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.

Leticia Ramos’s Doce de Leite

For this recipe, it’s important to keep the mixture over a medium flame: too low and the sugar won’t caramelize; too high and the milk scorches. Makes about 4 cups

INGREDIENTS

4¼ cups whole milk
2 cups white cane sugar

(1) Warm milk in a saucepan set over medium heat; add sugar and stir. Cook, stirring frequently. After about an hour, it will resemble canned sweetened condensed milk and will begin to caramelize. 
(2) Continue to cook, stirring frequently, for between 30 and 40 minutes, depending on how hard you want the doce de leite to be. To test, take a spoonful and allow to cool; this will be the consistency of the finished doce de leite. 
(3) When doce de leite reaches desired consistency, remove from flame and pour into a heatproof container. 
(4) Once it has cooled, cover and keep in the refrigerator. It will last 10 days.

Jeff McCarthy’s Dulce de Leche

For this recipe, based on one from cookbook author David Lebovitz, Ten 01’s pastry chef Jeff McCarthy uses a pressure cooker.

INGREDIENTS

1 (or more) 14 oz can(s) sweetened condensed milk, unopened

(1) Place unopened can, with label still on, in a pressure cooker and cover can with water. 
(2) Cook on the stove over medium-high heat for 15 to 20 minutes. 
(3) Remove can from pan carefully. Once the can cools, open and spoon dulce de leche into a container. 
(4) Cover and refrigerate.