a premixed, liquid dairy product called Tres Riches, a soak for food-service tres leches cakes.
Both Häagen-Dazs and Blue Bell ice cream introduced a tres leches ice cream flavor in 2003.
And American home cooks have created every variation: Bailey’s Irish Cream, berry, chocolate, coconut, coffee, marble, peach, pecan, pumpkin, red velvet…
Not to mention bundts, cupcakes, naked cakes, puddings and stack cakes (the originals were sheet cakes baked in rectangular pans), iced with cinnamon cream cheese frosting, dulce de leche buttercream, even topped with a layer of flan.
Many thanks to journalists M.M. Pack and Patricia Sharpe for their intrepid research into the topic. We hope they enjoyed many slices of Tres Leches Cake along the way.