Seriously! I lay in bed, thinking of my favorite things. Coquito? I love it because it’s so creamy and coconutty. Coquito is a rum and coconut cocktail laced with cinnamon. Throughout the holiday season, it is served in many Caribbean-Hispanic countries and the diaspora around the world. Tres leches is a well-known (and beloved) dessert in Latino countries that’s found a place in American hearts as well. A mix of three kinds of milk is poured over a light and airy sponge cake, which absorbs all of that creamy goodness. Later, a fluffy whipped cream topping is spread over the cake.
This recipe takes both of those fantastic recipes and combines them into your new favorite holiday dessert.
What is Coquito?
Coquito is a pillar of the Puerto Rican holiday season. Without it, I’m pretty sure Santa Claus wouldn’t be able to fly his sleigh.
The cocktail is made with coconut and cow’s milk and spiked with a generous glugssssss of rum (no less than 3 rums in my recipe). A tea, made with the season’s spices, is used to add warmth to the libation before it is stored away to enjoy throughout the season.
I had my first taste of (virgin) coquito long before I remembered doing so. Since I’ve been drinking it for so long, I’ve come to be very particular about how a “good” coquito is prepared. Fresh coconut milk is usually my preferred method, but realistically, that’s not always possible. Three rums in my classic recipe mean that my coquito is nothing to bat an eye at. A proper 3-day cure is a must to mellow out that potent boozy taste. The only way to serve it is with a fresh grating of cinnamon dusting the top.
What is Tres Leches?
Even people who aren’t Hispanic have at least heard of tres leches cake. Whether or not you’ve tasted it is a whole other story. If you haven’t tasted a good one, I offer you my condolences. The dessert’s basic premise is that of a yellow cake that’s soaked in a mixture of three different types of milk. Those three kinds of milk are evaporated, sweetened condensed, and whole milk. Some people, like my extra self, will up the ante and add half-and-half just because. This mixture is stirred together and poured over the cake, leaving it to permeate every nook and cranny. A whipped cream frosting is usually the only topping needed for the already indulgent dessert.
My biggest gripe about most tres leches cakes is that they’re often made with a boxed cake mix. Which, ew. There really is no reason to use a boxed mix when the real deal takes about as much time and results in a more fantastic version. Besides the disdain I have for boxed cake mixes, there’s also the cake, which ends up being sloppy and soggy instead of plump and oozing milk. I want my slice of tres leches to seep the milk, not gush it when you cut into it. Because I am so particular, I find that I avoid ordering tres leches anytime we go out.
Do I need to make Coquito to make this recipe?
Because this is a coquito tres leches cake, I do recommend using homemade coquito. Since your kids might be eating this, I suggest you use an alcohol-free version. You won’t cook off any of the alcohol, so it’s best to err on the side of caution.
However, I do appreciate that not everyone has the time to whip up a batch of coquito. So, instead of making it, you can replace the coquito with fresh coconut milk or canned, pure coconut milk from the store. My coquito recipe already has the three different milks included, so it’s easy to use it on its own to make this cake. If you go with the coconut milk option in place of the coquito, you will need to add the two other milks.
Confused enough? Don’t be. Let’s get crackin’.
What else do I need to make this Coquito Tres Leches?
In addition to the coquito, you need room temperature eggs, cake flour, sugar, and rum (or a rum extract) to flavor your cake.
The milk soak requires alcohol-free coquito or coconut, evaporated and sweetened condensed milk, and any extract you prefer. I stay true to the flavor profile of coquito and use rum and cinnamon extracts.
Finally, a frosting of lightly-sweetened whipped cream tops the cake. You can flavor your whipped cream with rum or vanilla extract if you wish to.
What’s the best cake to use for a Tres Leches?
As I mentioned before, I make my tres leches with a sponge cake. No other cake matches it for the absorption of the milk mixture. The cool thing about sponge cakes is that they don’t require any chemical leaveners to give them their rise. They rely, instead, on the eggs in the batter to do that. Whipping the yolks separately from the whites is all it takes. That said, the separation of those eggs has to happen before the whipping does.
It’s easier to separate eggs when they’re cold, but warm eggs give the best results for whipping. So, crack the cold eggs into your very clean hands and allow the whites to run through your fingers into a clean mixing bowl. Dump the yolks into a separate clean mixing bowl. Allow the whites and yolks to come to room temperature.
Now is a great time to sift the flour two or three times. Sifting the flour aerates it, which makes it lighter.
How do I flavor the tres leches cake?
Once the eggs are at room temperature, you can begin whipping them. Add your favorite dark rum and most of the sugar to the bowl with the yolks. The alcohol in the rum bakes off in the oven, but if you want to replace it with vanilla or cinnamon extract, you totally can.
