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Dulce de Leche, what is it?

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

One of the many things locals are passionate about is their dulce de leche: a creamy, brownish, sweet concoction made of reduced milk and sugar.

They use this on toast in the morning; on wafers in the afternoon; stuff pastries with it; make alfajores with it; used as icing for cakes; make candies out of it; make ice cream with it; make beer with it; eat it out of the jar with a spoon... They love this stuff, and I'm a pretty big fan as well.

I even heard say that it was invented here. The local origin myth explains that an absent-minded house cook, probably a slave, was heating some milk with sugar to mix with mate and left the milk heating way too long, and dulce de leche was born. This was supposed to be on the 24th of June, 1829. Yes, there is a specific date.

A similar story exists about Napoleon; the same thing happened, but in 1804: Napolean's absent-minded cook heated milk and sugar for too long and was left with a reduced, creamy, sweet Confiture de Lait.

Obviously, both of those stories are not true.

Sweetened milk has been around for thousands of years. It was a way to preserve milk and to keep it from tasting sour after heating it. In India, they would mix it with honey, and many people drink milk and honey even to this day.

Chemically refined sugar appeared in India around 2,500 years ago, and it was considered a rare and expensive spice. Basically, you had to be rich to afford milk sweetened with sugar. In fact, when the Europeans "discovered" the Americas, they quickly realized they could grow sugar cane in Brazil. With the help of the slave trade, they ramped up production on a huge scale.

Now you have more sugar readily available to the masses and a history of sweetening milk and warming it up to preserve it.

It was a known practice to drink sweetened sugary reduced milk in Indonesia. It spread to the Philippines, and from there, the Spaniards take it to the Americas by way of Mexico, where their version is made with goat's milk.

Eventually, once we discovered sodium bicarbonate (1791), it was added as an ingredient, and this gave it the rich brown color that we know it by today.

Coincidently, there is another story of how some people in Argentina started to learn that they were not the creators. In 1936 Igor Stravinsky visited Argentina and was invited to tea by a local intellectual, Victoria Ocampo. She was hoping to impress the visiting dignitary with the famous Argentine dulce de leche. When he is presented with this, everyone is surprised when he tells them that he had this when he was a child back home and was surprised to see it here, in Buenos Aires. He thought the Russians had invented it, and he's probably much closer to hitting the mark than thinking Argentina invented it. Below is a picture of an alfajor type of dessert and a can of Russian Dulce de Leche. These may not be super popular in Russia currently, but it did exist there way before it ever made it over to the Americas.

In any case, once you visit Argentina, it will be very easy for you to try. One of the most popular desserts and just about every restaurant offers it is panqueqe con dulce de leche. It is like a crepe filled with dulce de leche and with caramelized sugar on top.

The following is from Don Julio's Instagram page:

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