Saturday, May 1, 2010

South American Way

I have traveled to numerous countries in and around Europe but I have never traveled farther than that. There as so many places I want to see, cultures I want to experience, so many people I want to cross paths with. Traveling the world is a lifelong dream of mine, one that one day I hope to fulfill. I will surely need quite a lot of money though to do that, so I don't bet on it happening in the next decade or so.

Traveling is an experience that can ultimately change your perspective and view of life and of the world around you. An experience that can drag you out of your microcosm and introduce you to new ways of living, different ideas, possibilities and realities. Learning about other people, their customs and traditions, opens your mind and makes you more aware of the importance of diversity as well as individuality. I yearn for that kind of experience.

South America is a continent that really intrigues me and that I'm very eager to visit. I want to see the 13,000 year old stenciled images of hands in the Cueva de los Manos (Cave of the Hands) in Argentina, I want to see Machu Picchu, referred to as The Lost City of Incas, in Peru, I want to see the view of Rio de Janeiro from the Corcovado mountain and dance in a South American Way in Brazil, I want to navigate down the Orinoco river in Venezuela, I want to immerse myself deep in the Chilean wine country, tasting the wonderful wine it has to offer along the way.

Naturally I want to experience South American food in all its glory and exoticism. I want to eat ceviche, which is bite-sized pieces of raw fish or seafood marinated in citrus juices, salt and other seasonings, usually chilies. As the proper carnivore that I am, I want the complete asado experience in Argentina. Asado is a South American way of cooking different cuts of meat, mainly beef, in a grill or an open fire. I want to taste a feijoada in Brazil which is a bean, beef and pork stew. I want to get in touch with my inner vegetarian and devour authentic empanadas, which is stuffed pastry with lots of yummy vegetables. I want to walk the streets of Ecuador with a tamal in my hand, which is a packet of corn dough with a savory filling that is wrapped in banana leaves or corn husks and is either steamed or boiled. For dessert I think I will go with dulce de leche. Yeah, that sounds about right.

Dulce de leche. I love the way it rolls off the tongue. But what is it? Its name literally means milk candy and it is a thick caramel cream sauce. No, correction, it is a thick caramel cream sauce to die for.
I didn't discover dulce de leche by eating it in some little parador (restaurant) by the beach in Uruguay. No, the way I discovered it, was completely and utterly pedestrian. I was watching an Australian cooking show featuring South American recipes (that's one of the ways to have a culinary travel around the world) and I was smitten by the creamy caramel delight that the woman in the show was preparing and that she called manjar blanco, which I later found out is another name for dulce de leche. Oh, cajeta is another name for it too, and confiture de lait is how the French call it.

There are many ways of preparing dulce de leche though I've only tried one of them so far. You can use the painstaking method of stirring a mixture of milk and sugar in a pan for several hours until it becomes thick and creamy, the easier method of pouring sweetened condensed milk in a baking dish and cooking it in the oven until it's caramelized or, the easiest way of them all and my personal favorite, of simply boiling an unopened can of sweetened condensed milk in a pan, after you've made a couple of holes at the top (we don't want any explosions happening now, do we?) and leaving it in simmering water for 2-3 hours until it thickens. You need to check on it and add more water but it definitely beats the 3-hour stirring method.

Dulce de leche can be eaten just like that, out of the jar or drizzled on top of ice cream and pies but for me, right now, this is not enough. I need to take it a little further. I'm not content with just dulce de leche, I want something more luscious, I want a bit of variety, a bit of pizazz. I want the combination of dulce de leche, chocolate, and biscuit. And I found it all in this recipe. A mouthwatering recipe of a delicious dessert, candy, sweet, however you wanna call it.

By adding egg yolks, cream and dark chocolate to the caramel sauce, you transform the dulce de leche to a thicker, richer, deep-flavored chocolate-caramel cream that is so addictive you can't even fathom it. The shortbread crust makes an amazingly tasty and crumbly biscuit to rest the cream upon, creating a harmonious contrast of textures and the light sprinkling of fleur de sel (hand-harvested sea salt) on top completes the picture, creating a harmonious contrast of flavors.

Let me be totally honest here. This dessert is not an innocent one. Firstly, it takes a long time to prepare, secondly, it is full of calories and lastly, it's not the healthiest of sweets out there but it is one of the most exquisite and tasteful ones. At least to me it is. You have to make your own and weigh in on this.

I like cutting it into two-bite or even one-bite sized pieces because of its richness. When you offer a piece to someone, they will immediately get a whiff of caramel blended with a chocolate aroma. When they put it into their mouth, the real ride will begin. The crunch of the crumbly and buttery biscuit along with the scrumptious caramel cream, make the best first impression. The rich dark chocolate flavor hits first, accompanied by the subtle sharpness of the fleur de sel that balances the sweetness of it all. Finally, they'll sense the milky caramel and they'll be left with an aftertaste of buttery and caramel-y enchantment. They'll want more and more and so will you. It is worth the effort and the calories, believe me.