Beat the yolks, sugar, and flavoring together on high speed with an electric hand mixer for 3-4 minutes. Stop the mixer and scrape down the beaters and the sides of the bowl. Return the beaters to bowl and whip for an additional 2-3 minutes, or until the yolks are lemony yellow and the beaters leave a thick ribbon behind in them as they pass through.
Run the beaters to the sink and wash them really well in hot water. This removes any traces of fat on the beaters, which inhibit the whites from whipping to their highest potential.
How long do I whip the egg whites?
It usually takes about 6-7 minutes to whip egg whites to their highest heights. That said, many factors can interfere with their whipping. One of them, being too cold, we already eliminated by letting the egg whites warm to room temperature. Another factor is how stable the whites are as they are being whipped. To aid in that, add a small amount of cream of tartar, an acid, to the egg whites before mixing.
Next, you want to begin mixing on low speed. This will introduce the whites to the idea of fluffing up.
How can I make sure my eggs whites are properly whipped?
Once the whites start to foam, increase the speed of the mixer to medium. Whip the whites for 2-3 minutes, or until the whites begin to look milky.
Gradually sprinkle in the remaining sugar. Whip constantly. You don’t want to change the momentum of the whipping process. Continue shaking the sugar into the bowl as you whip with the mixer.
After all of the sugar is added, continue whipping the whites until they look snowy-white, and the whites hold their shape firmly.
Pluck the beaters from the bowl. The peaks of eggs whites on the end of the beaters should stand straight out and not fold over. If the whites flop over, continue whipping the egg whites for a minute or until they are stiff. If the egg whites look foamy and have yellow liquid oozing from them, you have over-whipped them. You can try to salvage them by adding a room temperature egg white to the bowl and re-whipping. If that doesn’t work, you’ll need to start over.
How do I prevent my sponge cake from being too tough?
Once you whip the whites, it’s essential to work quickly, but not aggressively. You must fold the flour and the egg whites into the beaten yolks in stages.
Begin with half of the flour. Sift it into the bowl with the whipped yolks and use a large rubber spatula to gently fold the flour into the yolks. Now, fold in half of the stiff egg whites. Mind that you don’t fold like a psycho. Be gentle so as not to deflate the whites or the yolks. Repeat the sifting of the remaining flour over the yolks, followed by the folding in of the last of the whites. Gently.
Remember, we’re relying on the whites and the yolks’ volume to lift our sponge cake.
How long do I bake my cake for tres leches?
Moving quickly, pour the prepared batter into a 9 by 13-inch cake pan, which has been greased on the bottom of the pan only. Don’t grease the pan’s sides because the cake needs something to hold onto as it climbs up during the baking process. Also, avoid the use of non-stick cake pans for this recipe. They also hinder the cake from gripping the sides. Ceramic, glass, or metal pans are best.
Place the pan into a preheated 400°F (204°C) oven and bake it for 15 minutes. Once baked, the cake will have risen and become a deep golden brown.
Remove the cake from the oven and allow it to cool completely in the pan. It is best to bake and serve the cake in the same dish to keep the cake from deflating after baking. The goal is to allow the cake to cool while still “stuck” to the sides of the baking dish; that way, it won’t sink back down because it’s still warm. Instead, I leave it in the baking dish, soak it with the milk mixture, and top it, then serve it from there.
If you need the baking dish for another recipe, wait until the cake is completely cool before separating the edges from the pan with a sharp knife. Flip the cake into a deep platter: one that will hold the coquito mixture you have yet to pour over it.
I, again, cool it in the pan on a cooling rack for 40-45 minutes.
Poke holes all over the cake using a wooden skewer or a toothpick. These holes will help get the coquito mixture down into the cake. Wait until the cake is cold, though. If the cake is still hot, when you go poking at it, the soft interior will stick to the toothpick and tear.
What milks are in a Coquito Tres Leches?
I mentioned earlier that the three traditional types of milk in a tres leches cake are evaporated, sweetened condensed, and whole. Because coquito has dos of those tres leches and replaces the third with coconut milk, we can kill three milk birds with one stone by using it on its own. Alternatively, use a cup and a half of fresh coconut milk or a can of coconut milk. Add the coconut milk to a can of evaporated and a can of condensed milk, and you’re good to soak.
Create a more indulgent milk mixture by whisking together dulce de leche instead of sweetened condensed milk. Or, swap out the evaporated milk for half-and-half.
Once you’ve decided on your milk blend, whisk them together until the mixture is smooth and fluid.
How much of the tres leches should I add to my cake?
