A World of Dulce de Leche

Its history includes a bareback-riding princess
A World of Dulce de Leche

Kevin Marple

Six years ago, in 2010, when the creamy caramel called dulce de leche (literally, candied milk) was declared in Buenos Aires to be part of “Argentina’s cultural and gastronomic heritage”, there was a big furor elsewhere, particularly in Uruguay, where the reaction was immediate. No doubt there was just as much indignation among the Chileans, Peruvians, Colombians, and Mexicans, and even the French, all of whom – among many other countries – claim to be the creators of this caramel treat, which they say should be called, respectively, dulce de leche, manjar, arequipe, cajeta, or confiture de lait.

I was offered this sweet in France as one of the glories of the local cuisine. There’s a much-embellished story among the French that tells of Napoleon’s soldiers receiving a daily ration of hot sweetened milk. One day a cook, terrified by the heat of battle, left the milk and sugar burning on the stove, and the mixture turned into a caramelized cream. Thus, he entered the history of France as the inventor of the confiture de lait. A friend, a journalist and historian, once decided to unravel this tangle of stories, but he gave up in exhaustion when he found records 5,000 years old which pointed out the medicinal effects of caramelized milk.

To experience the most authentic and exquisite creamy-style dulce de leche, I recommend that you fly to Punta del Este in Uruguay. Can you imagine that this tiny country has a princess, an Austrian aristocrat, who makes dulce de leche? Yes, Lætitia Marie Madelaine Susanne Valentine Belzunce d’Arenberg is not only a princess; she breeds Arab horses and has many companies which she manages, among them an establishment that produces sophisticated dairy products, including Lapataia dulce de leche.

Confectioner’s dulce de leche has a greater consistency, so that it can be used as a filling for puff pastry, a topping for cakes, and in the form of tablets and wafers; the more conventional creamy kind is usually offered as an accompaniment to crème caramel and creams. Other, more liquid versions are used as a topping for ice cream.

The inexhaustible human imagination continues to find uses for this very old delicacy. Today even Häagen-Dazs ice cream has a dulce de leche flavour. In October 2015, the Moscow city council chose as the city’s official dessert a cake that incorporates one of the city’s most typical and traditional sweet treats: dulce de leche, of course.

Take 100 g of drinking chocolate, bitter or bittersweet, and grate it as finely as possible. Splash in 70 ml heavy cream, 3 tablespoons milk, and finally 250 g creamy dulce de leche. Heat the whole mixture in the microwave. Serve in the conventional container for fondue, most importantly with fondue skewers. I recommend: strawberries, bananas, pears, peaches, wafer biscuits, sweet sponge fingers, and candied fruit.

First of all, do not use cornstarch as a thickening or vanilla, which masks the fine taste of good whole cow’s milk. You will need a gallon of that milk, a kilogram of cane sugar and half a teaspoon of baking soda. A large copper pot would do very well. For stirring (for at least two hours) while preventing the mixture from sticking to the bottom, a little branch trimmed from a fig tree is better than a wooden spoon. That’s how you’ll get a kilo of the best dulce de leche in the world.