Tuesday, 8 September 2009
A Taste of Home: the Argentinian passion for Dulce de Leche
If you ask any Argentinian expat what things they miss the most from their country, you will almost certainly hear them reply -among other things to be sure, "dulce de leche!" I know I miss it - I miss eating it on my toast every morning or in my pastry on special occasions; and just by talking about it, fond memories of childhood tea-hour when the dulce de leche was nearly always present, spring up in my mind.
We, Argentinians, are known to be passionate about many things, like football or tango - but our love for dulce de leche is definitely as strong and constant as our passion for that sport or the legendary music and dance for which we are known all over the world.
What is dulce de leche, you may ask?
Mmmmmmmmm ..... dulce de leche is........ sticky, rich, sweet, luscious, shiny, smooth, creamy, voluptuous, toothsome, scrumptious, delicious, yammy .... caramelised milk and sugar. Simple as that! It is prepared by slowly heating milk with sugar for a couple of hours until it acquires the desired brownish, and creamy consistency that is typical of this sauce. This happens thanks to a chemical process known as the Maillard reaction, which is responsible for the browning and the flavours of many foods, such as toast, biscuits, roasted meat, roasted coffee, and of course, dulce de leche.
As for its origins, it is not very clear who came up with the idea for the first time or where it was invented, but it is especially popular in Latin American countries: in Mexico it is known as dulce de cajeta (which you don't want to say up loud in Argentina, by the way), in Colombia and Venezuela it is called arequipe, and its goes by the name of manjar blanco in Perú, Chile and Ecuador. In France they have something similar called confiture de lait, which they usually serve with fromage blanc.
In the Americas, the origin is undoubtedly colonial. According to the Argentinian journalist Victor Hugo Decrot in his book "Los sabores de la Patria" (flavours from the fatherland), dulce de leche arrived from Chile, first to the region of Cuyo and from there it passed on to the north in Tucumán, where it quickly became popular as a filling for another local delicacy, the alfajor (a sandwich biscuit we are also very passionate about).
But in Argentina we love our legends and myths (think of Evita, for example), and this sweet delicacy has its own story. We like to think that dulce de leche was discovered by accident, in the year 1829, and that this accident involved two of the most important figures of those turbulent times in Argentinian history: Juan Manuel de Rosas, a political leader and landowner of Buenos Aires, and his archrival, Juan Lavalle.
The legend goes that during a visit that Lavalle paid to his opponent Rosas in his estancia (ranch) to discuss the terms of a pact they were about to sign, he felt exhausted from all the horse-riding and fighting he had been doing, and upon finding the stretch bed of his enemy at hand, decided to take a nap until Rosas arrived for the meeting.
A servant who was there cooking milk with sugar for her boss' mate (an Argentinian kind of tea) later, thought that this was unacceptable, and left the pan with milk on the fire to go out and warn the soldiers about Lavalle's insolence. When Rosas came into the room, he found Lavalle sound asleep and he ordered that he should not be disturbed under any circumstance. When Lavalle woke up, a friendly Rosas ordered the servant to pour the mates for him and Lavalle, at which point the poor woman remembered the pan with the milk she had forgotten on the fire. What she found was a rich dark brown paste that tasted like heaven. She served this caramel to her boss and his guest, who found it very tasty - and this is how dulce de leche was first "discovered" in Argentina 180 years ago!
Just in case, we coined the phrase: "Más argentino que el dulce de leche!" (he/she/it is or I am more Argentinian than dulce de leche)
Whether this myth about the origin of dulce de leche is true or not, what remains certain is that Argentinians can't live without it. We grow up eating it, for breakfast or for tea, spread on bread and butter. We also find it on many recipes that are classic desserts usually prepared at home, like panqueques (crepes), alfajores ( sandwich biscuits) and flan (a soft caramel custard). Piononos (a sort of swiss roll), croissants, pastry and cakes are filled with dulce de leche and it is an icecream flavour as well. Dulce de leche candy is a big favourite with both, children and grown-ups - never mind how challenging it is afterwards to remove the sticky bits from your teeth when you eat it!
And the word is spreading: the worldwide known American brand Häagen-Dazs, offers a dulce de leche icecream, a flavour "inspired by the Latin American treasured dessert" which combines caramel and sweet cream, "swirled with ribbons of golden caramel", as it reads on their products menu.
Also the famous American chain Starbucks, offered in 2007, a dulce de leche special version of their frappuccino, a frozen coffee drink for which Starbucks has created different varieties.
The Girl Scouts of the USA have been "converted", too: for their annual sales programme in 2008, they came out with dulce de leche cookies for the South Florida area, targetting in that way the large Argentinian and Latin American population of this part of the state.
Outside Argentina, dulce de leche can be found in supermarkets in countries with large Argentinian communities, like the States, Spain or Italy. Here in the Netherlands, it is not widely available though.
In some of the big supermarket chains here in the big cities, you may be lucky to find it, but so far I haven't seen it in any of the supermarkets in my area.
There are several online shops that sell dulce de leche and other products from my part of the world, like Mate-tee from Germany where I normally buy my Argentinian tea (mate).
Then of course, you can try making it from scratch, which is fun to do, too. Here's the recipe:
2 l. of milk
500 g. of sugar
1 vainilla pod or 1 teaspoon of vainilla extract
1 small teaspoon of baking soda
1 teaspoon of corn syrup (optional, the glucose in it helps to keep the caramel moist and thick)
In a thick-bottomed saucepan bring the milk to the boil first, and then add all the other ingredients stirring with a wooden spoon until the sugar is completely dissolved. Turn the gas down and cook for about 2 to 3 hours or until the caramel reaches the desired consistency and colour. The longer you cook it, the thicker and darker the dulce de leche will be.
When it is ready, turn the gas off, let it out to cool and then you can put it in a jar, seal it and keep it in the fridge.
If you are going to use it to fill pastry or prepare any other recipe with it, take it out of the fridge beforehand and allow to reach room temperature. This will make it easier to spread or mix.
Give it a try: spread it on your toast, fill your pastry with it, spread it on your sponge cake or your pancakes. I assure you will find it hard to resist the temptation of just eating it with a spoon from the jar and thinking, every time you try to put it away:
"Quiero más dulce de leche!"
Note: I would like to thank my good friends Andrea Sosa de Rauhofer (from Uruguay) and Bianca Pacheco de Zafra (from Venezuela) for contributing with their own photos of dulce de leche Chimbote and arequipe Alpina. Gracias, amigas!
Also, many thanks to Claudia Gibson (from Córdoba, Argentina) for letting me use her photos for this blog entry. Very generous of you, Claudia! Thanks!