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Tres leches – Spanish for “three milks” – is a sponge cake soaked in condensed milk, evaporated milk, heavy cream and topped with Italian meringue that is so popular across Latin America it’s become difficult to pinpoint its origin. “Every Central and South American country claims it as its own,” explains Carlos Somoza, who handles marketing for Cuatro Leches Bakery in Miami. “We’re Nicaraguan, so of course we claim it’s Nicaraguan,” he laughs. “But in Miami, we are the ones who made it famous.”
Tres leches’ milky base might make you think it’s more of a pudding than a cake, but it’s not. “A good tres leches holds the shape, retains the form and holds the three milks. It is a cake,” says Carlos’ father, Luis.
The evaporated and condensed milks used in tres leches were created in the pre-refrigeration 1900s when drinking milk could be like playing Russian roulette, as one sip could deliver a fatal dose of tuberculosis, typhoid or salmonella bacteria. Texas pioneer and inventor Gail Borden created condensed milk in the 1850s. He used heat to remove 60% of the moisture and added up to 45% sugar-content that inhibited bacterial growth and made further sterilization unnecessary. It was shelf-stable, posed zero health risk and was actually used for field rations in the Civil War and World War I.
Evaporated milk also has 60% moisture removal and is pasteurized, but it is also homogenized, vitamin-fortified and sterilized with the high heat caramelizing the milk’s natural sugars and turning it light brown. It’s used primarily as a substitute for fresh milk. Condensed milk is used in pies, meringues, puddings, bar cookies, caramel candies and is poured into coffee or tea in parts of Asia and Europe. They’re such radically different products that confusing the two will wreck a recipe unless it’s tres leches which is abundant in both, as well as heavy cream. It was one of the richest desserts around until Luis created Cuatro Leches.
In 1999 Luis went back to Nicaragua for the first time in 20 years and tasted pound cake frosted with dulce de leche, a kind of Latin American caramel made by boiling condensed milk. “I just had this thought to put it on top of our tres leches instead of Italian meringue. We tried it. The bakery staff loved it, the clients loved it. We couldn’t come up with a name so it became Cuatro Leches.”
It’s another contribution to Miami’s Latino culinary community, says Luis. “Every immigrant wave brings something new. We brought tres leches and pio quinto,” the latter a creamy Nicaraguan parfait. “Guatemalans, Cubans, Salvadorans, each wave enriches our lives and you see people in a different light. You’re humanized by the daily contact.” Luis’ history is unique among Miami’s immigrants. The Somozas were the first family of Nicaragua for the better part of the last century. Luis’s grandfather Anastasio Somoza Garcia was president from 1937 to 1957 as were his uncles, Luis Somoza Debayle, 1956 to 1963 and Anastasio Somoza Debayle, deposed by left-wing Sandinista rebels in 1979.
Luis is gracious to those who speak kindly of his family as well as to those who disparage it. “When we went back in 1999 it was like walking into a ghost country. Did you ever read [Isabel] Allende’s ‘House of the Spirits’ or [Gabriel Garcia] Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude?’ It was like that. Everything was the same, but at the same time, not.” The trip conjured up bittersweet memories. “We never thought our family would live in the United States. But, then, most immigrants don’t think that either,” he muses.
When they arrived in 1979 his brothers created a Miami version of a Managua’s most popular steakhouse, Los Ranchos. Luis’ mother, Leonor, began baking tres leches for the restaurant. Thirty years later the bakery supplies desserts to more than 40 Miami-area restaurants as well as to three Los Ranchos.
“Los Ranchos was the first white-tablecloth, European-style steakhouse in Miami,” says Luis, “European in its attention to detail.” Everyone from Jeb Bush to former astronauts to local and national politicians dined there, he says. The Iran-Contra scandal made the restaurant a magnet for the media who consistently used it as a live-shot location. The media “decided that dark capers were going on there,” says Luis. “It was ridiculous. Why would people come to Los Ranchos to overthrow the Sandinistas? Would you say, ‘Hey, let’s go to the most popular place in Miami and talk about it?’ Whenever they interviewed me, I just talked about our food.”
Luis runs the bakery these days with his American-born wife Lillian his son Enrique, who is the master-baker. Grandmother Leonor still comes in to whip up Nicaraguan dishes, sweet and savory, from time to time. “Never a recipe, just a handful of this, a handful of that. That’s it. Whatever she touches, you’re going to like that meal,” says Luis.