Bars of Chocolate Dulce de Leche with Shortbread Crust and Fleur de Sel
Adapted from Gourmet

It is best that you prepare this dessert during the weekend as it is rather time-consuming to make. You can make ahead the dulce de leche, keep it in the fridge and make the dessert another day.
I would advise you to use good quality dark chocolate for better results and make sure you use sweetened condensed milk for the dulce de leche and not evaporated milk. They are not the same.
I suppose you can buy ready-made dulce de leche, though I've never found or even looked for it myself. Making your own is by far better.
The recipe calls for 310 g of dulce de leche. I used a 400 g milk can which left me with 370 g of dulce de leche. You can certainly use a larger can, keeping the rest of the dulce de leche for later use.
I love what the addition of fleur de sel has to offer to the flavor of this dessert but it is great even without it. After all, it's a matter of personal taste. So feel free not to use it if you don't fancy it.

Yield: 35 bars / 370 g of dulce de leche


for dulce de leche
one 400 g can of sweetened condensed whole milk

for shortbread crust
115 g unsalted butter, softened, plus extra for greasing the pan
75 g soft light brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
150 g all-purpose flour

for chocolate dulce de leche
310 g dulce de leche
250 ml cream, full fat
5 medium-sized egg yolks, at room temperature
145 g dark 60% good quality chocolate, finely chopped

Fleur de sel for sprinkling on top (optional)

Special equipment: a shallow square baking pan (22 x 22 cm)


for dulce de leche
Remove the label from the milk can and make two small holes on opposite sides at the top, with the help of a can opener or with a clean nail and a hammer. This is extremely important so do not skip this step. If you don't pierce these holes there is a great possibility that the can will explode while boiling.

Place the can inside a small pot and fill it with water up to 1.5 - 2 cm from the top of the can. Do not fill it all the way up because while the water simmers, it might get inside the milk can through the small holes. Do not fill it lower than that because the milk at the upper part of the can will not thicken.

Turn heat on to high and once the water starts to boil, lower heat so that you can maintain the water at a simmer. The process of making the dulce de leche will take up to 3 hours. You will have to keep checking the level of the water in the pot every 15 minutes or so. The water must always be 1.5 - 2 cm from the top of the can so keep adding hot water, preferably from a water kettle, so that it doesn't stop simmering.

There will be some rattling noise during the boiling of the can so keep that in mind. Some milk will probably be coming out of the small holes while boiling. You can scoop it up with a spoon so that it doesn't drip into the simmering water.

After 3 hours have passed, turn the heat off and remove can from the pot using tongs. Place can on a rack to cool. Do not open the can straight away.
After it has cooled, open the can carefully and empty its content into a bowl. You will notice that at the top of the can, the milk will be more fluid and light in color and at the bottom, there will be thicker chunks, with a darker caramel color. Whisk the content in the bowl until you have a homogeneous thick cream.

Note: If you boil the can for 2 hours you will have a soft dulce de leche. If you boil it for 3 hours you will have a firm dulce de leche and if you boil it for 4 hours you will have a very thick dulce de leche.

You will need 310 g of dulce de leche to make the bars. You can store the rest in a jar in the refrigerator for 1 month.

If you want to use some, you can scoop it out of the jar with a clean spoon, heat it in the microwave or in a small saucepan and use it on top of ice creams, muffins or pies.

for shortbread crust
Butter the baking pan. Line the bottom and its sides with baking paper, leaving an overhang, and then butter the baking paper.

Preheat your oven to 190 degrees Celsius.

In a large bowl, place the butter, sugar, salt and vanilla extract and blend together with a fork. Then sift in the flour and blend again with the fork. Using your hands, bring everything together to form a soft dough. Do not knead the dough.

Place dough in the baking pan and spread it evenly using the back of a spoon or an offset spatula. Then prick dough all over with a fork, which will prevent the dough from rising while baking.

Place baking pan on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 15-18 minutes or until shortbread has taken on a golden color.
Take shortbread out of the oven and place the pan on a wire rack to cool completely. This will take about 30 minutes. Don't take the shortbread out of the pan.

for chocolate dulce de leche
In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the egg yolks.

Heat dulce de leche and cream in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until dulce de leche has completely dissolved, and bring to a simmer. Drip very slowly the hot mixture into the egg yolks, whisking continuously. At this point you must be extremely careful so the mixture doesn't turn into scrambled eggs. Then return mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until you can see the bottom of the pan in the tracks of the spoon. This means that by now you will have a thick mixture. Be careful not to burn it.

Remove pan from heat and add the chocolate pieces, whisking until they melt.

