Thursday, February 22, 2007

An Ode to Dulce de Leche

In a conversation at wine club last night, a woman who works at the US Embassy affirmed our feelings about peanut butter being the food Americans miss most when abroad. But the funny thing was our friend Maria Jose's puzzled yet ardent response: "But we have dulce de leche here!" And she's not alone in her sentiment. Argentines truly feel dulce de leche is better than any other spreadable sweet treat in the world, and they might be right.

Beyond beef, there is nothing more predominant in Argentine cuisine that dulce de leche. You can find it oozing hot in an empanada. You can find it stuffed in facturas (croissant-like pastries). You can find it in alfajores, or Spanish-style cookies with two sweet biscuits joined by a layer of dulce de leche in the middle. You can find it tucked in masas (bite-sized desserts.) You can find it as ice cream, both as a base flavor or as an accent or ribbon in other flavors. (Not surprisingly, it is the most popular flavor of ice cream here.) You can even find it in chewy tablet form. There is artesan dulce de leche. Organic dulce de leche. You name it - it exists.

Everything in this entire case of masas below has dulce de leche in it some way or another. In fact, there are whole sections of confiterias (pastry shops) devoted to things with dulce de leche. In the world of desserts here, it's sort of like the haves (having dulce de leche) and the have-nots (not having dulce de leche)!

So what exactly is dulce de leche? It's looks and tastes like caramel in many ways but with one important difference. Caramel is made by boiling sugar and water. Dulce de leche is made by boiling sugar and milk. As a result, it is thicker and creamier, sort of like a jam. It also has a distinctive, nearly-burnt-milk flavor. Compared to caramel, it's undoubtably the richer, more indulgent of the two. Although caramel is certainly popular in the States, it's not something that Americans eat every day. For Argentines, dulce de leche is.

Below is a photo of one of the most famous Argentine brands of alfajores made with dulce de leche. We are bringing them to Peru as a present for Matt Gehrke, the friend we're staying with in Lima during our brief pit stop on the way back to LA. (He requested them after a visit to Buenos Aires convinced him of their greatness.) Sorry for the bad photography by the way - I couldn't figure out how to turn the flash off!

A final tidbit. There are different legends about how dulce de leche came to be. Most involve some famous person's cook inadvertently leaving milk and sugar on the stove for too long. One story has it originating in Argentina. Another in France. Who knows for sure, but it's wildly popular in all of South America, so I might vote for the Argentina birthplace story.

In contrast, dulce de leche didn't become widely known in the US until Haagen-Dazs introduced it as an ice cream flavor in 1998. But if you've ever had the Haagan-Dazs, let me just say it's nothing in comparison to the dulce de leche ice cream at Argentina's two best ice cream chains, Freddo ( ) and Persicco ( And best of all...they deliver!


At February 22, 2007 at 11:43 AM , Anonymous Kelly Crook said...

Thanks for the lesson on Dulce de Leche, being a huge fan of the food network I appreciate all thing pertaining to food. And the yummy pictures look amazing...I'm getting hungry!


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