Tres leches cake: an incredibly moist cake made from three kinds of milk, whole milk, evaporated milk, and sweetened condensed milk, often topped with whipped cream and sliced fruit, such as strawberries.
But is that true? Even those who point to Mexico as the country of origin of pastel de tres leches such as Patricia Sharpe say that "nobody knows where this confection came from". Writing for the November 1999 issue of Texas Monthly:
"Mexican cooking authority Maria Dolores Torres Yzabal (the co-author of The Mexican Gourmet cookbook) thinks it might have originated in a Mexico City bakery whose name is now lost. In her cookbook The Taste of Mexico, Patricia Quintana says that it first appeared in the state of Sinaloa."
Self-described "amateur food detective" MM Pack followed up on these clues in an article on Tres Leches for the Austin Chronicle, and reveals that what these authors were actually referring to were potential predecessors to tres leches cake:
"In The Mexican Gourmet, Maria Dolores Torres Yzabal says that antes (bread soaked in wine and layered with milk custard and fruit or nuts) came to Mexico in the 19th century. New York restaurateur and author Zarela Martínez documents Oaxacan recipes for Sopa Borracha and Ante de Almendra, two soaked cakes. In The Taste of Mexico, Patricia Quintana opines that tres leches comes from Sinaloa, and she provides a colonial-era recipe for Viceroy's Cake: sherry-drenched layers of cake, custard, fruit, and meringue."
Another ancestor may have been a Mexican torta de leche:
"Roberto Santibanez (currently the culinary director of the Rosa Mexicano restaurants in New York) provided the next clue. He remembered a dish that his grandmother had made, from the state of Tabasco. Torta de leche (milk cake) is cake batter poured into a pan of sweetened scalded milk, baked, and served floating in its milk sauce."
A second contender for the birthplace of pastel de tres leches is Nicaragua. As Sharpe explains:
"Mexico-born chef Roberto Santibañez of Austin’s Fonda San Miguel has friends in Guatemala and Nicaragua who swear the cake is native to their countries. His pet theory is that it came from a promotional recipe once distributed in Latin America, perhaps on cans of evaporated milk or with a brand of electric mixer."
While some Nicaraguans claim tres leches cake came from Managua, others have no memory of the dish from their childhoods. Miami food historian Mandy Baca came across a few Nicaraguans who remember it being referred to as "delicias suecas" (Swedish delights), though there is no Swedish connection and I can find no other record of this. Baca also posits that the English trifle, a soaked dessert designed to make the most of stale cake, may also figure in the tres leches family tree, with the "Mosquito Kingdom" having been under British control from 1633 to 1860. What Nicaraguans are in agreement on is that tres leches cake somehow made its way to Miami, likely due to an exodus of Nicaraguans after the revolution of 1979. According to the Washington Post, it appeared on the menu for the Nicaraguan restaurant Los Ranchos in Miami when it opened in 1981. The recipe for Los Ranchos' tres leches cake then made its way to Steven Raichlen's Miami Spice in 1993*.
Numerous sources claim that Nestlé had recipes for tres leches cake printed on labels for canned milk in the 1930s or 1940s. MM Pack went as far as calling up Nestlé and while a representative said they believed this to be true, they could not furnish any old cans that had said recipes.
Perhaps tres leches cake invaded the United States on two fronts? Floridians seem well-acquainted with the cake by the early 1990s, but it seems that Texans learnt of pastel de tres leches from their Mexican neighbours and Mexican-born restaurant owners by the mid-nineties.
Meanwhile in Europe, there are blogs that claim Albania invented "trileçe", where it is was initially known as "trileqe". This seems unlikely considering that both trileqe and trileçe are the result of Albanian phono-semantic matching of "tres leches". The earliest reference I can find to "trileqe" is the photo below from April 2000 taken in Prizren, Kosovo. In this photo you can see that the Balkan trileçe differs from the Central American tres leches with a caramel topping.
From a search on Facebook, it seems that by 2009 it appears the "trileçe" spelling had superseded it among Albanians before it was exported to Turkey. The proponents of the Balkan origin of the dessert claim that it has its roots in an Ottoman recipe made with the milk of three animals: goat, cow, and sheep.
Where did this fanciful claim come from?
The pseudonymous "Istanbul Eats" for Culinary Backstreets embarked upon a quest to discover the origin of trileçe. It is at the Tuğra restaurant in Istanbul that chef Ahmet Kara makes a cake with goat's milk, cow's milk, and water buffalo cream. Having been wowed by the dessert at a working-class joint in Kağıthane in 2012, Kara tried to get the owner to spill the beans on the recipe, but to no avail. So he took to Facebook and purports to have been sent a recipe that mixed the milk of three animals (he used water buffalo cream in lieu of sheep's milk with the latter being hard to find in Istanbul). Kara also seems to be the originator of the dessert being labelled as "Ottoman":
"It’s from Rumeli [term for Ottoman territory in Europe] so it is Ottoman cuisine. Therefore, we own it."
