Maverick Life


Karen Dudley’s latest cookbook has a Tres Leches Cake that will make you swoon

Karen Dudley’s latest cookbook has a Tres Leches Cake that will make you swoon
Composite image: The Reading List

The closure of popular Cape Town restaurant The Kitchen was quite a life adjustment for owner Karen Dudley. In her latest cookbook Onwards, Dudley used food as a coping mechanism and to carry some deliciousness forward.

Karen Dudley’s life changed massively when she was forced to close her landmark Woodstock restaurant, The Kitchen, in Cape Town during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

In Onwards, Dudley tells the compelling story of how, from those bleak circumstances something beautiful arose, offering the time and space for inspiration to take root again, and for Dudley to rediscover her connection with food. Onwards is a book about the way forward, filled with wholesome, nourishing and indulgent recipes, with a story of hope and happiness threaded throughout.

Like this one.

Try it out yourself!

Tres Leches Cake (and a Good Vanilla Sponge)

When my Sweetheart and I married in 2002, we had a huge party and squashed 200 people into our newly renovated home in Woodstock. A marquee covered the entire front garden, there were no chairs (only benches), a band of township kids played the best jazz, the Woodstock Starlights serenaded us down the road, and my girlfriends made huge crêpe flowers and garlands. 

Surrounded by all those we loved, it was the best party ever. My friend, Meg, and Mama Manzi helped cater everything! There was dancing. There was a piñata. And there was a Tres Leches Cake, a much more glamorous confection than the one I share here (I did not get a tiny crumb of the wedding cake). People swooned! 

Whenever I make this cake, there is much swooning, too. This cake too is a weapon of woo. Stand back carrot, granadilla and coffee cake, and yes, even chocolate cake. This is the winner!

(Serves 12 or more)

For the Vanilla Sponge

200 g soft butter

¾ cup + 1 Tbsp (200 g) castor sugar

4 eggs at room temperature, beaten

1½ cups (200 g) self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

Tiny pinch of salt

2 Tbsp milk 

1 tsp vanilla essence

For the Tres Leches

1 can Ideal milk (evaporated milk)

1 can condensed milk

1 cup fresh cream

Seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean, or 1 tsp vanilla essence



To use this vanilla cake with other fillings such as icing or jam and cream, allow the cake to cool for 5 minutes in its tin, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Preheat the oven to 180°C on the fan setting. Line the bottoms of two round 20 cm cake tins (or one 24 cm cake tin) with baking paper and spray the sides with non-stick baking spray, or butter and flour, to prevent sticking.

In the bowl of an electric stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until light and creamy. (This is the secret to a light, fluffy cake.) With the mixer on a medium speed, slowly add the beaten eggs until combined. Take the bowl from the stand and, with a large spatula, gently fold in the flour, baking powder and salt, alternating with the milk and vanilla essence. Transfer the batter to the prepared cake tins and bake for 20–25 minutes, until a skewer inserted into the centres comes out clean.

While the cakes are baking, whisk all the Tres Leches ingredients well together in a large jug. When the cakes come out of the oven, poke holes all over them with a skewer while in their tins. Slowly drizzle over the Tres Leches until it completely saturates the cakes. 

This cake is most delicious when cold. Leave the soaked cakes a few hours in their tins in the fridge (or overnight). 

Makes 2 × 20 cm cakes or one large 24 cm cake. DM

Onwards by Karen Dudley is published by Penguin Random House SA (R360). Visit The Reading List for South African book news – including recipes – daily. Follow Karen Dudley on Instagram @capetownk.


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