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Dulce de leche: Labor of love

Arthi Subramaniam

For Josephine Caminos Oria of O’Hara, Pennsylvania, the creamy caramel, dulce de leche, is a link to her heritage and preserves the memories of her grandmother.

Her family moved from Argentina to Pittsburgh when she was 1, and her maternal grandparents, who visited often to help out, would do everything possible to keep the old country traditions alive.

That meant Maria Dora Germain, or Grandma Dorita as she was affectionately known, would make sure her grandchildren were able to converse in Spanish fluently and would prepare every meal from scratch. She would teach them to bake desserts such as alfajores (sandwich cookies filled with dulce de leche), torta de nuez (nut cake served with dulce de leche) and her favorite — flan mixto (caramel custard served with whipped cream and dulce de leche).

“It was one of the first desserts she taught me to bake as a child and her way of passing on her Argentine roots,” writes Oria in a memoir/cookbook, “Dulce de Leche: Recipes, Stories & Sweet Traditions” (Burgess Lea Press; Feb. 7, 2017; $25), in honor of her grandmother. “You can take the girl out of Argentina, she’d say, but you can’t take Argentina out of the girl.”

Because Grandma Dorita could not find commercial versions of the creamy milk caramel in the local supermarkets, she would stay up late into the night, Oria said, stirring the milk-sugar mixture constantly for about two hours so that it would be ready to be served with toast for breakfast the following morning.

And that’s how Oria’s love affair began with dulce de leche, which is pronounced duel-say day lay-chay. When she got older and asked her grandmother to share the recipe, she was told in Spanish: “Josie, don’t even try it. You will drive yourself crazy trying.” Grandma Dorita didn’t want Oria, who had four boys under the age of 5, to be weighed down making the time-consuming spread.

Eventually and reluctantly, Grandma Dorita did share the recipe. “It was a recipe, but not really,” said Oria. “She gave me the ingredients without any detail as to the measurements and gave me directions without the cooking times.”

Once Oria got the hang of it, she said, she became “obsessed making it.”

She expanded that obsession when she and her husband, Gaston, opened La Dorita, a commercial kitchen in Sharpsburg, to make larger batches of dulce de leche. Today La Dorita features the original flavor, a dark chocolate version and one spiked with vodka.

Oria, who also is the chief financial officer for the Monroeville, Pennsylvania-based Med Health Services, said she wanted to share the versatility of dulce de leche in her cookbook and spoke about how it is made in a phone interview.

Question: What are the key steps to keep in mind when making dulce de leche?

Answer: High-quality ingredients are key. You need to use fresh raw milk or high-quality organic milk. You also need time and patience, as it needs to be constantly stirred. It is really a craft.

Q: How important is it to use raw milk?

A: Fresh raw milk has all the fats and enzymes to make a buoyant dulce de leche. When milk is pasteurized, it won’t render down to a nice consistency as it doesn’t have the fat. Also, it’s OK to use raw milk, as it will get pasteurized during the cooking process.

Q: Is it a must to transfer the dulce de leche to another bowl after it is cooked?

A: Because it cooks at such a high temperature, you want to cool it as soon as possible to avoid the crystallization of the sugars. If you don’t, the dulce de leche won’t have such a smooth consistency.

Q: There’s the classic dulce de leche. But what about the variations?

A: Instead of sugar, you can make it with raw honey, which gives it layers of flavor. Or you can make a dark chocolate or coffee variety. There’s the burnt caramel dulce de leche that has a nutty burnt sugar flavor and a more in-depth flavor.

Q: How does the confectionary dulce de leche differ from the traditional one?

A: The confectionary kind is used to decorate cakes and between cake layers as it’s thicker in consistency and holds its shape. It won’t trickle down the side or spill out of a puff pastry. The traditional kind is used as more of a spread, like on toast. Or it can be used to mix into coffee or


Q: I see that you use dulce de leche in a lot of savory dishes, too. What does it best work with?

A: As a rule of thumb, I use it in any dish that calls for maple syrup, honey or brown sugar. So I would use it on pancakes and Brussels sprouts and with bacon. If something needs to be a little sweeter, I would use it.

Q: What do you have to say to those who think making dulce de leche is too time consuming?

A: Of course, I realize it. The book is for those who love to cook. I want to educate them about dulce de leche. That it is not just for gourmet cakes but can be used every day. It is a way of life.

Traditional Dulce De Leche

Be sure to stir the milk constantly soon after the sugar is added so that the milk won’t stick to the pot. Also, maintain the milk to a steady boil over medium-high heat so that it can cook down to a spreadable consistency. At the end of it all, it will be two hours well spent.

1 gallon pasteurized or raw whole cow’s milk

1 teaspoon baking soda

4 cups granulated pure cane sugar

1 vanilla bean, split with seeds scraped into a small bowl

Combine milk and baking soda in a heavy copper or aluminium pot and cook over medium-high heat, stirring often with a wooden spoon, until milk is warm.

Gradually add sugar, stirring constantly to prevent milk from sticking to the pot, until sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes.

Add a tablespoon of warmed milk in a small bowl and stir in vanilla seeds until they dissolve. Then add vanilla mixture to milk in the pot and stir. As the milk begins to boil, it will foam and rise in the pot. If it appears to overflow, lower the heat and continue to stir.

Once the milk settles down, maintain a steady boil over medium-high heat and stir every few minutes to keep milk from sticking to the pot, for approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes more.

When dulce de leche is a deep golden color and coats the wooden spoon, test for doneness.

Place a spoonful on a cold plate. Let it cool for a minute and tilt the plate. If it doesn’t run, it is done. If it is still runny, continue to boil the mixture for 5 more minutes.