The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet purports that Latin American soap operas had enticed Albanian viewers with the sweet treat. While that is a romantic tale worthy of a telenovela, there is no hard evidence. Istanbul Eats spoke to Ali İştay of Köfteci Arnavut who claims that his Albanian mother would make trileçe for him during the holidays as far back as 1946, but again, evidence is scant for such an affirmation.
Istanbul Eats interviewed Macedonian-born Albanian baker İdris Beğiroğlu who claimed to be the first to bring trileçe to Turkey. He was delighted by the delicacy when he first tried it with cousins in Tetovo in North Macedonia in 2010. They had learnt of it from another cousin allegedly picked up the recipe in Italy. Beğiroğlu then started baking it at Baltepe Pastanesi in Fatih (on the Baltepe website the date that he first tried trileçe is changed to 2009), and (unsuccessfully) tried to trademark the cake when it started to spread to other bakeries and cafes in Turkey. When Istanbul Eats mentioned that trileçe resembled tres leches cake, Beğiroğlu's response was:
"Of course, it’s an old Spanish cake as far as I know. Maybe Portugal."
But the idea of trileçe being a traditional Balkan (likely Albanian) dessert in its own right seems to have taken hold.
When did the original tres leches cake become "traditional"? At what point does a dish become "traditional"? Tiramisu is considered a traditional Italian dessert, but was arguably invented in 1969. Ciabatta, now ubiquitous, was developed in 1982 as an Italian alternative to the baguette.
In 2008, Tannaz Sassooni bemoaned the lack of Persian Jewish traditions for Hanukah, and so she set about to intentionally invent her own. She proclaimed that henceforth zoulbia**, deep-fried rings of wheat coated in syrup, should join the pantheon of festive fried food for the faithful.
Her wish came true. Now in 2022, it is mentioned in outlets such as the Instagram page @jewishfood as a traditional Iranian Jewish Hanukkah dish. Tradition, it seems, can be willed into existence in a decade or so. So where did saffron tres leches come from, and when will it become traditional (if it hasn't already)?
Step into a Middle Eastern supermarket, from Kuwait to Abu Dhabi, and you will find stacks and stacks of evaporated milk and condensed milk in supermarket aisles dedicated to the products. At the Indian restaurant Asha's in Kuwait, I had gulab jamun soaked in the stuff. As such, tres leches cake is a natural fit for a region which already has a sweet tooth.
In January 2020, Bahrain-based Pakistani blogger Wajeeha Nadeem noted that saffron milk cakes had been popping up in the Middle East over the past year. A photo for a saffron milk cake can be found on the Instagram page of restaurant Noor Alghannam in Kuwait from June 2017, and the earliest Arabic language recipe for saffron milk cake on YouTube was uploaded in the following month, with many more appearing by the end of the year. On the blog Nim's Innovations it's noted that it had made its way to Istanbul's Hafiz Mustafa by October 2018. It wouldn't be until December 2021 when I had my first slice in Kuwait at EL&N Cafe, though at the time I did not know of its origin as tres leches cake (its menu lists it under a series of "dulce de leche" cakes).
In November 2022, I indeed saw saffron tres leches cake at a Hafiz Mustafa on Istiklal Street, but I was still ignorant of its Latin American connection, and to me it was just an (admittedly beautiful) cake made with saffron.
While in India over the following weeks, I came across an Instagram reel from The Global Vegetarian: a recipe for a Masala Chai Tres Leches cake. I then thought, "why don't I invent a saffron tres leches cake?" It wasn't until I then had a slice of "saffron milk cake" at Life with Cacao in Kuwait that I realised not only was I not the first to think of this combination, I'd already had it over a year ago! Still, I followed a very detailed recipe video from @viewsontheroad and simply added ground saffron to the various milks and cream at different steps. Thanks to @viewsontheroad's thorough explanations, my first attempt was pretty tasty.
A Google search for "saffron tres leches" led to a glowing review on Google Maps review for a "saffron dulce de leche cake" from L'ETO cafe in London. L'ETO also has cafes in the Middle East, including Kuwait and the UAE. Searching through their Facebook page, the first mention of a "new" saffron cake is from July 2016. From a TripAdvisor review dated to March 2014, It appears that L'ETO are the progenitors of referring to these milk cakes erroneously as "dulce de leche" (dulce de leche is a caramelised milk, also known as milk jam, confiture de lait, or cajeta), and now this terminology is used by other cafes such as EL&N.
