Friday, January 7, 2011

ingredient: DULCE DE LECHE

For a language prone to exaggerations and long, romantic descriptions, dulce de leche is actually exactly what is translates to: “sweet of the milk.” This thick, caramely sauce is made by simmering sweetened condensed milk on the stove, and often in a can, for up to four hours. When the milk has caramelized and reduced to one fourth of its original volume, it turns a deep tan color and gets a luscious, viscous texture perfect for spooning over ice cream or drizzling on fruit. Although it’s incredibly easy to make, you can also buy ready-made dulce de leche in stores, which is particularly useful if, like me, you’re turned off by recipe disclaimers such as “Please note that there's a small possibility of explosion when you cook a can.”

Dulce de leche is an extremely popular treat in Latin America. From Uruguay to Mexico to Chile to Panama, you’ll find dulce de leche spread on toast, stuffed in pastries, and poured over cakes. I’m a fan, but I should inform you that this stuff is tooth-achingly sweet. Things get pretty real when you shove a spoonful in your mouth. And if you try to wash it down with a Jarritos you might actually go into diabetic shock. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The origin of dulce de leche is unknown, though legend has it that a housewife forgot about her milk cooking on the stove and when she came back it had turned into dulce de leche. (I’d really like something similar to happen the next time I forget to take a cake out of the oven.) That’s not to say that attempts haven’t been made to claim this sugary spread. You see, Argentines seem to be crazy about three things: meat, soccer, and dulce de leche. So in 2003 Argentina lobbied UNESCO to have dulce de leche classified as one of their traditional products. Uruguay immediately retaliated by asking for it to be classified as one of their traditional products. In the end, dulce de leche remained a free agent. I just hope that cooks in the US start to put it on their roster.

Dulce de Leche Brownies
adapted from The Sweet Life in Paris

One major bonus of being known as a glutton is receiving edible gifts from friends who’ve been on vacation. Lately I’ve been quite the beneficiary of my friend’s jet-setting ways; getting everything from salt cod from Brazil to chocolates from London. But my boyfriend really upped the ante when he came back from Argentina with an assortment of goods which all feature the star of Argentinean dessert, dulce de leche.

Sadly, my tin of dulce de leche filled chocolates is empty and the box of alfajores (mind blowingly delicious cookies that are filled with dulce de leche and covered in chocolate; kind of like mallomars with d.d.l instead of marshmallow) is running low. But I won’t despair because still sitting on my counter is a shockingly large container of pure dulce de leche which I have been informed is the best kind in Argentina and which required several grocery store visits to obtain.

My first experience with real, delicious South American dulce de leche was when my muy maravillosa college roommate brought me back a jar from Uruguay. That jar lasted about a month. I would mostly just take a spoonful here and there or pour it over apples that I stole from the dining hall. Now, thanks to my boyfriend’s generosity (and apparent disregard of luggage weight fees), I have more than enough dulce de leche to both eat it plain when the mood strikes and play around with some recipes. I considered making the traditional Tres Leches Cake and pairing it with a dulce de leche sauce, but I’m not actually a fan of all that cream. I considered making more d.d.l filled cookies, but I have just enough alfajores left that it seemed redundant.

Then I came across this brownie recipe from David Lebovitz. It was perfect. I've wanted to try a recipe from his book The Sweet Life in Paris before I went ahead and bought it. I've also been craving dark chocolate (probably due to iron/blood loss during thumb surgery.) These brownies were amazing. They were intensely dark chocolaty and so moist, just like the best brownies should be. Against the dark dampness of the brownie, the threads of dulce de leche were like light bursts of toffee flavor. In short, dulce de leche and chocolate are a match made in heaven, tu sabes?

Makes 12 brownies

8 tablespoons (one stick) salted or unsalted butter, cut into pieces
6 ounces dark chocolate (preferably in the 60-80 percent range), finely chopped
1/4 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
3 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup flour
1 cup Dulce de Leche

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees

Line an 8 inch square baking pan with aluminum foil and grease with butter.

Putthe butter in a medium saucepan and melt over medium heat. Turn the temperature down to low and add the chocolate. Stir constantly until the chocolate has all melted.

Turn off the heat and whisk in the cocoa powder until there are no lumps.

Add the eggs (one at a time) then the sugar and the vanilla.

Stir in the flour until smooth.

Pour half of the batter into the baking pan. Drop about one-third of the dulce de leche over the brownie batter. Use a knife to swirl the dulce de leche.

Pour the rest of the brownie batter into the pan and spread evenly. Add the remaining dulce de leche in blobs. Use a knife to swirl the blobs of dulce de leche. This is fun, and don't worry how it looks (in fact in some places I definitely spread more than swirled, but in the end it all worked out!)

Bake the brownies for 35 to 45 minutes. Mine took 35 minutes. You want the center to be soft-firm not hard-firm when you take them out, so that they stay moist and a bit gooey. Let them cool (I know it's hard) and then enjoy!

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