I went a little small on my baking dish, and, as a result, I had to space out my soaking over 30 minutes. If you use the proper cake pan, you will have enough headroom to pour all of the milk mixture over the cake.
Use a 1 cup ladle to pour the milk over the baked cake. If you see that the milk is beginning to pool along the sides, give it a chance to soak in- waiting to continue pouring. The cake will start to absorb the milk mixture, and you can continue to pour once it’s no longer visible. Pour all of the milk over the cake.
Towards the end, puddles of milk will form on the sides of the pan. That’s okay. As it chills, the cake will continue to soak up the coquito mixture.
How far ahead should I soak my sponge cake in the milks?
Wrap the cake pan in plastic wrap and put the dish in the fridge. You can bake and soak the cake a day before you plan to serve it. And, to be honest, you actually should do it a day ahead.
Making it ahead allows the cake a chance to fully absorb that coquito tres leches mixture. The cake swells up with the milk instead of turning into a nasty, soggy, drenched mess I’m so judgemental of. Don’t bake the cake more than two days ahead, though. You don’t want it to taste stale when you go to serve it.
Keep the cake covered in the fridge until you’re ready to frost it.
What can I top Coquito Tres Leches with?
About 3 hours before you plan to serve the coquito tres leches, whip the cream you’ll frost the cake with.
In a mixing bowl, combine the heavy cream and your flavoring of choice. I’m continuing the rum theme by using rum extract.
Begin with your electric hand mixer on medium speed and whip the cream. Once the beaters start to leave ribbons in the cream, start sprinkling in the sugar. After adding the sugar, increase the mixer’s speed to high and whip for 2-3 more minutes, or until the cream is fluffy and stiff.
What other flavors can I use in my whipped cream frosting?
Although I like to flavor my whipped cream with rum extract, you can flavor yours with any extract you fancy.
Try these flavors:
- or plain whipped cream
How far ahead can I frost my tres leches cake?
It’s best to frost the coquito tres leches at least 3 hours before you plan to serve it. The whipped cream melds into the moist cake’s surface and creates this syrupy deliciousness that’s indescribable. I recommend a minimum of 3 hours. But, you can always frost the cake further ahead. At the very least, frost your cake an hour before serving it.
Use an offset spatula to spread the whipped cream onto the surface of the cake. Make sure you leave pretty swoops!
Can I use other frostings for my Coquito Tres Leches?
You can top your coquito tres leches with Cream Cheese Frosting or Vanilla Buttercream if you’re not a fan of whipped cream. I prefer whipped cream because it’s not as rich as a butter- or cream cheese-based frosting.
What toppings can I put on the cake?
Coquito has a prominent cinnamon flavor, so it’s only right to sprinkle a generous amount of cinnamon on top of our coquito tres leches cake, right? Sprinkle the cinnamon from a foot up, so you end up with a dusting and not an avalanche of spice.
Shredded, sweetened coconut flakes, nutmeg, or cocoa powder are other ways to top the cake. If you just so happen to make this during the summer, top it with fresh berries. You can also leave it as is, with just the whipped cream.
How do I serve the Coquito Tres Leches?
Serve the coquito tres leches by itself. It doesn’t need anything else.
Pour a glass of coquito or a few cups of café con leche to drink it with. Milk is always a good idea for the kiddos, but to me, it’s overkill.
How do I store the cake?
Store the cake in a covered container in the fridge for up to 3 days. Because the cake contains so much milk, it’s best not to store it at room temperature for long periods.
I press a piece of plastic wrap against any cut sides to keep it from drying out in the fridge, but it’s not a must. Keep it covered. That’s the most important thing to remember.
Can I freeze Tres Leches?
You can freeze the whipped cream-topped coquito tres leches. I am not a huge fan of freezing cakes, though, because they taste like you froze them. If you couldn’t care less, wrap the cake dish in a couple layers of plastic wrap and freeze for 2 months.
Thaw the cake in the refrigerator before cutting and serving. Make sure to pin this recipe to your holiday dessert boards before sharing it with your world!
Coquito Tres Leches
- 9x13-inch cake pan (regular metal, glass or ceramic is best)
- electric mixer
- 2 cups of prepared coquito
For the Rum Sponge Cake
- 1 1/2 cups (173 grams) cake flour sifted
- 6 large eggs yolks separated from the whites and at room temperature
- 1 cup (222 grams) granulated sugar separated
- 1 tablespoon dark rum (or vanilla extract)
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
For the Coquito Milk Mixture
- 4 cups (1 liter) prepared alcohol-free coquito or see note for more milk options
- 1 tablespoon rum extract or vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon extract
For the Rum Whipped Cream
- 3 cups heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon rum extract *see note for other flavor ideas
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- ground cinnamon for dusting on the frosted cake
- shredded coconut
Prepare the Rum Sponge Cake Batter
- Preheat your oven to 400°F. Grease only the bottom of a 9x13-inch cake pan with non-stick baking spray. Set the pan aside. Sift the flour two or three times. Set the flour aside while you whip the egg yolks.
