Tres leches is kind of a big deal here in Latin America. Everybody and their grandma has their favorite tres leches cake recipe. This coconut tres leches is my current fave, a tropical spin on the traditional tres leches cake that transports you into a cozy hammock beneath a shady beach palm in one forkful.I made this coconut tres leches for a friend’s birthday last month. He’s a Tico (Costa Rican). His mom was there too. And his brother. All country folk accustomed to hearty homestyle Costa Rican cooking. Talk about tough critics. Thankfully, the cake was a unanimous hit!If you’ve never tried tres leches, then put aside all prior notions regarding cake. Since this light sponge cake is soaked in milk syrup and coconut rum (totally optional, btw), it has a unique texture similar to the last bits of birthday cake that always seem to sop up the melted ice cream.
The milk syrup is made by stirring together coconut milk, evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and coconut rum. Don’t worry, Uncle Ron won’t start telling blonde jokes after he’s finished his slice, there are only a couple of tablespoons in the recipe. Like I mentioned before, you can leave out the rum if you want, but I think it really lends a bright pop of coconut flavor.As the warm cake is cooling and it’s heavenly aroma is filling your house, that’s when you’ll poke the cake all over with a fork and drizzle all that sweet milky goodness over the sponge. Make sure that you prick holes through the cake all the way through to the bottom so that the entire sponge is evenly soaked.
As far as the frosting goes, the jury’s still out. Some Costa Ricans top tres leches with meringue frosting, but others choose whipped cream. Since I’m all about the creamy dreamy flavor of freshly whipped cream, you can bet I roll with the whipped cream crowd. Whipped cream is low-fuss and quicker to make- no worrying about heating egg whites, I reserve that task for Swiss meringue buttercream. Simply whip and spread the whipped cream frosting right on top of the cake any old way. No need for swirled frosting techniques today!I finish off my coconut tres leches with toasted coconut flakes. It’s so easy to toast coconut! Just heat a dry skillet on medium, shaking the pan around or gently stirring until the coconut is golden. Yep, it’s that simple to bring out all that nutty flavor.Here are some tips for pumping out the best tres leches cake ever!
- Fully whip the egg whites. You want them to stand tall and proud.
- Use a gentle hand when combining whites into the batter. It’s best to start out by folding in one third of the whites to lighten the batter before you add the remaining whites. Here’s a short tutorial to perfect your folding technique.
- Prep the cake with milks before it’s cool. Be sure not to forget to run a knife along the edges of the cake.
- Pour in all the milk syrup. You may gasp when you see just how much liquid is going into the cake. Embrace it. The first time I made a coconut tres leches I only used half the can of coconut milk and parts of the cake wound up dry. That’s a major no-no in tres leches territory. It’s better to have a little milk left in the bottom of the baking dish then to have a dry cake.
- Cover the warm cake. Put a sheet of cellophane over the cake after you add the milk syrup. This extra step locks in moisture.
- Frost cake when fully chilled. Avoid whipped cream meltdown this way.
- Use stabilized whipped cream to frost the cake if it will be sitting out for more than an hour in a warm location.
- 1 cup sugar, divided
- 5 eggs, separated
- ½ cup milk
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1½ cups all purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon cream of tartar (or a pinch of salt)
- Milk Syrup
- 2 tablespoons coconut rum
- 1 can (13.5-14 oz.) coconut milk
- 1 can (12 oz.) evaporated milk
- 1 can (14 oz.) sweetened condensed milk
- Whipped Cream Frosting
- 2 cups chilled whipping cream
- 2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup toasted dried shredded coconut, for decorating
- Preheat oven to 350F. Butter a 9x13" baking dish.
- Beat ¾ cup sugar with egg yolks until fluffy, approximately 5 minutes.
- Folk in milk, vanilla, flour, and baking powder.
- Beat egg whites to soft peaks with cream of tartar. Add ¼ cup sugar to beat on high until firm and glossy. Fold whites into batter in three parts.
- Pour into baking dish and bake 30-35 minutes until a toothpick inserted removes clean. Meanwhile, toast coconut in a dry skillet stirring frequently until it reaches a golden color. Remove from skillet to prevent over-browning and set aside.
- While cake is still warm run a knife along the edge of the pan to loosen up the cake. Use a fork prick holes all over the top of the cake, making sure to get to the bottom of the pan.
- Combine milk mixtures and pour over the top of the cake trying to get the entire cake evenly soaked. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
- Whip cream with confectioners' sugar to stiff peaks and smooth over the cake. Top with toasted coconut.
- Best served the next day. Keep cake refrigerated and tightly covered.
What is that in the background? Did you guess right? You got it! They’re coconuts.
Try this unconventional cake recipe at your next potluck, and while it’s baking, add these scrummy cakes to your baking list!