It is found everywhere in the world, but especially in Argentina since the seventeenth century. Dulce de leche is everywhere: in pancakes (more specifically in a traditional pancake cake called torre panqueques), on waffles, or on toast for breakfast. But some people prefer to taste it directly from the pot with a spoon!
Dulce de leche is very simple to make and can be kept well for several months in sterilized jars. The technique for success is to use a little elbow grease, because it must be stirred all the time with a wooden spoon so that it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.
Origin of dulce de leche
There are many stories about the origin of dulce de leche. In Argentina, legend has it that this milk jam appeared after a fortuitous event that occurred in the city of Cañuelas in 1829, during a meeting between General Lavalle and his cousin (and political enemy), General Juan Manuel de Rosas.
The two protagonists were about to meet to sign a peace treaty on the ranch of the latter located in the area of La Matanza, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Lavalle was the first to arrive and, as we was tired, he rested on the bed of Rosas to take a nap. The servant of Rosas, who was boiling milk with sugar to prepare a lechada (a popular preparation known at the time as an emulsion) to accompany the mate in the afternoon, found Lavalle sleeping on the bed of her employer. Outraged, she thought of this act as an act of disrespect and went to warn the guards. Shortly after, Rosas arrived, and did not get angry with Lavalle. He begged the maid to bring the mate back with the milk. She remembered then that she had left the milk and sugar on the stove and let it reduce for longer than expected. As she returned to look for the lechada, the maid found a thick, brownish cream with a sweet taste. This milk jam actually pleased Rosas and he shared it with Lavalle while discussing the points of the peace treaty. Dulce de leche was born!
The same story is also told in other countries, but on a battlefield and with Napoleon and his cook as protagonists. In 1998, the famous Argentine chronicler Víctor Ego Ducrot, in his book on the Argentinian gastronomy Los Sabores de La Historia, explains that the anecdote of Rosas is actually a myth derived from a mysterious story that had occurred twelve years prior in Chile. According to him, the introduction of this milk jam along the river Plata (Rio de la Plata) and Peru would have occurred after the arrival of the Army in the Andes Mountains in Chile in 1817. Also, it turns out that the main person responsible for the popularity of the dulce de leche was the Argentine liberator José de San Martín, who instead of sweetening his mate with the traditional milk emulsion lechada, used milk jam (called manjar). San Martin loved this dulce de leche so much that he decided to go to Peru on an expedition with several bottles of milk jam for him and his men.
In Brazil, there is a story dated 1773 that mentions the availability of dulce de leche in the state of Minas Gerais.
In Paraguay, the story of its creation is between 1819 and 1825.
Argentinian historian Daniel Balmaceda, in his book La Comida en historia Argentina, relates that dulce de leche was created in Indonesia, South-East Asia, and that it was later shipped to the islands of the Philippines, around the 6th century. Filipino navigators from the Pacific then introduced it to America, first to Mexico, and from there, dulce de leche spread throughout the continent.
October 11: National Day of Dulce de Leche
Since 1998, the Dulce de Leche Festival has been celebrated every October 11th. The “World Dulce de leche Day” is celebrated in Argentina to pay homage to the national dessert, declared “Food and Culinary Cultural Heritage of Argentina”. The choice of the date is not random! According to the official version, October 11th would be the day of 1829 when Rosas’s maid accidentally invented the national milk jam.
Dulce de leche in numbers
Hugely popular in Latin and Central America, its consumption has spread to different parts of the world, although it has not been able to reach levels recorded in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. In Argentina, the highest consumption was recorded in 2012, reaching 3.10 kg per capita (per year), followed by Chile with 1.8 kg. The sweet milk production plants in Argentina produced, according to 2010 data, a historic record of 131,000 tons of milk jam, of which 7,186 were exported (Chile is the main importer). Average annual production during the decade 2001-2010 was 115,500 tons, or 14.7% more than in the 1990s.
Dulce de leche around the world
This milk jam is commonly known as dulce de leche in Argentina, Bolivia, Central America, Spain, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Ecuador and some provinces of Colombia. However, you can find it under other names around the world.
In Nicaragua, milk jam takes the name of bollo de leche (to avoid any confusion, it is distinguished from a sweet delicacy called cajeta de leche, which is produced from dulce de leche and which is solid).
In Mexico, people talk about cajeta when they refer to a milk jam made from goat’s milk. If this same dulce de leche (made from goat’s milk) is prepared in the oven, allowing the sweetened milk to evaporate and scorch, people talk about cajeta quemada or dulce de leche horneada. If whole cow’s milk is used, then it is simply called dulce de leche.
In Cuba, people enjoy fanguito.
In Ecuador, it is known as manjar de leche.
In France, dulce de leche takes the name of confiture de lait. A less caramelized version is typical of the regions of Brittany, Normandy and Savoy.
How to make dulce de leche
There are two recipes for making dulce de leche. The first one uses a can of sweetened condensed milk, which is placed in a saucepan in a bain-marie for 2 to 3 hours over low heat. This method gives a dulce de leche that is thicker, grainier and lighter in color than the one I am sharing with you. The difference lies also in the taste.
This method works very well but it takes more than two hours and the taste is closer to that of sweetened condensed milk. The visual result is the one closest to the most popular (the lighter version of dulce de leche), but is not as close to the taste of the traditional dulce de leche.
I am sharing with you the traditional recipe, that is to say the second method which is a recipe made with milk, sugar, and baking soda.
As someone who has tested both methods, I can tell you that the traditional recipe made with milk is the best. It has a rich taste of milk and is very creamy.
- 4 cups whole milk
- 1 pinch baking soda
- 1⅖ cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
- Pour the two tablespoons of water into the bottom of a saucepan and thoroughly wet the bottom of the pan with this water.
- Then pour the milk, baking soda and sugar.
- Heat over medium heat, while stirring to dissolve the sugar.
- Once the preparation begins to boil, lower the heat and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally for about 45 minutes.
- At this point, the preparation should have thickened.
- Continue cooking, stirring very frequently until the mixture thickens and turns golden brown.
- Stop cooking when the consistency suits you. However, make sure the mixture does not to get too thick as it hardens a little while cooling.
- Pour the jam into a glass jar.
- Dulce de leche can be kept in the refrigerator.