Posted on March 10 2015
I have been eating my way through Latin America for most of my life. It all began in Los Angeles, California, which in most aspects, is the most northern part of Latin America. It is where I learned to eat churros, arroz con leche and dulce de leche. Then I spent some of my college life in Mexico and Cuba, where I was introduced to different versions of these sacred desserts, and currently, I am living in Brazil and feel that the more I visit other countries, the less I know about what I think I know. With my knowledge of desserts while living in California and Mexico, I thought I was done. I knew it all.
Now that I am living next to Argentina, the country that claims to have invented dulce de leche, I am completed inspired to find the real roots of this candy.
Dulce de leche: Mexico, Central America, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Spain, Philippines, Puerto Rico
Arequipe: Colombia, Venezuela
Manjar: Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile
Doce de leite: Brazil
*Food laws in Colombia state that any caramelized milk/sugar mixture is arequipe or dulce de leche. Any caramelized milk, sugar, flour or cornstarch mixture is a manjar.
Depending on the country, it can be used as a spread for bread and cakes, as a filling for churros or crepes, a cookie center, topping on ice cream, or cut into squares. Sometimes it is called dulce de leche, manjar, arequipe or doce de leite. All of it means cows milk caramel. Not to be confused with Mexico's famous goat's milk caramel, cajeta.
Although most Latin countries think they invented this milk caramel, the art of refining sugar from cane happened in India 2,500 years ago. And milk has long been the star ingredient in Hindu desserts - milk and sugar had been cooked together since around 400 BCE.
Europeans found sugar around the year 1000 in what is now the Syrian coast and it would take 200 years for Italians to dominate sugar trade in Europe. Up until the 1400's sugar cane was only planted in the Mediterranean and managed by Italian companies. Then the Portuguese planted cane on their new island, Madeira. But up to this point, climate was never ideal. Christopher Columbus, supported by the Portuguese, realized that tropical islands were optimal for this crop. First it was planted on Sao Tome and finally in Brazil by the 16th century.
1502- First Europeans arrive in Argentina
1550's- Cattle are brought to Argentina
1550's- There are 800 sugar mills in Santa Catarina, Brazil- neighboring Argentina.
1653- Le pastissier françois (first pastry book published in France)
1815- Le Pâtissier royale parisien (the famous pastry cookbook by Antonin Carême is published)
1829- Argentina claims dulce de leche is born near Buenos Aires. Created by a servant who accidentally left milk and sugar to boil (instead of only heating it to use with coffee). I am in the process of testing this "theory".
1857- First French immigrants arrive to Argentina
This is a work in progress. I haven't yet reached my conclusion but am still working on cracking this case. There is absolutely no proof that it was invented in Argentina. But there is not any proof that it was invented anywhere else.
If I had to prove that Argentina invented dulce de leche, I would use this argument:
At the same time you had sugar cane planted in Brazil, you had European migration into Argentina and large amounts of land allotted for cattle farming. Europeans already had knowledge of using and loving sugar, and now they had a lot of milk available to them. Like India, Argentina found itself with a lot of milk and needed to preserve it somehow, without refrigeration. Aside from making cheese, or boiling the milk for drinking up to a few days later - candying was the other way to preserve it. Because India has constant hot climate, milk had to be reduced to its fat and protein, removing all water content- it can resemble a sticky powdered milk. Argentina is a cool climate and can afford the boiled milk candy to retain some of its moisture, or in other words, the milk did not have to be reduced to its solids. The dulce de leche we recognize now would spoil quickly in India. But I am still not 100% convinced. While I try to find more proof, please try this recipe at home!
There are many ways to make this famous caramel. You can use whole milk, fresh milk, heavy cream, canned milk, sweetened condensed milk, or powdered milk. And any combination of all these. Once the mixture begins to look darker and thicker, it is up to you when you want to stop cooking. The longer you cook, the thicker it will get. The longer you cook it, the more you risk it crystallizing. In Mexico, dulce de leche is allowed to crystallized and thicken so it can be cut into squares when it cools. It's not a bad thing, it is a preference thing. Optional ingredients for any of these recipes: vanillla, cinnamon stick, baking soda, salt.
1. Canned Sweetened Condensed Milk recipePros: easy, no recipe
Cons: wastes a lot of water, takes 1-2 hours, flavor is plain
- 1 can of sweetened condensed milk
- Tall pot, enough to fit the can and space for the water to cover the can
- Many liters of water, enough to cover the can and boil for 1-2 hours
Place the can of sweetened condensed milk in the pot, cover with enough water to go over the can and make sure the water is always above the can. Boil for 1-2 hours. The longer you boil, the darker your dulce de leche will be. The first can below, I boiled for 1 hour, the second can, I boiled for 2 hours. Flavor is slightly different but not enough of a difference to spend the extra hour. You can consume as is, it is officially now dulce de leche. You can also add vanilla for depth of flavor.
2. Peruvian Manjar recipePros: simple to make, simple recipe to follow, good flavor, fast (about 30minutes)
Cons: you have to stir constantly, can burn easily
- 1 can evaporated milk (or whole milk 350ml)
- 1 can sweetened condensed milk (400g)
- 1 teaspoon of vanilla (or 1/2 a cinnamon stick)
- The ratio is closely 1 to 1 of evaporated milk to condensed milk. If you have 200 grams of milk, add 200 grams of sweetened condensed milk. A few grams or ml difference will not make a big difference.
Boil all ingredients on low and stir constantly to avoid burning. This will take about 45 minutes. Once it turns a darker color you can turn off the heat. The caramel will harden as it cools. Turn heat off when it’s a little creamier than you will want it. It will continue to harden.
3. Dulce de Leche with whole/fresh milk recipePros: tastes the best
Cons: you have to have fresh milk available, takes 1-2 hours, can burn or crystallize
- 4 cups (1 liter) of fresh milk or whole milk
- 1.5 cups (300 grams) of sugar (can be white or mixture of white and brown)
- 1 small cinnamon stick (ceylon)
- 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda (not required but makes it darker)
1. Boil milk, sugar and cinnamon stick on medium for 1-2 hours. Add baking soda about an hour into it if you want the color to darken. This batch below did not have baking soda.
When I was twelve years old my mother shipped me away for the summer to live with my aunt in a remote village in Mexico. My most vivid memory of that summer was the endless pots we made of dulce de leche. The cows were milked in the morning and in the late afternoon we would start the fire (no stoves), put the milk to simmer, add sugar, a cinnamon stick and watch it transform. After about an hour of watching and stirring it became a thick caramel. We ate it with a spoon until it was completely gone.
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