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December 28, 2006

Dulce de Leche — How sweet it is


Oliver Schwaner-Albright's December 24, 2006 New York Times magazine article on the delicious concoction got me so excited I went and made some.

Here's his piece, followed by recipes that appeared along with his story.

    Got Leche?

    My first memory of dulce de leche was when a can of it exploded in the kitchen.

    This was in Los Angeles in 1979, six years after my father fled Chile, and the only way for him to have dulce de leche to spread on toast was if he made it himself. What had once been a labor-intensive process of stirring milk and sugar over a low flame for half a day until it thickened to the consistency of butterscotch had by then been reduced to a one-step recipe with the introduction of sweetened condensed milk: just boil an unopened can for three hours. The only trick is to make sure the water level doesn’t drop too far. But scrubbing the walls occasionally was a small price to pay. A batch never lasted more than a day, and after a while my father would stop bothering with the toast and wander off with the can and a spoon.

    In Chile, dulce de leche is better known as manjar, and on a recent trip there I was reminded of its built-in nostalgia. Children eat it sandwiched between cookies and dipped in chocolate, called an alfajor, or slathered in a sugar donut, called a Berlin. So at a recent meal at Agua, the sophisticated Santiago restaurant, it was a surprise to see a dulce-de-leche semi-frío on the menu. Called a “Nifty,” the semifrozen dessert had a creamy buoyancy that gave it an unexpected delicacy. While diners danced to a Cuban band on the patio, the chef, Cristian Correra, came over to say that even this was a homage, named after a Nestlé ice-cream bar from the ’80s. “I would wait until it almost melted, then I would eat it,” Correra said, explaining that the semi-frío recalled that texture.

    Dulce de leche’s two essential ingredients are milk and sugar, though now almost every brand adds fructose (for shine) and sodium bicarbonate (for color). Unfortunately, most of Chile’s offerings also use chemical preservatives, and they taste like it. Even the most patriotic Chilenos I spoke to admitted that it’s different across the Andes, and if I was to taste something pure I would need to go to Argentina, where they are far more serious about their dulce de leche.

    This is true at La Paila, in the heart of Argentina’s dairy country, which uses only milk from its herd of 700 Holsteins. Twice a day cows are led to the milking shed, which is attached to the plant; the milk slowly caramelizing in the vats upstairs was pasture just a few hours before. When I told the owner, Leslie Widderson — a first-generation Anglophone with the bearing and the Barbour jacket of an English gentleman — that the sweet, steamy air pouring out of the stainless-steel vats was intoxicating, he said, “If you really want a jolt, stir some dulce de leche into your morning coffee and add a shot of brandy.”

    In Uribelarrea, a village settled by Basques a century ago, Horacio and Regina Martinez make Cabras del Salado, a dulce de leche with milk from their small herd of Anglo-Nubian goats. Goat’s-milk dulce de leche — which has a cleaner flavor than cow’s milk — is common in Colombia, where it’s called ariquipe, and in Mexico, where it’s called cajeta, but it’s a novelty in Argentina. After tasting the Martinez’s velvety dulce de leche, we visited the animals, which came when called and soon were trying to eat the buttons off my jacket. It was like visiting a petting zoo that makes dessert.

    Horacio Martinez is an instructor at Don Bosco, an agricultural school where dulce de leche is part of the curriculum. The students pack what they prepare in waxed cardboard containers, which has the same wholesome association as milk in a glass bottle, and sell it in the school store. They also have homey alfajores, each wrapped by hand and tied with a string.

    But the most celebrated alfajores in Argentina are from Havanna bakery, which opened in the beach resort Mar de Plata in 1947; you always brought back a box after a trip to the coast. Their great innovation is the Havannet, an alfajor with only one cookie and three times the dulce de leche. It looks like a gigantic Hershey’s Kiss, and as with a peanut-butter cup, it divides the world into people who attack it top to bottom or nibble around the side.

    Today there are Havanna Cafés all over Buenos Aires, and their colorful display is the first thing you see at the airport duty-free shop. They also sell jars of dulce de leche, which I carefully packed in my carry-on. And when I got home, I didn’t even try to make toast; I just opened a jar and grabbed a spoon.


Dulce de Leche

1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk (containing only milk, sugar, glucose and sodium bicarbonate), label removed.

