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Mexican Baking Month: Tres Leches Two Ways and Iced Hot Chocolate

During my next month of global baking, I dabbled in the art of Mexican baking and learned to make Tres Leches cake two ways as well as two versions of Mexican hot chocolate.

The joy of baking with Snowpea during Mexican Baking Month.
Baking with Snowpea.

For nearly six years now, I have tried – and failed – to make Tres Leches. In Spanish, this cake’s name means “three milks” because it soaks in a blend of sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and heavy whipping cream. The moisture of the milk mixture makes it sweet and rich, and it also makes it Daniel’s favorite cake.

During my first ever attempt at Tres Leches, I experienced beginner’s luck with the recipe I sloppily threw together and veganized for my first Valentine’s Day with Daniel. I don’t remember what I put in that cake, but I do know that I misread my reedition of the recipe, thought I had butchered it, and swore I would never try making it again.

My failure turned to a bittersweet success when Daniel tried the cake and promptly announced, “Not bad.” And if you’ve met Daniel, you’ll know this is high praise.

Due to the hodgepodge nature of that first recipe, I knew I couldn’t recreate my creation. So instead, during my Mexican-inspired baking month, thought I’d try my hand at creating a genuine classic version of the cake that’s true to the recipe to the last teaspoon. However, when I arrived in El Paso this summer, I quickly learned that baking Classic Tres Leches from scratch was easier said than done.

What you have to understand about baking in El Paso is the city is surrounded by desert. Summer days regularly hit highs in the hundreds, and because of this, I rarely stepped foot outdoors between the hours of sunrise and sunset. Although my in-laws’ home was air-conditioned, the kitchen gets HOT when baking, which affects everything from baking time to brain power to my hair.

I fully blame the heat for the fiasco of my first – and only – Tres Leches I attempted in El Paso. But then again, I also didn’t know how to navigate my in-laws’ kitchen, nor did I want to create a mess in it while baking with Snowpea.

At the outset of our first cake, I managed to avoid a mess, but Eira did create some noise pollution by banging piles of pots and pans. Five minutes into her performance, Daniel came in and hissed at us to pack up because he was in the middle of presenting his lab data over Zoom. His lab, he said, didn’t appreciate the background music. What poor taste.

Later that day, I tried again to bake my cake but nearly set the house on fire. I thought the smell of burning rubber was just beans cooking but was shocked to find an oven full of pans, spatulas, and mitts when I went to put my cake in to bake! Thankfully, I told my singing Snowpea not to panic (she wasn’t, but I was), and quickly removed the hot pots out one by one before they caught flame.

The cake, unfortunately, tasted like scrambled eggs, according to Daniel. I told him this was because I had literally blind-baked the cake because I could not find the light switch in his mother’s kitchen. This would have to be my last attempt baking for his family for now.

After a month of eating Mexican dinners, drinks, and desserts cooked by Daniel’s mom, we returned to Carbondale, Illinois. Here, in my parent’s kitchen, making Tres Leches was a piece of cake. The first version I tried baking here – a classic version topped with peaches – turned out so beautifully that I believed I was ready to attempt the cake in chocolate.

Turning a recipe from vanilla to chocolate does require a bit of finicking. Keeping the liquid level the same results in a cake that is too dry, but overdoing it on liquid can create a brownie, so there’s a fine balance to hit. And as they say on the British Bake-Off, understanding when a chocolate cake is cooked versus burnt is a challenge, to say the least. Needless to say, my first creation sadly didn't quite meet Daniel's standards.

On the night I arrived to Kansas for my family's reunion, I thought I'd give my Chocolate Tres Leches one more go. Cooking in my grandparents’ kitchen was not foreign to me. But it was a risk nonetheless because I had not yet acclimated to their setup (and my hair was struggling in their humidity, but that’s a different story).

By some miracle and a little help in the soaking process from my Sous-Chef Daniel, the Chocolate Tres Leches I created that night in Kansas met the expectations of Daniel and my extended family who sampled it the next day with their taco bar lunch.

The recipes that follow include that magical Chocolate Tres Leches as well as my favorite Mexican Hot Chocolate recipes I’ve been drinking all summer. Enjoy!

Peaches & Cream Classic Tres Leches

How to make Peaches & Cream Classic Tres Leches.
Peaches & Cream Classic Tres Leches.

The Classic Tres Leches recipe I found that WORKED was by none other than Natasha’s Kitchen. To make this version peachy, I garnished it with fresh sliced farmer’s market peaches after coating it in frosting. You can find Natasha’s full recipe here.

Chocolate Cherry Tres Leches

How to make Chocolate Cherry Tres Leches.
Chocolate Cherry Tres Leches.

Adapted from Natacha’s Kitchen

Makes 1 9x13-inch cake

For the cake:

1 cup freshly brewed coffee

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 cup all-purpose flour

¾ cup cocoa powder

1½ tsp baking powder

¼ tsp salt

5 eggs (large)

1 cup sugar divided into ¾ and ¼ cups

Olive oil, for greasing

For the syrup:

12 oz evaporated milk

9 oz sweetened condensed milk

1/3 cup heavy whipping cream

For the frosting:

2 cups heavy whipping cream

3 tablespoons cocoa powder

1 tablespoon powdered sugar

To garnish:

1 cup berries to cherries, candied or frozen

1 tablespoon ground almonds

A generous sprinkle of ground cinnamon

  1. Pour the fresh-brewed coffee into a mug, add the vanilla extract, and allow to cool to lukewarm*.

  2. To make the cake batter, sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt into a large mixing bowl.

  3. Separate the yolks from the eggs into two bowls.

  4. In the bowl with the egg yolks, add ¾ cups sugar, and beat the on high for about 2 minutes until “pale yellow”.

  5. Add the lukewarm coffee with vanilla to the egg yolk mixture and stir with a whisk to combine.

  6. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites on high for about 2 minutes**. Add the remaining ¼ cup sugar and beat on high for 1 more minute.

