If we had to pick one thing that Argentinians did right (aside from parilla and alfajores, artful cities and beautiful countryside), it would have to be dulce de leche. This sweet, milky caramel is up there with Belgian chocolates and Austrian pastries, and lucky for us, it's easily accesible. Not only can you find this silky confection at many specialty food shops, but it's also incredibly simple to make in your own kitchen. All you need is a can of sweetened condensed milk and a little bit of time.
Dulce de leche, which quite literally translates to "sweetness of milk," is a combination of sugar and milk that has been cooked down until caramelized. An Argentinian legend says that this treat was discovered when a woman heating milk and sugar forgot about what she was cooking and came back to find the mixture caramelized -- a very happy mistake indeed.
And if she can do it, so can you. Get in the kitchen, follow the recipe below, and whip up a batch.
If you're a traditionalist
In a large saucepan, heat 4 cups milk with 1-1/2 cups sugar and 1/4 tsp vanilla on medium heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is simmering. Add 1/4 tsp baking soda, stir it in and allow to cook for 1-2 hours at barely a simmer (continue stirring). Cook the milk until you've reached the desired level of thickness and caramelization. You're looking for a pudding-like consistency and a golden-brown color.
If you're a fan of convenience
As you can see in the video above, making this treat can be as easy as boiling water. All you need is a can of sweetened condensed milk and a pot of water. Remove the label from the can and add two holes to the top (either with a hammer and nail or a simple can opener) to prevent the cans from exploding. Place in a large pot with water (enough to reach almost the top of the cans). Bring the water to a simmer and cook until that beautiful golden color is achieved. There's no stirring required here, but be sure that you keep adding water to the pot as it has a tendency to evaporate. If you want a soft dulce de leche, cook for three hours; for a harder one it could take up to five.
How to enjoy it
Dulce de leche is great eaten straight from the jar with a spoon, and it's also delicious served on top of fruit, bread, cakes and cookies. One great use of this confection is the alfajor, a typical Latin American cornstarch cookie sandwiched with dulce de leche. If you include this ingredient into your baking, you treats will surely stand apart from the rest. Check out the recipes below for ideas.
Rich Chocolate Cake with Salty Dulce de Leche & Hazelnut Brittle
Dulce de Leche Ice Cream Sandwiches with Mexican Wedding Cookies
Butter Cookies with Dulce de Leche
Chocolate-Covered Sandwich Cookies with Dulce de Leche
If you're not up for making your own dulce de leche, you can easily find it already made. It's available at nearly any Latin American grocery store, specialty food shop, or online. There are a number of great brands out there such as La Salamandra (available at Amazon for $7.99) or San Ignacio (for $10.99).
Do you like dulce de leche? Leave a comment.