• Chocolate three milks cake (pastel de tres leches con chocolate) (Feast / Ben Dearnley)Source: Feast / Ben Dearnley
The union of cake, condensed milk and evaporated milk is just the start. Try adding caramel, rum or chocolate...
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21 Jul 2020 - 8:24 PM  UPDATED 22 Jul 2020 - 12:48 PM

--- See Pati Jinich make her latest take on tres leches cake and much more in Pati's Mexican Table S8, Monday to Friday 3.30pm, 22 July-7 August on SBS Food and then on SBS On Demand ---

“Oh my god, that cake is insane! It’s like a tres leches cake but gone over the top," says Pati Jinich. She’s talking about her cuatro leche (four milk) cake, a two-layer, milky, fruity, messy glory of a dessert she shares in the latest season of Pati’s Mexican Table.

Tres leches cake is a much-loved dessert in Mexico, where Jinich grew up. It’s most commonly a single layer of sponge or butter cake, with holes poked in the top after cooking so it can be drenched in a mixture of milk, evaporated milk and condensed milk. And if you love caramel, Jinich’s new take on the classic is for you.

“This one is really festive and fresh, and it's packed with fruit. I make it with fresh plums and apricots, and so it has a super chunky layer of fruit that is soaking in the milk inside of the cold cake. So think of it like a tiramisu that has fresh fruits in the middle, and just incredibly delicious,” she says when we chat to her, just as she was preparing to start shooting the kitchen segments of the next series of her show.  As well as the traditional three milks soaking into the cake, this version gets a layer of caramel - the fourth milk - in the middle.  

As Jinich explains in an article on her website where she shares a recipe for the basic version, a tres leches cake is a “sweet, practically wet, homey cake”. Most commonly, it’s a single layer of cake soaked in milk, but there are variations: some of the three-milk mixtures use cream instead of milk, some cakes have a layer of whipped cream on top or chocolate in the recipe somewhere.

Like the sound of all this rich milky goodness? Here are seven versions of this Latin American and Cuban favourite, including Jinich’s “insane” cuatro leches dessert and very Australian take, our caramel tres leches lamingtons!

Start simple

This pastel de tres leches uses the classic mixture of full cream milk, evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk. After the rectangular butter sponge cake is cooked, a skewer is used to prick holes in the top of the warm cake and the milk mixture poured over the top. It takes about five hours for it all to soak and settle, ready to serve (you can also chill it overnight).

Layer it up

This version layers sponge cake, custard and meringue; the bottom cake layer sits in a pool of three milk mixture, this one made with cream, condensed milk and evaporated milk, the rest is poured over the top of the cake and custard stack. After two hours of chilling, an Italian meringue goes on top.

Add cocoa

This marbled tres leches cake is another of Jinich’s twists on the classic. The recipe used the classic milk combo, and a single cake layer; the twist lies in adding cocoa to half the cake batter and swirling them together in the pan, to create a marbled chocolate and vanilla cake.

Go all out with the chocolate

It’s not traditional, but drenching a chocolate slab with a mixture of cream, evaporated milk and condensed milk creates a wickedly rich dessert.

Chocolate three milks cake (pastel de tres leches con chocolate)

Add rum

This Cuban take on tres leches uses two milks and rum in the soaking mixture. There’s also milk in the cake batter and thickened cream dolloped on top, along with roasted pineapple and fresh fruit, for a vibrantly fresh take.

Go crazy with caramel

Jinich’s “incredibly delicious” four milks cake is created by baking two rectangular cakes, and layering fruit and cajeta – a rich, nutty Mexican caramel – or dulce de leche in the middle, along with a tumble or fruit pieces. Both layers of cake also get poked and soaked during construction, to create a messy, juicy, dessert. Another great thing about this one?  “It’s a very forgiving cake, because you can cut the fruit however you want, but also after you add the second layer of the cake and you soak it in the milks, you know, you cover it with whipped cream, so it looks gorgeous,” Jinich tells us.

“The dulce de leches gives that sticky layer of caramel that's delicious too … it's almost the ultimate variable easy dessert.”

Try an Aussie twist

Yes. These caramel tres leche lamingtons are a next-level take. The condensed milk is caramelised before it’s mixed with evaporated milk and cream to create the three-milk mixture that soaks into the sponge cake before its cut into squares and coated in chocolate icing and toasted coconut flakes.

Lamingtons are much-loved for good reason.

More creamy cakes
Dulce de leche cheesecake

My son Juju rates this an 11 out of 10. 

Mexican chocoflan

This rich, decadent cake is also known as pastel impossible (impossible cake) and for very good reason – the moist chocolate cake and creamy custard layers swap spots (completely!) during baking. The caramel topping traditionally used is cajeta (Mexico’s sugary goat’s milk caramel), but I have used dulce de leche (caramelised sweetened condensed milk) in this recipe, which is far easier to find outside of Mexico!

Classic carrot cake with caramel frosting

This double-layered carrot cake with a creamy caramel-like icing is pretty special. One of the really nice things about it is that the sponge is very light so you feel incredibly energised after enjoying it, which I love – although it does mean that you’ll be tempted to eat four or five slices in a row!

Peat cake (turbakook)

If a Monaco Bar delved deep into cheesecake territory, it would look a little something like this. This simple recipe consists of a creamy cheese filling and a crumbly crushed biscuit coating.

Leche flan (custard cake)

This month we take a look at traditional Christmas Eve dishes from across the globe, including this classic Filipino dessert.

Steamed banana cakes with coconut custard (apam pisang)

Making cakes and other sweets by steaming them was originally a necessity in many parts of Asia. These days, even though domestic ovens are more common, it’s become a preference. The technique ensures a very moist, tender result that baking can’t match. Steaming many individual cakes on a stovetop can be difficult to manage, though, so we’ve baked these banana cakes in a steam bath in the oven. Traditionally eaten plain, we’ve also added a caramel topping and creamy, coconut custard.