This coconut tres leches cake is a riff on the popular Latin milk-soaked sponge cake. This truly exceptional dessert recipe uses coconut extract in the sheet cake, coconut milk in the creamy drizzle, and toasted coconut as garnish.
Adapted from Molly Gilbert | Sheet Pan Sweets | Union Square & Co., 2022
Typically, a sponge cake soaked in three types of milk (evaporated, condensed, and whole) with Latin American roots, tres leches cake is one of my favorites. I love how it straddles the line between cake and pudding, the soft cake swathed in cool creaminess both atop and below.
This version strays from authenticity with the addition of coconut—three forms of coconut, actually. We’ll add some extract to the cake, swap in coconut milk for evaporated milk in the drizzle and top the whole thing with some sweet toasted coconut shreds.–Molly Gilbert
Coconut Tres Leches Cake FAQs
Can I make this cake ahead of time?
Yes, at least partially. Bake the cake and cool it, then pour the milk mixture over it all. Let your cake soak/cool in the fridge for a few hours or until you’re ready to serve, then make the frosting and finish it up. Traditional tres leches cake is best eaten within the first 48 hours, and we’d recommend the same with this recipe, although you may find that it’ll keep for up to 4 days.
What is the difference between shredded coconut and sweetened coconut?
The difference is in the sugar. Shredded coconut is just coconut with no added ingredients. The shreds will separate very easily and are dry. Sweetened coconut has added sugars, which make it moister and sweeter.
What’s the best way to toast coconut?
Spread it out in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake it in a 350°F (180°C) oven for 3 to 8 minutes, occasionally tossing, until golden brown and fragrant.
Coconut Tres Leches Cake
For the cake
- Nonstick cooking spray
- 2 sticks (8 oz) unsalted butter at room temperature
- 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
- 5 large eggs
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 1/4 cups whole milk
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon coconut extract
For the drizzle
- One (14-ounce) can full-fat coconut milk
- One (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
- 1 cup whole milk
For the frosting
- 2 cups heavy cream cold
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- Zest of 1 lime
- 1 cup sweetened shredded coconut toasted
Make the cake
- Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C) with a rack in the center position. Coat a rimmed baking sheet with nonstick spray.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl with a handheld mixer, beat the butter and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well and scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition (don’t worry if the mixture starts to look curdled; it will come together as you add more ingredients).
- In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
- In a large spouted measuring cup, whisk together the milk, oil, vanilla, and coconut extract.
- Alternate adding the dry and wet ingredients to the egg mixture, starting and ending with the dry ingredients and mixing on low speed after each addition, then mix just until a smooth batter comes together.
- Pour the batter into the prepared baking sheet and spread it evenly to the corners with a large offset spatula. Bake until the sides of the cake pull away from the pan and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes.
Make the drizzle
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the coconut milk, condensed milk, and whole milk.
- Use a toothpick or skewer to poke holes all over the warm cake, then slowly pour the drizzle over the top. It’s important to go slowly here to allow the cake to soak up the drizzle; it will seem like too much, but don’t panic! (Some will be absorbed, and some will create that delicious little lake at the bottom when you slice the cake.)
- Allow the cake to cool completely, about 20 minutes. The cake can be covered and stored in the fridge for several hours before frosting.
Make the frosting
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or in a large bowl with a handheld mixer, whip the cream and sugar until stiff peaks form, 4 to 5 minutes. Use a rubber spatula to gently fold in the lime zest.
- Spread the frosting generously over the cake. Top with the toasted coconut. Serve immediately, or store, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
If you make this recipe, snap a photo and hashtag it #LeitesCulinaria. We’d love to see your creations on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
Recipe Testers’ Reviews
The coconut tres leches cake has a nice moist texture because of the soaked-in drizzle, and the coconut and lime were both evident in the flavour of the finished cake.
For the frosting, I was not sure that granulated sugar would dissolve in the cream and not be gritty, so I used confectioner’s sugar instead as it is much finer in grain and therefore easier to dissolve. I would make the cake again as it is moist and flavourful.
I live in an area with a growing Latin population (primarily Puerto Rican and Dominican) so we have ample opportunity to sample the cuisine related to those cultures, including half a dozen bakeries. Tres leches cake is referred to in the literature as a sponge cake, and this was the first time I’d made one, so I was excited to see how it would turn out.
I don’t have a sheet cake pan as requested in this recipe, but my lasagna pan worked just fine.
The cake went together like a lot of other cakes. The directions were easy, and soon the cake was in the oven, smelling wonderful in short order. Searched high and low for toothpicks. Didn’t find any, so when the cake was out of the oven I used a dinner fork. After mixing the milks, I drizzled the cake, and tipped it side to side so that it didn’t simply run off to the edges.
After cooling I made the whipped cream topping, having made sure to chill the beater and the bowl (thanks Mom!). Coconut on, the cake was complete–and if I wasn’t diabetic, it might not have survived the night. Delicious! I’ll make this again for a special occasion.
I make a lot of tres leches cakes of various types because my brother-in-law loves them. The coconut tres leches cake recipe is straightforward.
Honestly, I do it slightly differently. I use parchment paper at the bottom of the cake pan to ensure that it comes out. I also use a metal pan to cook and then transfer that cake to a glass pan to pour in the milks. This also makes the presentation better. Everyone really liked the coconut milk cake.
I did not use the lime on top even though it makes a nice presentation for a photograph. The toasted coconut by itself was just beautiful. I could see doing a traditional sprinkle on top. If I were going out of the way to use something not in the cake, I would sprinkle with mini chocolate chips.
The only issue I had was with the soaking time. The liquid was not nearly soaked in at 20 min. I covered the cake and cooled it in the fridge. Traditional recipes also have longer cooling/soaking times. I whipped the cream right before serving.
If I were making this again, I would make a little more whipped cream for the top and use vanilla rather than lime zest. I also thought the topping was not quite sweet enough. I tasted it individually before putting it on – maybe a tablespoon or two of powdered sugar to taste.
Coconut milk is one of my favorite ingredients to use in both sweet and savory items- I even have a cornbread recipe in my roster that uses coconut milk!
I have never made tres leches cake before but was intrigued by the swap of evaporated milk for coconut milk. The recipe was straightforward and the timing was accurate mixing the batter.
Since I made only half the recipe, I ended up using a 1/4 sheet pan, which may have made the cake slightly thinner. It cooked faster and the cake was browning at the edges and pulling away from the sides in 30 minutes.
A little more guidance about how long the total time for soaking would have been helpful. I did go slowly but as the recipe noted, it did look like too much liquid so I did end up keeping a little leftover drizzle.
I kept the cooled cake in the fridge for 4 hours before making the whipped cream frosting. Despite looking like the cake was drowning, the finished cake was not as soaked as I expected, so I could certainly have used more of the liquid.
My favorite flavors of the cake were the toasted coconut and lime zest in the whipped cream. Tres leches cake is always very sweet, blame the sweetened condensed milk, but I would have enjoyed a little less sugar and additional lime notes inside of the cake.
I will certainly return to this recipe. It is an easy crowd-pleasing dessert to make for a dinner party and big bonus you can make it ahead and it will only get better with more soaking time.
Originally published October 7, 2022
If you make this recipe, snap a photo and hashtag it #LeitesCulinaria. We'd love to see your creations on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
This tres leches cake with coconut milk is a really easy, great cake. It’s moist, it’s fun, and it smells and tastes great. Next time, I’d like to add a little more acid – maybe one more lime for zesting.
The coconut-vanilla balance is very nice. If you have coconut extract on hand, you’re probably got everything you need at home already.