While I had initially thought that saffron tres leches evolved from trileçe in Istanbul, now I am not so sure. One possibility is that the "saffron dulce de leche" made its way from L'ETO in London, to the Middle East, and then to Turkey.
But was that the first time that saffron was incorporated into tres leches cake?
What if that first happened... in India?
A Google search for "saffron" + "tres leches" (but not "saffron tres leches") returned various results for a "rasmalai tres leches", which appears to have been developed independently by multiple Indian bakers***. In 2019, Maria Doss of Kitchen at Hoskins boasted that rasmalai tres leches, with cardamom in addition to saffron, had already become one of their most popular cakes. In December 2017, a rasmalai tres leches recipe was appeared on BetterButter.in, though no author was attributed.
But all the way back on the 4th of January 2015, LiveMint shared a recipe for Rasmalai Tres Leches from Paritosh Sharma, who at the time was chef of Farzi Café in Gurgaon. A video was uploaded to YouTube the following day featuring the man himself. While this rasmalai tres leches differs in form from the saffron milk cake popularised by L'ETO and countless cafes in the Middle East, making use of of chhena cheese and cardamom, it is the earliest incorporation of saffron into the (possibly) Latin American dessert that I can find.****
In an example of parallel thinking and great minds thinking alike, I found that there were also Iranians who independently infused tres leches cake with saffron. The German-Iranian author behind Labsalliebe posted a recipe for a saffron & rosewater tres leches cake for Norouz 2020. Around the world, bakers and chefs and patissiers have all had the lightbulb moment of adding the greatest spice of all to one of the most delicious cakes, and we are all better off for it.
Writing this, it has been hard to come to a definite conclusion on the origin of Latin American tres leches cakes, of Balkan trileçe, or of saffron tres leches.
But I can confidently say that the journey has been delicious.
*In 1999 the Washington Post mistakenly listed the date as 1991.
**Zoulbia itself is likely Arabic in origin as zalabiyah, they are now popular in India and Pakistan where they are known as jalebi. It is also argued that German immigrants to America, the "Pennsylvania Dutch", brought these to the US as Drechderkuche, which later became funnel cake (though it is also possible this came from south German Strauben).
***An honourable mention to Anagha of The Saffron Touch who concocted a "Thandai leches cake" with saffron frosting, posting the recipe in May 2015.
****In December 2022 I had a saffron milk cake from Asha's in Kuwait which went heavy on the cardamom.
I Knead to Eat - Saffron Milk Cake by Wajeeha Nadeem: https://ikneadtoeat.com/saffron-milk-cake/
Atlas Obscura - How a South American Soap Opera Created a Turkish Dessert Craze by Dan Nosowitz: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/how-a-south-american-soap-opera-created-a-turkish-dessert-craze
Orlando Sentinel - 'Tres leches' competes with flan for best-loved dessert by Viviana Carballo: https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/os-xpm-2000-12-14-0012130022-story.html
Hurriyet - Trileçe kazan dünya kepçe by Güncelleme Tarihi: https://www.hurriyet.com.tr/kelebek/hurriyet-cumartesi/trilece-kazan-dunya-kepce-36920212
Culinary Backstreets - Trileçe: The Balkan Cake of Mystery by Istanbul Eats: https://culinarybackstreets.com/cities-category/istanbul/2014/trilece/
All Kinds of Yum - Pretend You're Persian This Hanukkah by Tannaz Sassooni: http://tannazie.blogspot.com/2008/12/pretend-youre-persian-this-hanukkah.html
Shofar magazine, Winter 2008 issue: https://web.archive.org/web/20200914164146/https://www.iajf.org/shofar/Shofar161.pdf
Austin Chronicle - Got Milk?™ On the trail of pastel de tres leches by MM Pack: https://www.austinchronicle.com/food/2004-02-13/196888/
Food52 - The Long, Winding Origin Story of Tres Leches Cake by Mandy Baca: https://food52.com/blog/24939-tres-leches-cake-history
The Washington Post - Creamy and sweet, tres leches cake is on the rise by G. Daniela Galarza: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/voraciously/wp/2020/10/02/creamy-and-sweet-tres-leches-cake-is-on-the-rise/
Mint - Cook Out | Rasmalai Tres Leches by Chanpreet Khurana: https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/BFlvG9mrPpkQ8n9HXukWgI/Cook-Out--Rasmalai-Tres-Leches.html