Place the can in a saucepan and cover with water by at least 1 inch. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer and cook for 3 hours, adding water as needed to keep the can submerged. Remove from the water and let cool for at least 1 hour before opening. Stir until smooth. Makes 1 ¼ cups. Adapted from Oscar Schwaner-Bonvallet.

Nifty (Dulce de Leche Semi-frío)

2 teaspoons (about 1 ¼ -ounce envelope) unflavored gelatin powder
1 ¼ cups heavy cream
1cup dulce de leche, at room temperature
½ cup toasted almonds, finely chopped.

1. Pour the gelatin into a bowl. In a saucepan, heat ¼ cup of the cream until steaming and add to the gelatin. Mix and let stand for 5 minutes.

2. Place the dulce de leche in a large bowl and whisk for 1 minute. Strain the gelatin mixture into the dulce de leche and whisk to incorporate.

3. In a medium bowl, beat the remaining cup of cold cream with an electric hand mixer until it holds soft peaks. Fold a third of the beaten cream into the dulce de leche to incorporate and fold in the remaining cream. Pour into 6 -cup ramekins or muffin cups and freeze until solid.

4. To release, dip the bottoms of the molds in hot water. Place each semi-frío on a plate and garnish with almonds. Serve immediately or leave out for 15 minutes for a softer texture. Serves 6. Adapted from Agua.


1 cup flour
2 teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
1 ¼ cups milk
1 tablespoon butter, more as needed
1 ¼ cups dulce de leche
Sugar for sprinkling
1 pint vanilla ice cream.

1. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, sugar and salt. In another bowl, beat together the eggs and milk. Stir in the flour mixture until smooth. Cover and let rest at room temperature for 30 to 60 minutes.

2. Place a 7-inch crepe pan or nonstick skillet over medium heat. Melt 1 teaspoon butter to grease the pan; then ladle in 3 tablespoons batter, tilting the pan as you pour to coat the bottom. When it starts to brown, after about 30 seconds, flip and cook just until firm, 10 to 15 seconds. Use butter as necessary to keep the batter from sticking. Transfer to a plate to cool.

3. Spread 1 tablespoons dulce de leche two-thirds of the way from the bottom to the top of each crepe. Fold the left and right sides over by 1 inches and then loosely roll up the crepe from bottom to top, finishing with the top flap of the crepe tucked under. The rolled crepes can be covered and refrigerated for up to 8 hours.

4. To serve, preheat a broiler and arrange the panqueque on a broiling dish. Sprinkle with sugar and heat until caramelized. Place 1 or 2 crepes on each plate and top with vanilla ice cream. Serves 6 to 12.

NOTE: Good-quality dulce de leche, like La Salamandra [top], can be purchased at Dean & Deluca or at www.artisansweets.com.

December 28, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Dulce de Leche is 'manjar de los Dioses' (food for the Gods). As a little girl, I'd get small waxed cups full of it with a round cardboard top to keep it sealed until I was ready to ladle it out with the attached little wooden spatula. I always polished off my manjar by the time first recess rolled around. I know all the terms by which it is known in Latin America and have eaten the local versions of many of the countries named in this article. I agree that Argentina takes their dulce de leche seriously. I've had some of the best most creamy manjar in places like Cordoba and Mendoza (Argentina). Don't know why that is the case but it just is. Nevertheless, the taste of manjar is usually the same no matter where unless you are eating old manjar. You'd know that by opening up a container whose manjar edges look crackly or dry.

Syrupy figs stuffed with manjar like the Colombians do, has to be one of my all time favorite sweet foods. It is an orgiastic rush of sugar for the taste buds.

Posted by: Milena | Nov 4, 2008 9:25:16 AM

Has anyone actually had their can explode?

I tried this once and not problem...but it freaked me out the entire time. I have a few cans of milk in my cupboard waiting to try this again, but I've chicken'd out :-)

Posted by: clifyt | Dec 29, 2006 1:01:47 AM

I boil a couple of cans each Christmas. Mmmm. Someone taught us how to do it when were kids.

Posted by: Joan | Dec 28, 2006 5:24:20 PM

David Liebovitz has a 'can-no-go-explodey' recipe for Dulce de Leche here: http://www.davidlebovitz.com/archives/2005/11/#000145

I've made it both ways, and it's worlds less nerve-wracking to do it David's way.

Posted by: Mary Sue | Dec 28, 2006 4:59:15 PM

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