Mom would approve: Mother's Day Tres Leches is made from cake mix

Columnist Tammy Swift isn't too proud to admit that when she makes a cake for Mother’s Day, it will be lovingly baked with the Pillsbury Doughboy nodding approvingly over her shoulder. She knows her mom, who always appreciates cooking hacks, will approve of this "shortcut" Tres Leches Cake, an ultra-moist, not-too-sweet cake soaked in three types of milk.

Shortcut Tres Leches cake is easy to make, ultra-moist and not too sweet.
Tammy Swift / The Forum
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FARGO — The one thing I’ve always appreciated about my Mom is that she can rock a cooking shortcut.

Let's be clear: Marge definitely knows how to bake breads, pies and cakes from scratch. But as she has gotten older — and less enthusiastic about spending all day in the kitchen — she has learned to unashamedly embrace the time-saving beauty of Rhodes frozen bread dough or an Our Family pie crust.

One hack I've learned from her is that a few homespun ingredients can cleverly camouflage any "cheater" mixes or shortcuts. No one even knows that cake is from Betty Crocker's kitchen if you switch out the vegetable oil for butter, add a dash of pure vanilla extract to the batter and ultimately frost it with a homemade buttercream.

The devil's food is in the details.

So I’m not embarrassed to admit that when I bake a cake for Mother’s Day this year, it will be lovingly baked with the Pillsbury Doughboy nodding approvingly over my shoulder. I’ve found a recipe for “shortcut” Tres Leches Cake, the ultra-moist, not-too-sweet cake soaked with three different types of milk.


Many sources link the cake’s origins to Nicaragua, although its delicious roots have also been traced to Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and even Albania (mostly because Albanians make a caramel-topped version of the dessert called trilece ).

It’s worth noting that the earliest versions of the Albanian cake were said to be made with goat milk, cow's milk and buffalo milk. As much as I love sweets, it makes me glad that today’s version no longer requires milking a 1,200-pound animal that clocks in at 35 mph while wielding horns that could eviscerate Thor.

Nope, for Mom’s big day, I’m perfectly happy to rely on the more modern version of evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk and cow's milk (or coconut milk, if that's more your jam).

This cake is incredibly easy, especially when compared to the traditional version, which requires creating a sponge cake by whipping egg whites, folding ingredients and basically filling the sink with dirty dishes.

It checks all the boxes:

  • It’s baked in the 9-by-13-inch cake pan, which is the unpretentious and always-reliable Ford Focus of cake pans. No need for leveling of cakes, preparing of fillings or methodically stacking of cakes. Anyone who has ever attended a church potluck knows that a dessert served in a 9-by-13 is a badge of honor (extra points if it comes with a metal lid with your name engraved on it).
  • It’s a “poke” cake, meaning you get to take out your frustrations by stabbing it all over with a skewer and then drenching it in milky goodness.
  • It’s not “too sweet,” which is one of my Mom’s most frequent complaints about my more elaborate desserts.

So here’s the recipe, as adapted from the Taste of Home website. I made a few modifications, switching out the heavy cream suggested in the milk bath with whole milk, adding almond extract and adding cream of tartar to the whipped cream frosting to stabilize it.

Shortcut Tres Leches cake is a "poke" cake, meaning you should generously poke the cake with skewers before pouring the milk mixture on top of it. Don't be stingy: The more holes you create, the more the cake can soak up the mixture.
Tammy Swift / The Forum

Shortcut Tres Leches Cake

1 package butter recipe golden cake or yellow cake mix
3 large eggs, room temperature
⅔ cup milk
½ cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
1 cup whole milk (or coconut milk)
1 cup heavy whipping cream (for frosting)
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
2-3 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon almond extract


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch pan.

In a large bowl, combine cake mix, eggs, milk, softened butter and vanilla; beat on low speed 30 seconds. Then beat on medium speed for 2 minutes. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes. (Cake should still be slightly warm for next step.)

In a 4-cup measuring cup, whisk together sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk and 1 cup whole milk until well-combined. Using a skewer, generously poke holes in top of cake. Pour milk mixture slowly over cake, filling holes and being sure to also soak edges of cake. Cool 30 minutes. Refrigerate, covered, 4 hours or overnight.

In a small bowl, whisk together powdered sugar and cream of tartar. In a larger, chilled bowl, pour cream and beat until it starts to thicken. Stir in sugar mixture and extracts; beat until firm peaks just start to form. Spread over cake. Keep refrigerated.

More Tammy Swift columns
Forget the “Fargo”-bred stereotypes of Midwesterners as molasses-tongued yokels. A surprising new report by Preply, an online language-tutoring company, reports that Minnesotans are actually the fastest-talkers in the nation — averaging 5.34 syllables per second. Other rapid-fire speakers are North Dakotans (fifth fastest with 5.29 syllables per second) and South Dakotans (eighth fastest at 5.27 syllables per second).

Tammy has been a storyteller most of her life. Before she learned the alphabet, she told stories by drawing pictures and then dictated the narrative to her ever-patient mother. A graduate of North Dakota State University, she has worked as a Dickinson, N.D., bureau reporter, a Bismarck Tribune feature writer/columnist, a Forum feature reporter, columnist and editor, a writer in NDSU's Publications Services, a marketing/social media specialist, an education associate in public broadcasting and a communications specialist at a nonprofit.
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