  7. Use a spatula to gently combine the egg yolk mixture into the flour mixture until evenly combined.

  8. With a spatula, very carefully fold the egg white mixture into the flour and egg yolk mixture. Mix evenly but not aggressively to avoid deflating the egg whites.

  9. Pour the cake batter into a 9x13-inch*** baking dish that has been greased with olive oil.

  10. Bake at 350° F for about 30 minutes, or until the top surface of the cake is solid and a cooking thermometer reads at least 210° F (optional to test with one of these) and comes out clean.

  11. To make the syrup, combine the sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, and heaving whipping cream, using a whisk to stir.

  12. Thoroughly and evenly poke the cooled cake with a fork****.

  13. Without removing the cake from the baking dish, use a spatula to gently detach the cake from the pan on all edges, then evenly pour the syrup over the cake.

  14. Place the cake in the refrigerator, and allow it to soak in the syrup overnight.

  15. To make the frosting, whip the ingredients together on high in a mixer for about 2-3 minutes or until the cream becomes light and fluffy. The frosting can be refrigerated overnight alongside the cake or made fresh when ready to serve.

  16. Evenly coat the cake with a generous layer of frosting.

  17. Place frozen or candied cherries evenly across the cake in 2-3 rows. Then, sprinkle ground almonds and cinnamon across the cake for decoration.

  18. Serve the cake cold and store it in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

* Note: If the coffee is added to the eggs when it is too hot, it will result in scrambled eggs.

** Natasha’s Kitchen recommends 1 minute, but I find this leads to peaks that are too soft.

*** I also tried this recipe 9x9-inch square and 9-inch round baking dishes and found this to also work. The advantage of a smaller baking dish is the cake will be thicker, but the disadvantage is it yields less soaking, which is a critical part of the Tres Leches cake, so I favor the larger dish.

**** According to Daniel, this is an easy step to get wrong. If you’re not careful to poke the cake edge to edge, the syrup will not soak through the cake.

***** This, according to Daniel, is the second step that can trip up novice bakers like me. Scooping the cake off the pan before pouring the syrup results in better soaking. As you soak, you want to hear a “wet shoes” sound, he says. This means the cake will REALLY be moist.

Mexican Hot Chocolate

How to make Mexican Hot Chocolate and sip it in a Frida mug.
Mexican Hot Chocolate.

Adapted from Taza Chocolate

Makes 2 cups

Hot chocolate

2.5 oz dark chocolate*

2 cups milk (I usually use oat)

A pinch of flaky sea salt

To garnish (optional)


Additional dark chocolate

Ground cinnamon

Cocoa powder

  1. Chop the chocolate into rough chunks.

  2. Steam your milk or heat your milk in a saucepan until just below a simmer, then remove from the heat.

  3. Add a pinch of salt to the warm milk, then use a whisk to gradually mix the chopped chocolate in until evenly melted. The resulting mixture will be thick and rich to taste.

  4. Top the hot chocolate with marshmallows, grated dark chocolate, and a sprinkling of cinnamon and/or cocoa powder, and drink while hot.

* Note: Using discs like those made by Taza Chocolate is the traditional way of making Mexican hot chocolate. I like Taza’s chipotle chile or guajillo chile flavors for an added kick of sweet heat.

Iced Mexican Hot Chocolate

Adapted from Taza Chocolate

Makes 2 glasses

For the hot chocolate:

2.5 oz dark chocolate*

2 tablespoons hot water

2 cups ice

2 cups milk (I usually use oat)

For the homemade whipped cream:

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1 tablespoon powdered sugar

To garnish (optional):

2 fresh strawberries

Additional dark chocolate

  1. Make the whipped cream ahead or before making the hot chocolate by mixing the heavy whipping cream and powdered sugar on high until fluffy. Store in the refrigerator until ready to use (no more than 1 day).

  2. Chop the chocolate into rough chunks and set it aside in a small cup or mug.

  3. Heat your water to boil, then remove from the heat. After about 45 seconds, pour 2 tablespoons of water onto the chopped chocolate and stir using a fork until the chocolate has fully melted. Add more hot water 1 tablespoon at a time if needed for the chocolate to melt.

  4. Divide the ice cubes evenly between two tall serving glasses.

  5. Divide the melted chocolate evenly between the two serving glasses, then quickly top the glasses up with milk before the ice melts.

  6. Top each glass with a dollop of whipped cream and use a grater to shave additional dark chocolate on top.

  7. Cut a slit into each strawberry and wedge it onto the side of each cup.

* Note: I like Taza’s Cacao Puro for the iced version of the drink.

What’s next? So far, I've completed a crash course in British baking (including Afternoon Tea) in addition to my Mexican baking month. Since I’ve been traveling across the states, I’ve been inspired by the local baking in the Midwest. And let’s face it, if there’s any time to do American-style baking, it’s in the summer. I’m thinking fruit pies, soft bread, and classic chocolate chip cookies. Who knows, maybe I’ll even save room to throw my updated fluffy pancakes recipe into the mix. Stay tuned!


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