A Kulfi-Inspired Tres Leches Cake Recipe
Tres leches cake meets Indian flavors in this twist on the classic. Soak a pistachio-enriched cake in sweet, spiced milk and spread with whipped cream topping.
If I were to rank my favorite desserts, the creamiest ones would make the top of the list. This may seem controversial, but I would take a scoop of ice cream over a slice of chocolate cake any day. I love the refreshing milky taste and the lingering cooling feeling on my tongue. So, it's no surprise that two of my favorite treats are kulfi and tres leches cake.
Kulfi is a South Asian frozen dessert traditionally made from a base of slow-cooked sweet milk and spices reduced into a thick liquid. Tres leches cake is a moist milk-soaked sponge cake of Latin American origin (though the exact origin is often debated!).
A Tres Leches Cake Inspired By Kulfi
Given their similarities, I thought it would be fitting to create a tres leches cake using typical Indian spices and flavors from kulfi. The result is a tres leches cake featuring a pistachio-studded sponge cake soaked in spiced milk topped with whipped cream and chopped pistachios. The base recipe was adapted from A Cozy Kitchen’s tres leches cake.
Why Use Three Types of Milk?
Tres leches cake, so named because of its use of three kinds of milk, traditionally features condensed milk, evaporated milk, and heavy cream. This version uses whole milk instead of heavy cream for a lighter mixture to contrast the sweeter, richer condensed milk. Using all three milks ensures a balanced sweetness and a rich consistency without weighing down the cake.
Tips and Tricks for Making Tres Leches
- Don't overmix the batter: Avoid overmixing to ensure a light and spongy texture. Whipped egg whites can be tricky to fold, so I recommend stirring in the first third of the egg whites to lighten up the batter before folding in the remaining whites.
- Whip the egg whites to medium peaks: Many recipes call for beating the whites to stiff peaks, but that can sometimes lead to more folding (and overmixing or deflating). Instead, I recommend medium peaks. Medium peaks occur when you lift the batter, and the meringue peak holds its shape, but the tip just slightly curls on itself. Be careful not to under whip the whites, or the cake won't have enough structure.
- Make sure the cake is fully cooked: An underbaked cake is never ideal, but with tres leches, the cake will become soggy if the middle isn't cooked through. Err on the side of a drier cake here to help absorb more moisture.
Make This Tres Leches Cake Your Own
Everyone has their own personal preference when it comes to tres leches.
- This cake yields a moderately soaked cake; for a well-soaked cake, increase the amount of whole milk in the soaking liquid to 1 cup.
- A little bit of almond extract brings out the pistachio flavor, but if you happen to have pistachio extract, you can use that too.
- Don't have cardamom? You can substitute cinnamon or a warming spice mix like chai masala.
How to Make Tres Leches Cake Ahead of Time
Tres leches cake is a great make-ahead dessert, and this variation is no different.
- The milk soak can be made up to one day in advance and chilled in the fridge. Bring it back up to room temperature before pouring it over the cake.
- You can also bake the cake and soak it in advance. An overnight soak in the fridge is actually recommended to give enough time for the milk to penetrate the whole cake and develop flavor. Just before serving, make the whipped cream and pistachio topping.
- Kaju Katli
- Slow Cooker Almond Orange Rice Pudding
- Guyanese Gojas
- Brazo Guitano (Guava Jelly Roll)
- Nian Gao (Baked Sticky Rice Cake with Red Bean Paste)
Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350°F.
Lightly grease the bottom of a 13-inch by 9-inch by 2-inch pan, but do not grease the sides (otherwise, the cake will shrink considerably).
Grind the pistachios:
In a small food processor or spice grinder, finely grind the pistachios into a coarse powder (avoid over-grinding, or it'll turn into nut butter).
Prepare the dry ingredients:
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the pistachios, flour, baking powder, salt, and ground cardamom. Set aside.
Whip the egg yolks and sugar:
Add the egg yolks and 1 cup of the sugar to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Set the mixer on low speed until the sugar and egg yolks are combined, then increase to medium speed.
Beat the egg yolks for 3 minutes, or until thick, ribbon-like, and pale yellow, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed.
Add the remaining wet ingredients:
Reduce the speed to low, then slowly pour in the milk and vanilla extract and beat until homogeneous. Turn the mixer off, then scrape the sides of the bowl as needed.
Mix in the dry ingredients:
Set the mixer back on low speed, then slowly add the dry ingredients until just barely combined; there should still be a few specks of flour in the bowl. Turn the mixer off, transfer the mixture back to the large mixing bowl that you had the dry ingredients in, and fold gently with a spatula until no dry bits remain.
You’ll use the stand mixer bowl again to whip the egg whites.
Beat the egg whites:
Wash then thoroughly wipe the stand mixer bowl (there should be no trace of egg yolks or water), and place it back on the stand mixer.
Add the egg whites, then with the whisk attachment, set to medium speed and beat until the liquid just begins to foam.
Add the sugar and beat the egg whites to medium peaks:
Increase the speed to high, then slowly add the sugar. Beat the egg whites to medium peaks, about 2 to 3 minutes—lift the beater and turn it upside down to test this. The peak should stand up firmly, but the tip will curl slightly. The mixture will also look slightly glossy and have tripled in volume. To avoid overwhipping, I recommend stopping the mixture every twenty seconds to check the stiffness.
Fold in the egg whites:
Stir in a third of the egg white mixture into the batter until mostly combined (it’s okay to see a few small streaks of white). Then, gently fold the rest of the egg whites into the batter until just combined.
Bake the cake and cool:
Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan. Gently tap the pan on the counter to remove any surface bubbles.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes back clean. Let cool completely, about 1 hour. Run a butter knife all around the outside of the cake to release it from the edges of the pan.
Make the milk mixture:
In a medium mixing bowl, combine the condensed milk and evaporated milk using a whisk.
Set a small saucepan over medium heat, add the whole milk, salt, cinnamon, and cardamom. Bring to a simmer, remove from the heat, and pour slowly into the mixing bowl. Whisk the liquids until combined.
Let cool to room temperature.
Soak the cake:
Generously poke the top of the cake all over with a fork or thin skewer. Avoid poking deep enough to pierce the bottom of the cake, as this will cause the liquid to seep out of the cake.
Slowly pour half of the liquid over the cake, letting the liquid slightly seep through for 1 minute. Pour the remaining half of the liquid and let sit for 15 minutes.
Refrigerate cake for a minimum of four hours up to overnight before adding the whipped cream.
Whip the cream:
Just before serving, whip the cream. Place the heavy cream in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Beat the cream on high speed until foamy, then add the powdered sugar and continue whipping to stiff peaks (any formed peaks should stand straight up when the whisk is lifted from the bowl).
Garnish and serve:
Use a spatula to transfer the whipped cream to the top of the cake. Using an offset spatula or the back of a spoon, smooth out the cream as needed. Top with chopped pistachios and serve immediately.
The frosted cake can sit for up to 3 days in the fridge, though the whipped cream may start to deflate, and the pistachio topping can get a bit soggy. It will still be delicious, though!
Did you love the recipe? Leave us stars below!