If there’s one dessert that truly reflects the millennial ethos, it’s the indulgent tres leches cake. It has got more air miles than your average travel influencer, a large following to merit a blue tick on Instagram, and now it’s trending in India with flavours like kulfi, rasmalai and masala chai.
Pastel de tres leches, or ‘cake of three milks’ is made by soaking vanilla sponge cake in a divine concoction of three types of milk—condensed, evaporated and cream. Often topped with whipped cream or meringue and garnished with slivers of nuts and fruits, one can say it abides by the Goldilocks principle of being ‘just right’: sweet but not saccharine, moist but not soggy, and dense but not heavy. The flavours are clean, bright and comforting.
Although it is considered a traditional Latin American dessert, its exact origin is unknown. The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets says a recipe for tres leches cake was published on the label of Nestlé’s La Lechera (Milkmaid) condensed milk cans in Mexico in the 70s and 80s. It quickly won hearts and one of the reasons could be the easy availability of canned milk. By the 90s it was believed to be the most popular celebration cake in Latin America. Various cultures claim it as their own and each has its own distinctive version. In Columbia, it is called torta genovesa, the Argentinian version is cake-y rather than heavily soaked, and in Costa Rica the cake is served straight out of a pan, reads The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets.
From Mexico, tres leches crossed borders to become a staple celebration cake in the US, especially amongst the Hispanic population. In fact, it became so popular that Häagen-Dazs and BlueBell introduced tres leches ice-creams.
As if to prove that food has no borders, tres leches travelled to Canada, Australasia, Europe and even India. Delhi-based chef Vaibhav Bhargava notes it used to be popular among diners in the fine dining precinct of five-star hotels. “But, with talented chefs taking up consulting roles in new eateries, and others opening their own cafés and bistros, tres leches is no longer exclusive to five-stars. Its palatability and versatility also led to the boom of tres leches in Indian metros.”
Soaked desserts, like tres leches, aren’t alien to Indian palates. From rasmalai, gulab jamun to jalebi-rabdi, mithais dripping with luscious sugar syrup or thickened milk are an Indian mainstay. It is no surprise then that the milky tres leches, although a foreign dessert, is redolent with familiar flavours and textures.
Chef Urvika Kanoi, founder of the Latin American-themed Café Duco in Mumbai says, “Tres leches is satisfying, because it is not unknown territory, and yet it offers something new.” When she put together the menu for her cafe, tres leches was an inevitable choice. “Although it has Latin American roots, which goes with the theme of my cafe, it’s a versatile dessert for a chef to experiment with and is loved by diners. Initially, we introduced a raspberry-flavoured tres leches. It was so well received that we created a strawberry version as a seasonal specialty. Come summer, and we might just serve a mango tres leches as well.”
Variations of the tres leches have become the trend du jour. From the Asian-inspired coconut milk cake at Mumbai’s Zenmai, to the Turkish caramel Trileçe at Hurrem’s and masala chai version at Delhi’s The Tres Leches Cake Shop, the options are many.
“Nothing can beat the classic vanilla-infused, milk-soaked tres leches. It is a perfect end to a hearty Indian meal. And for festivals like Diwali, there’s always a way to add an Indian touch, with flavours such as rose, saffron or even kulfi,” says Hiren Kumar, head chef at Saltt, Karjat near Mumbai which specialises in crowd pleasing multi-cuisine and North-Indian dishes.
Chefs have experimented with it in Asian and vegan menus too. At the Vietnamese restaurant Chô in Delhi, consultant chef Bhargava serves the cake infused with Vietnamese coffee. “Tres leches is the perfect blank canvas, while condensed milk is a core ingredient for both Vietnamese coffee and this Latin American dessert,” he says while highlighting its adaptability. He introduced a vegan version with plant-based milks at Mary Lou’s, a brasserie-style eatery in Delhi.
Tres leches has journeyed from Latin American homes to capture millions of hearts around the world. Apart from its well-rounded flavours, it has a deeper lesson to share: anything that adapts well, travels well.