- In a mixing bowl, combine the egg yolks, dark rum, salt, and 3/4 cup the sugar. Beat the yolks on high speed with an electric hand mixer for 3-4 minutes. Stop the mixer and scrape down the beaters and the sides of the bowl. Return the beaters to bowl and whip for an additional 2-3 minutes, or until the yolks are lemony yellow and the beaters leave a thick ribbon behind in them as they pass through.
- Quickly wash mixer beaters with soap and hot water. This removes any traces of fat on the beaters, which inhibit the whites from whipping to their highest potential.Add the cream of tartar to the egg whites in the other bowl and begin mixing on low speed.
- Once the whites start to foam, increase the speed of the mixer to medium. Whip the whites for 2-3 minutes, or until the whites begin to look milky. Gradually sprinkle in the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar while whipping constantly.
- Once all of the sugar is added, continue whipping the whites until they look snowy-white, and the whites hold their shape firmly or about 4 more minutes.Lift the beaters from the bowl. The peaks of eggs whites on the end of the beaters should stand straight out and not fold over. If the whites flop over, continue whipping the egg whites for a minute or until they are stiff. If the egg whites look foamy and have yellow liquid oozing from them, you have over-whipped them. You can try to salvage them by adding a room temperature egg white to the bowl and re-whipping. If that doesn't work, you'll need to start over.
Finish the Batter and Bake the Cake
- Once you whip the whites, fold the flour and the egg whites into the beaten yolks in stages.Begin by sifting half of the flour into the bowl with the whipped yolks. Use a large rubber spatula to gently fold the flour into the yolks. Next, fold in half of the egg whites. Fold gently so as not to deflate the whites or the yolks. Repeat the sifting of the remaining flour over the yolks, followed by gently folding in the last of the whites.
- Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake the cake for 15 minutes or until risen and a deep golden brown. Remove the cake from the oven and allow it to cool completely in the pan. Once cool, use a toothpick or wooden skewer to pierce holes all over the cake.
Combine the Coquito Mixture
- Whisk together the coquito, rum extract, and cinnamon extract the mixture is smooth and fluid.Use a 1 cup ladle to pour the milk over the baked cake. If you see that the milk is beginning to pool along the sides, give it a chance to soak in- waiting to continue pouring. The cake will start to absorb the milk mixture, and you can continue to pour once it's no longer visible. Pour all of the milk over the cake. Towards the end, puddles of milk will form on the sides of the pan. That's okay. As it chills, the cake will continue to soak up the coquito mixture.
- Wrap the cake pan in plastic wrap and put the dish in the fridge. Store the cake in the refrigerator for 3-24 hours. This gives the cake a chance to fully absorb that coquito tres leches mixture.
Prepare the Rum Whipped Cream
- Three hours before you plan to serve the coquito tres leches, combine the heavy cream and the rum extract in a mixing bowl. Starting with your electric hand mixer on medium speed, whip the cream just until the beaters begin to leave ribbons in the cream.
- Start sprinkling in the sugar. After adding the sugar, increase the mixer's speed to high and whip for 2-3 more minutes, or until the cream is fluffy and stiff. Use to frost the Coquito Tres Leches right away or store, covered, in the fridge for 2 days.
Frost the Coquito Tres Leches
- Frost the coquito tres leches 3 hours (or at least 1 hour) before you plan to serve it.
- Use an offset spatula to spread the whipped cream onto the surface of the cake. Garnish your Coquito Tres Leches with a generous sprinkle of ground cinnamon, shredded coconut, or both. Serve cold with a glass of coquito or coffee.
- 1 1/2 cups or 1- 13.66 ounce (403 ml) can unsweetened coconut milk
- 1- 12 ounce (354 ml) can evaporated milk
- 1- 14 ounce (397 grams) can sweetened condensed milk
- vanilla extract
- coconut extract
- cinnamon extract
- almond extract
- maple extract
- caramel extract
Storage and Freezer Instructions:
- Store the cake in a covered container in the fridge for up to 3 days.
- Avoid storing the cake at room temperature for long periods.
- Press a piece of plastic wrap against any cut sides to keep it from drying out in the fridge.
- Freeze the Coquito Tres Leches with or without the whipped cream topping. Wrap the cake dish in a couple layers of plastic wrap and freeze for 2 months. Thaw the cake in the refrigerator before cutting and serving.