Sermets James Island

Toasted coconut tres leches cake served at Sermet's Southernterranean on James Island.

File/Grace Beahm/Staff

Meet tres leches cake

A vanilla sponge cake soaked with a sauce of evaporated milk, condensed milk and plain milk or heavy cream, tres leches is served cold, making it a popular summertime dessert throughout Latin America. But its richness — often enhanced by swirling chocolate into the pastry, adding cajeta (Mexican caramel sauce) to the sauce or topping the cake with whipped cream — make it appropriate for the holiday season.

Learn its backstory

Tres leches is so adored that upward of half a dozen countries take credit for its invention. In fact, the cake most likely emerged in places like Mexico, Nicaragua and Puerto Rico roughly simultaneously, since it may well have originated as a recipe printed on a 1940s-era Nestle canned milk label.

According to The Austin Chronicle’s MM Pack, who built on work by Texas Monthly’s Patricia Sharpe to develop the Nestle theory, tres leches cake was probably inspired by torta de leche, an older drenched dessert. That saucy bread is kin to rum cake, fruitcake and tiramisu.

When evaporated milk (or milk from which more than half of the water has been removed) and condensed milk (meaning milk boiled with sugar) were developed in the 1800s, they were plugged into the existing formula. Nestle reiterated the preparation in hopes of selling more canned milk, which the company has produced in Mexico since World War II.

Nowadays, home cooks can purchase shortcut liquids in which the milks required for tres leches cake are precombined.

And order it here

Sermet’s Southernterranean, 1622 Highland Ave., sermets.com/southernterranean, 843-793-3132 (tres leches cake, $7)

— Hanna Raskin

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

Food editor and chief critic

Eating all of the chicken livers just as fast as I can.