A couple of days ago, the sunny weather was gone, replaced with a threatening dark sky. I sensed it would be a day to stay at home and make something that would benefit from long, slow cooking in view of the very high chance of being soaked if I ventured outside (if you are interested, I did pop out later, and I did indeed get drenched). I’d been keen to try dulce de leche for a while, so this was my chance.
So why make this? Well, why not? I have a few jam jars sitting empty since I finished all my bramble jelly, and I happen to like this stuff. Dulce de leche (which translates as “sweetness of milk” – nice!) is a South American classic, which (I believe) originates in Argentina, although each nation now seems to have its own version. It involves slowly cooking sugar and milk over a gentle heat until it is thick and golden. The scientific explanation that the mixture undergoes caramelisation and the Maillard reaction (which is the responsible for why a whole range of foods taste good when they have been cooked), but I like to think of it more like magic. It is amazing how such simple ingredients become something so good. By sheer luck, the timing of this post coincides with Argentina’s kick-off match in the World Cup. Perhaps I will blog about foods depending on who is playing that day? Hmmm…
I’m good on the theory, but how would I actually make the stuff? Lacking easy access to the secret recipe of an Argentinian grandmother, I did a little research and very quickly found the classic quantities seem to be 500g of sugar to 1 litre of milk. However, I felt this was a lot of sugar. I like jams that contain a lot of fruit relative to the sugar, so I wondered if I could try something similar here. Eventually, I came across one version at Chez Pim where she had grappled with the very same issue, and had tried using 500g of sugar to 2 litres of milk with good results. I took a leap of faith, and decided to use similar quantities.
I filled one large pot with whole milk, sugar and a teaspoon of salt. Not every recipe seems to call for salt, but I think it is essential for caramel or fudge. It doesn’t render the final result salty (unless you use too much!) but instead it adds an extra dimension to the final flavour, and just cuts off any excessive sweetness. Some recipes also use vanilla, but I was after a “pure” flavour, so didn’t use any.
I brought the mixture to a boil, stirring all the time with a whisk. It developed a foam on top (like a very, very, very large latte) and…well, I left it to simmer very gently for around 4 hours. Dramatic or exciting cooking this ain’t. Fearful that it could burn on the bottom of the pan and/or that there would be a dry skin on top of the milk, I kept popping back every 10 minutes for another quick whisk. All a bit OCD, I know.
After all that cooking, I had four jars of golden, smooth caramel. Happy days. The end product is smooth and tastes of caramel, but there is also an intense milkiness and the overall result is well-balanced and not too sweet (possibly the salt?). I wanted something that I could spread on bread, or stir into yoghurt or use in a cake, and I got just what I was looking for. Result!
I do wonder what my change to the recipe did to the final result. The final dulce de leche has just a little texture to it (as you can see in the picture), which I put down to the higher than usual proportion of milk solids, but it was still delicious and probably creamier than if I had used more sugar to milk. The texture using more sugar would probably have been smoother, but it would also have been much sweeter and more like a caramel sauce. So on balance, I like it my way!
For 4 jars of dulce de leche:
• 2 litres of whole milk
• 500g granulated white sugar
• 1 teaspoon of salt
Put all the ingredients to a large, wide pot. You must allow quite a lot of space for the mixture to bubble up – it will, and when it does, if your pot is too small, you will be scraping burnt milk and sugar from the stove for quite some time.
Whisk the mixture well to dissolve the sugar and salt, and bring slowly to the boil. You will know the mixture is boiling as the foam that forms on top due to the whisking will seem to expand. Turn down the heat, and let it sit on a very, very low heat so it is just simmering. Allow to cook, stirring occasionally, until reduced and golden in colour (you will probably get one-sixth of the original volume at the end). I checked every 10-15 minutes and gave it a stir with the whisk to stop things from sticking. The cooking time can vary, and in my case, took nearly 4 hours.
The texture you are aiming for is like custard – place a little on a cool plate, and it should hold its shape.
Once ready, pour into sterilised jars, seal, allow to cool and store in the fridge.
Worth making? Yes! If you like caramel, you will love this dulce de leche. I have made caramel using tinned condensed milk in a pan of hot water, which undoubtedly works and is quicker, but the flavour from this method is far superior. It is a breeze to make, you just need to be around the house for a few hours, but you are rewarded with a sweet treat that will last for weeks, assuming a modest degree of self-control.