Assemble bars
Pour chocolate dulce de leche on top of the cooled shortbread (while still in the pan) and spread it around by gently tapping the pan on your work surface. Put the pan in the refrigerator, uncovered, and let it chill for at least 2 hours. It is even better if you chill it for 4-5 hours as it will get firmer and thus easier to cut.

In order to loosen the sides of the cold dessert, run a knife around the edges of the pan, take it out along with the baking paper and place it on a cutting board. Using a large serrated knife (I used a bread knife) cut it into seven equal strips and then into 35 bars. In between cuts, immerse the knife in hot water and wipe it clean so that the bars will be cleanly cut.

Keep bars in the refrigerator until it is time to serve them.
Before serving, sprinkle a little fleur de sel on top of the bars (if you wish).

They can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for 2-3 days at most.


  1. This looks amazing Magda but I've made my share of experiments with dulce de leche and although we love it, as you say this is a very rich dessert and will only stay with it's memory now.

  2. Yes travel is certainly an eye opener.
    You (personally) have to experience each country before you can make a judgement and may be quite surprised by your findings. For example I loved Thailand (but didn't expect to) and with Brazil it was just the opposite!
    I didn't rate Feijoada much either!
    The bbq is called Churrasco in Brazil. The meat is cooked to perfection. (Brazil certainly isn't a country I would recommend to vegetarians though)
    Yes Dulce de Leche is to die for! Combined with chocolate it is delicious. And yes with a sprinklins of salt makes it's amazing.

  3. ten years ago, if you had told me to try salt on chocolate or caramel or a sweet of any kind, i'd have told you you're smoking something. now i can't lay off the sea salt. love it on something as simple as a chocolate chip cookie.

  4. Beautiful post, Magda. I enjoyed reading every inch of it and was sad to see it end. Sadder that I don't have one of these nice treats waiting for me in the fridge.

  5. Magda

    I really appreciate the care that you brought to this project and the results are outstanding! Even though I am not a big fan of dulce de leche (too sweet for me) I love that little bar and the fact that you have the shortbread bottom, so a variety of textures is great too.

  6. Ivy, yes, for some people dulce de leche is too rich and they don't really enjoy it.

    Dutch Brit, yeah I suppose I have to travel to a country to be certain that I really like it. I can't wait to go to places like Thailand or Brazil. I'm surprised you didn't like Brazil, everyone I know who's been there loved it! Churrasco huh? If I'm ever in Brazil I'm gonna have a taste :)

    12th man, same here!

    Tracy, thank you :)

    taste of Beirut, thank you!

  7. I love to travel too. Agree with you that we learn a lot when we travel. I only don't like the move much work...but never regretted once we got ourselves settled.. I wonder when is our next move.

    Love your bars cos I'm a great condensed milk lover. It just looks so delicious.

  8. Oh NO. I am going to pretend I didn't see this, Magda. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear...

  9. Wow! This looks absolutely amazing. The magic trinity of chocolate, caramel and sea salt. I can't wait to give this recipe a whirl...

  10. The little bit of sea salt on top is the crowning touch. It's that little something something that makes a good thing great. ;)

  11. MaryMoh, moving is a great hassle, I know. Having moved from Greece to Holland I know all about it. Traveling though is different and lighter.

    Just a plane, I'm being bad :)

    Julie, thank you!

    Carolyn, salt... what would we do without it, huh?

  12. I always wanted to visit SA! Your DDL is gorgeous!

  13. Hi Magda, I like your passion for travel and learning new things. I am sure when you do get to go to South America, you will feel so at home - it looks like you know so much about it already. And what a beautiful dessert, certainly a great way to pay homage to a wonderful destination.

  14. I loved salted caramel and salt with chocolate! I know its early to think about Christmas but these would be the perfect addition to my xmas cookie platter!

  15. I know what you mean ... I would love to travel too. I haven't done much in the way of travelling and look forward to doing so some day soon.

    Now these little desserts have got me drooling!! I adore dulce de leche and you've done an outstanding job with these sweets ... everything about them is so decadent and I feel the sprinkling of sea salt over top is a must!

  16. Wow, thanks for sharing the details! Much needed for a person (me!) who does not know much into South American food.

  17. I love DDL and was considering going to the market in the Hague to get some tomorrow. I won;t be able to but...........i'm longing! Lovely bars!

  18. Thanks Ellie.

    Thank you Trissa :)

    Gastroanthropologist, yes they definitely would.

    Thanks Maria, they are decadent indeed.

    tigerfish, if I ever get to travel there then I will REALLY know something about South American food. There's nothing like the real thing.

    Kitchen Butterfly, I always prefer making my own. I'll probably go next week to the Market, check out that store you told me about.

  19. I'm obsessed with dulche de leche and will be making these for next week's dessert!