Growing up Nicaraguan in Miami, tres leches cake made an appearance in our home very often, regardless of whether or not there was a reason to celebrate. A rich and soupy sponge cake soaked in three milks (evaporated, condensed, and whole), tres leches is often topped with whipped meringue or marshmallow fluff and a maraschino cherry, then served in individual squares. The sponge cake does not fully absorb the milk syrup, which makes it taste extra heavenly.
It also tastes like home.
In Miami, where Latin American communities abound, tres leches can be found in both Nicaraguan and non-Nicaraguan establishments alike, from bakeries to food stores and restaurants. The dessert has become so popular that locals have even reimagined the flavor in new forms, like Fatgirl Hedonist’s pumpkin pie tres leches and Salty Donut’s white chocolate tres leches doughnut.
While many credit Nicaraguans for the dessert, others claim it as their own: Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, Puerto Rico (the list goes on). The origin stories and recipes vary by country; dig a little deeper and the history is even more elusive. To get to bottom of this, I consulted with a dozen Nicaraguans of varying backgrounds who migrated to the United States in the 1980s.
The results were mixed.
Many told me that did not eat the dessert until they arrived to Miami and credit a local Nicaraguan restaurant chain, Los Ranchos, for the introduction. Others vividly remember the dessert as far back as the 1940s, which coincides with the time that canned milk products became more widely available in Central America. This goes hand in hand with the idea that Nestlé, Borden, and similar companies invented the recipe and printed it on their can labels as a way to promote their products.
Searching through old cookbooks from Mexico and Nicaragua, there’s no evidence of the recipe prior to the 1970s. The closest examples are torta de leche or pastel de leche (“milk cake,” similar to hot milk cake), sopa borracha (“drunken soup,” or rum cake), almibar (syrup), and the French baba au rhum.
Finally, a small group spoke of the society events where the dessert existed exclusively. Known in the capital city of Managua, tres leches was only served in private clubs and wealthy households, where it was referred to as delicias suecas (“Swedish delights”). But there’s no relation to Sweden or its delights. Other sources on the topic even point to Sinaloa, Oaxaca, and Albania, where there’s a version of the dessert known as trilece.
The most likely theory is that tres leches—at least its inspiration—originated in England around the Middle Ages. Considering its form, tres leches can be categorized as a trifle cake. Soaking a cake was and is still an easy way to repurpose old or stale cake. Nothing is wasted, everything is used. This makes sense as Nicaragua was colonized by both Spain (1522-1821) on the west coast and England (1633-1860) on the east coast.
In La Comida Nicaraguense, Jamie Wheelock Roman writes, “From crisis comes new cuisines. The colonial period gave rise to a vast process of experimentation and mixtures of food that had never before come together. During that period of great change, many products of both kitchens disappeared or fell into disuse, but on the other hand, ingredients were added to each other’s native cuisines setting the path to a varied diet and new recipes.”
Products such as sugarcane and cattle and new cooking techniques such as the preservation of milk were introduced and immediately adopted. Sugar became one of the most important crops manufactured in Nicaragua. One of the first accounts of U.S. exploration of Nicaragua in 1897 details many cane plantations throughout the country.
The biggest success, however, was the introduction of livestock for its adaptability to the tropics and its multiple uses. To this day, Nicaragua is a cattle-forward country. In 1936, a trade agreement reduced Nicaraguan duties on milk and other products raised in Wisconsin. The imported products included condensed milk or cream, evaporated milk or cream, dried whole milk or cream, and dried skim milk or cream. Additionally, in 1955, Nicaragua received 277 individual cattle (the biggest shipment ever for its time) for the development and improvement of the beef and milk industries.
Canned milk was produced as early as the 1850s and increased in popularity during the World Wars. Companies like Nestlé and Borden had such a difficult time keeping up with the demand that they opened operations in various locations throughout Latin America, including Nicaragua. Due in large part to the Great Depression in the 1930s, sales in the country skyrocketed. Canned milks were affordable and added luxury to cooking in times of need. And somewhere around this time, someone got creative (possibly inspired by other Nicaraguan desserts such as Pio V and sopa borracha) and combined evaporated, condensed, and whole milks and soaked a sponge cake with the megamilk.
Between 1979 and 1990, the violence of the Nicaraguan Revolution, coupled with an earthquake, forever changed both Nicaragua and Miami. Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans fled the country to Miami, a growing metropolis where Latin Americans thrived, forged in large part by the Cuban community. Much of the population settled in the suburb communities of Sweetwater and Kendall.
Today, Sweetwater is known as Little Managua, which is also where the famous Los Ranchos opened in a small stripmall in 1981. Since then, they’ve expanded to three additional locations. Tres leches cake was added to the menu and thus reintroduced to the Nicaraguan community as well as formally introduced to Miamians.
In exile, there’s nothing better than the food that reminds you of home. Since then, Miami’s Latin American community has grown even more diverse, bringing with it new desserts, many that also include evaporated and condensed milks.
Nevertheless, there’s still something singularly magical about tres leches.
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