When I first visited Argentina, I was introduced to the idea of merienda, a light meal or tea, that is frequently eaten late in the afternoon. Being from the United States, I was used to my three square meals and had trouble making room for a fourth. However, once I had some fresh bread from a local bakery smeared with a delicious caramel colored topping, I was hooked. My host mother told me this topping was called dulce de leche, which is Spanish for “candy of milk”. While each country has its own unique way of preparing it, they all involve heating sweetened milk to caramelize the sugar in it. The resulting confection can have many different consistencies depending on its intended use. It can be hardened into candy or left runny enough to be used a sauce.
Here in the United States, it can be bought both canned and in refrigerated containers under several different names. I found it under both dulce de leche and the brand name “La Lechera”. Just because you may look for it in a store that caters to Hispanic clientele, does not mean the clerks will know what you are looking for. Its use and name varies by the culture. It can be found in places as different as France and India, Poland and the Philippines, depending on what it is paired with. I personally love to use it in conjunction with peanut butter, which was something the Argentines did not understand. Not only did they not really care for the taste of peanut butter, but it was almost impossible to find over there. (I had to ration the little jar of peanut butter that my roommate left me so I did not run out during the last month I was there.)
Dulce de leche is a great and unexpected thing to use when cooking. For a simple way to use it, switch it in recipes where you would normally use caramel or even chocolate. It makes a great layer filling in cakes or drizzled on top of cupcakes. Even something simple like a peanut butter sandwich gets an unexpected delicious twist when you mix in a little dulce de leche. There are even some brands that have embraced this flavor and used it to make ice cream. The possibilities are limited only by the imagination. I have made several different cakes with it for parties and have gotten rave reviews. The next time you are looking for something unique to make your cooking stand out, try dulce de leche.