Culinary History of Pastel de tres leches

An insanely rich and outrageously addictive dessert!

By: Madhulika Dash

Spain claims it's theirs, Mexicans call their national celebratory dessert, and the British believe their "hedgehog pudding" inspired its invention, so which place does the Pastel de tres leches really belong to?

World War II: Nestle is expanding to Latin America, and to capture the market, the company decides to bring out labels with the tres leche recipe on it. Bringing out labels with the continent's favourite dessert was a gimmick the 1875 established Food Company had mastered in, and with an impressive rate of success.

However, even Nestle, who often claims to have popularised tres leche, couldn't quite estimate the way the dessert would grow in popularity.

While food historians (and writers) give enough credence to the iconic brand for successfully popularising tres leche across continents, when it comes to the parentage of this gooey, soft, rich, soaked-in-milk sponge cake, there has been but ambiguity surrounding this luscious dessert's birth.

"It's like a child with too many fathers," says Chef Vikas Seth of Bangalore-based Mexican restaurant Sanchos about the dessert, who believes that the present form of the dessert developed across the little bake homes in Mexico. One of the best tres leche makers in the country, Chef Seth recipe for the dessert in fact comes from the ports of Mexico, where the dessert is an autumn and winter delicacy and is served in mini bites, much like the tiramisu, topped with Meringue and maraschino cherry.

A general consensus is that tres leche came from Nicaragua, where most of the earlier iterations of the dessert we see today, can be sourced from. There are others who believe that the recipe came from the Tabasco, where the cake batter was poured into a tin of scalding milk, baked and then served on a milk bath, akin to the British 'hedgehog pudding', essentially a sponge cake doused in a bath of sherry and almonds, and served in a moat of custard.

Others believe that it came from Sinaloa in Spain, where a perforated sponge cake was dipped in a milk bath made of evaporated milk, heavy cream and sweet condensed milk. Again, a recipe that could have been inspired by colonial-era recipe for Viceroy's Cake: sherry-drenched layers of cake, custard, fruit, and meringue.

Interestingly, the art of soaking breads (that's how the bread pudding and Tiramisu came) was much prevalent in colonial Europe since the beginning of the 18th century. In fact, the traditional sopa dorada (golden soup), a Portuguese recipe that many believe inspired other cake soaked desserts, finds mention in the 18th-century British cookbook.

Essentially, a dessert made from toasted bread (and later cake) soaked in sugar, white wine, egg yolk and rose water, it eventually led to yet another classic called the bread pudding.  

So while it may have happened that some confectioner got inspired and created the tres leche through experiments, it remained a rather expensive affair mostly seen in weddings and celebratory parties.

What was the reason? While it was extremely light and fluffy, the sponge and the milk bath proportion play an important role in making this sugar crumb, which has a very short self-life.

After baking, the cake needs to rest and then immediately be chilled, a temperature that has to be maintained throughout so none of the milk forms changes nature. This makes it an extremely tricky dessert to handle, and hence the tres leche was often seen as a spa dessert that often moved in high society circle.

The dessert of course was first noticed when it reached Texas in the early 19th century, and with Nestle condensed milk became one of the popular desserts. Of course by then the tres leche had changed the appearance from a naked sponge cake that was served with whipped cream and cherry, the innovative dessert now had a Snow White appearance where the cake was dressed in whipped cream, set atop a milk sauce with an extra serving of sweet condensed milk or chocolate with cherry or glazed strawberries on the side.  The mark of a good cake today, according to Chef Seth is that it will maintain the distinct texture of a soft, moist cake in spite of it being soaked in a mixture of three types of milk, overnight

And though it is true that the origin of this popular dessert is still not clear, there is little doubt that the three milk wonder is a descendant of a long and respectable tradition of desserts that routes through Colonial Mexican history to Medieval Europe.