Dulce de leche is sweetened condensed milk that has been allowed to caramelise in a hot water bath, creating a rich caramel that is beloved of Argentinians and fellow Latin Americans. Thanks to the influence of recipe blogs – and the Hispanic-American consumer – it’s increasingly rhapsodised in the English-speaking world too.
In Argentina it is a central element of sweets and desserts: the glue in their famous sandwich cookies alfajores, the luscious filling in breakfast pastries, doughnuts or churros, as a spread on toast, or a topping on ice cream. An helado (gelato) bar in Argentina doesn’t just stock a dulce de leche variety; it features dulce de leche in multiple executions: with banana; with fruit and nuts; with coffee; with cookies; with crushed almonds; with chocolate; with cinnamon.
In 2003 Argentina took a claim to UNESCO to recognise dulce de leche as one of its unique national products. This claim was swiftly refuted by Uruguay who argued the confection’s heritage was not limited to Argentinian borders.
It is enjoyed all over Latin America with minor variations and with different names. In Mexico it’s normally made with goats milk and is known as cajeta.
Trusted bloggers like pastry chef David Lebovitz have helped spread the dulce de leche love across the English-speaking food web by explaining how to make it (boiling condensed milk in its own can is not recommended…) and what to do with it – all captured in images that have you drooling over your keyboard.
Here in Auckland, New Zealand, we have a growing Latin American community, spurred by the availability of working holiday visas. On a recent visit to Waiheke Island I found two Argentinian cafes and one Argentinian food truck; apparently a lot of travellers have worked in the wine sector and ended up staying. Dulce de leche products dominated the sweet menus, and why not?
Meanwhile, over in corporate America, test kitchens have been cooking up dulce de leche too. It has been employed as both an exotic flavour extension and an open grab for the fastest-growing ethnic population in the United States: Hispanic-Americans.
Starbucks and Haagen Dazs have been dabbling in dulce de leche flavours since the late 1990s, back when they were so-called ‘premium brands’ focusing on customers that liked to try something new. These days, the Latino influence on corporation-produced food in the US is all about reaching the 50 million Hispanic-Americans.
Even the First Family of American breakfast cereals – Cherrios – has just released a dulce de leche flavour. (Here is a review of the Cherrios in the Huffington Post – it’s not particularly favourable…but that doesn’t mean it won’t sell.) Targeting Latinos is hardly risky for the manufacturer – they had already attributed huge recent sales growth to their Hispanic-American consumers. But for dulce de leche, featuring on the Cherrios box really is hitting the mainstream.
Back to rhapsodising: dulce de leche is divine, and it’s definitely worth making at home – at least once.
Making dulce de leche
Pour the contents of a can of sweetened condensed milk into a baking dish. Place the baking dish in a roasting tin and fill the roasting tin with water so it reaches up the sides of the baking dish (creating a bain marie). Cover with foil. It takes about an hour and a half to caramelise in a 220 C oven.
Or follow pastry chef David Lebovitz’s description of dulce de leche and instructions here.
Where to buy dulce to leche in Auckland
Dulce As is a small Auckland company importing Argentine foods including dulce de leche and alfajores. You can buy their products online. Dulce de leche is $8.50 for a jar.
Nestlé Highlander condensed milk has a variety called ‘Caramel’ which is caramelised condensed milk – they don’t use the term dulce de leche. This is about $4.00 in supermarkets.
If you want to try cajeta – the Mexican goats milk variation – it is available at Mexican Specialities, online, or at 5/92 Marua Road, Ellerslie. It is $10 a jar.