WHEN MY HUSBAND opened a coffee shop this fall, it was with the help of Leticia Ramos, a new employee from Brazil. Lively as a spark, Ramos immediately won over everyone with her erudition, her beauty, and the uniquely South American way she snaps her wrist when making a point.
I fell for her when she made dulce de leche, or in her native Portuguese, doce de leite (“sweet milk”), the addictive caramel-like sauce that is a staple of so many Latin American desserts, including alfajor, a traditional sugar cookie. Ramos’s doce de leite is made with nothing more than whole milk and cane sugar, cooked long and slow. The result is silken, tawny, and thick enough that it can’t be shaken off a spoon. Depending on how long you cook it, doce de leite’s flavor can run from a sweet caramel that slides along the tongue to a subtle tang akin to what you might taste in goat’s milk.
Sampling some, I wondered why it hasn’t caught on here in the States. Everything you need to prepare it can probably be found in your kitchen. Plus, who couldn’t use a batch of all-purpose sweet-and-creamy goodness, ready to be spooned over ice cream, stirred into flan, drizzled on cheesecake, and smeared onto cookies? In Brazil, they sometimes add whole prunes or grated coconut to the doce and serve it with a fresh cheese similar to thick, plain yogurt. France’s version, confiture de lait, is spread on a warm baguette. At my husband’s coffee shop, we stir a demitasse spoon of doce de leite into a shot of hot espresso.
While Ramos insists on a more labored approach to cooking doce de leite, Jeff McCarthy, pastry chef at Ten 01, isn’t against taking shortcuts. His version—which the restaurant uses to make a delicious ice cream he serves with chocolate cake—starts with a can of sweetened condensed milk that simmers, unopened, in a pressure cooker. The outcome is tantalizing. “Crack open the can, and it’s the most beautiful caramel,” McCarthy says. The recipe is a riff on a version by cookbook author David Lebovitz, whose own minimalist preparation entails simply pouring a can of sweetened condensed milk into a pie tin, flecking it with sea salt, covering, and baking.
Any way you swirl it, the versatile sweet has earned a spot in my dessert pantheon. This holiday, I think I’ll whip up a batch of dulce de leche and set it out with shortbreads and a few shots of espresso. And if Ramos comes over, I’ll let her lick the spoon.