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Pastel de tres leches is beloved throughout much of Latin America, and yet its origins remain a mystery. Some people claim that it was first baked in Nicaragua, others that the recipe was first printed on the label of a well-known brand of canned condensed milk in Mexico.

Tres leches is usually a sponge cake soaked – as you might have guessed from the name – in a mixture of condensed, evaporated and regular milk, which might be flavored with vanilla, rum and cinnamon. The cake is baked and soaked in the milk mixture while it’s still warm and in the pan. It sits overnight so that the milk and flavorings thoroughly saturate every bite.

Similar cakes – soaked in alcohol and/or custard – came to Mexico from Europe before the 20th century, and these include rum cake, trifle, fruitcake or Italian zuppa inglese and tiramisu. Perhaps the likeliest explanation for how tres leches came to be is that it was an adaptation of one or more of these.

In Mexico City, every bakery offers at least one version of this cake for weddings, baptisms, quinceaños (the traditional party thrown for girls when they turn 15 years old), birthdays and pretty much any other kind of celebration.

Pastelería La Ideal, located downtown and one of our favorite bakeries in the city, maintains a spacious showroom on the second floor that displays all the cakes they can make, and tres leches is one of the many possibilities.

Another one of our favorite pastelerías specializes in different types of tres leches cakes. As if the rich milk combination wasn’t enough, Pastelería La Universal offers versions that include cajeta, caramelized goat’s milk, and rompope, a kind of alcoholic eggnog. They make some of the best tres leches cakes we’ve ever had.

In Mexico City, you don’t have to wait for a special celebration to enjoy tres leches; it’s available by the slice at many markets, coffee shops and restaurants. Better yet, you can get tres leches cake in a cup from Macram, a bakery with locations all over Mexico City that has been devoted for several decades to making just this treat. Besides the original, they make chocolate, rompope, coffee and almond flavors too.

This article was originally published on March 24, 2014.

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PJ Rountree

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