When dulce de leche is done, remove from the heat and transfer to a metal bowl. Then place it in an ice bath in an extra-large bowl. Stir the milk caramel for about 15 minutes to prevent overcooking or crystallizing.

When ice is melted, transfer bowl to a cooling rack and let cool for 1 hour.

If the cooled dulce de leche is lumpy, press the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into another bowl. Spoon the mixture into Mason jars, cover tightly and store in refrigerator for up to a month.

Makes 6 cups.

Thicker Dulce De Leche

In a small bowl, whisk together 2 tablespoons of cornstarch and 11/2 tablespoons whole milk until the cornstarch is fully dissolved.

In the top of a double boiler, gradually bring 2 cups of dulce de leche to a slow boil, then stir in cornstarch mixture.

Boil for 5 minutes, until the mixture begins to thicken.

Transfer to another bowl and let it cool completely. It will continue to thicken as it cools.

Bacon-wrapped Jalapenos

Dulce de leche adds a sweet touch to the salty, creamy and savory flavors in this snack. Let the party begin in the mouth.

12 jalapeno peppers

8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

1/2 cup traditional dulce de leche

1 clove garlic, chopped

1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika

Pinch of salt

12 slices uncured bacon, cut in half

24 toothpicks

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment or foil and fit a wire rack on top.

Cut jalapenos in half lengthwise and remove seeds and ribs. In a bowl, mix together the cream cheese, dulce de leche, garlic and paprika. Add a pinch of salt to taste.

Spoon the filling mixture equally into the jalapeno halves. Wrap each jalapeno half with a piece of bacon and secure with a toothpick. (The peppers can be prepared up to this point one day ahead and refrigerated, covered with plastic wrap.)

Transfer jalapenos, stuffing side up, to the rack and bake for 25 to 28 minutes, or until the bacon is crisp to your liking. For extra crispy bacon, turn the oven to broil for the last minute or two.

Serve immediately.

Serves 12.

Rustic Apple Crostata

This crostata gets a double dose of caramel, and that’s a good thing. Make sure to fold the dough over part of the apple filling properly, as otherwise the filling and dulce de leche will leak.

For the dough

21/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 large egg

1 large egg yolk

1 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup unsalted butter

3 tablespoons 2 percent or whole milk

For the filling

8 apples (preferably Gala or Fuji), sliced

3/4 cup light brown sugar

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

Juice of 1 lemon

1 cup thicker dulce de leche

For the topping

1 cup old-fashioned oats

1/4 cup light brown sugar

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Make the dough: Add flour, egg and egg yolk, sugar, butter and milk into a food processor and pulse until the dough forms pea-like lumps.

Turn dough out onto a work surface. With floured hands, gently knead the dough just until moist. Add additional flour or drops of milk as needed for a smooth consistency.

Lightly flour the top of the dough and form into a roundish shape. Place it on a small baking sheet and refrigerate, loosely covered with plastic wrap, for 30 minutes.

While the dough chills, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Make the apple filling: In a large saucepan, combine apples, brown sugar, butter, cinnamon and lemon juice. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the apples soften and caramelize.

Make the topping: Pulse oats, brown sugar and melted butter in a food processor, until the mixture is combined and forms a crumble.

On a work surface, roll the chilled dough evenly into a 1/4-inch-thick round and transfer to the baking sheet. Spread the dulce de leche on the dough, taking care not to tear it and leaving enough of an edge to fold over, and top with the apple filling.

Fold the edge of the pastry over the filling, pleating as necessary, to create a rustic tart. The crostata does not need to be symmetrical, but try not to tear the edges of the dough to keep the filling from leaking.

Add the crumble topping to the filling and bake 25 to 30 minutes until golden brown. Transfer the crostata on the baking sheet to a rack and let cool completely.

Serves 12.

Candied Bacon With Soft-boiled Eggs

“The secret to preparing these candied soldados, or soldiers, so that they are crisp rather than chewy is to slow-roast the bacon in a low oven for up to an hour,” author Josephine Caminos Oria writes in her book.

1/2 cup traditional dulce de leche

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 pound center cut, uncured thick-sliced bacon, or your favorite high-quality bacon, sliced

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

6 large eggs

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and fit with a wire rack.

Add dulce de leche and cayenne pepper to a bowl and mix well. Add the bacon and toss gently with your hands until evenly coated.

Place bacon in a single layer on the wire rack and put sprigs of rosemary on top. Refrigerate for 10 minutes to set. Bake the bacon until slightly dark (not burnt) and crispy, about 45 to 55 minutes total, rotating the pan halfway through baking and removing the end pieces and the rosemary after about 40 minutes if they are browning quickly.

Let cool for 15 minutes.

While bacon is cooling, bring a small pan of salted water to a boil. Carefully lower eggs into the boiling water and boil for 5 minutes. Drain eggs, cut off the lids and serve with a pinch of salt and pepper in egg cups for individual servings or in an egg carton if serving family style. Serve the bacon soldiers alongside for dipping into the eggs.

Serves 6.

— All recipes from or adapted from “Dulce de Leche” by Josephine Caminos Oria (Burgess Lea Press; Feb. 7, 2017; $25)

Grandma knows best

Maria Dora Germain never let Josephine Caminos Oria write down a single recipe. Instead, she wanted her granddaughter to trust her instincts and have faith in herself. Here are Grandma Dorita’s common sense tips when making dulce de leche:

Feel and taste your way when making it.

Don’t get hung up on how long you need to stir the caramel or what temperature the milk should be. You’ll get to know the feel of the milk, and it will turn out as planned.

Use a copper pan, as it conducts heat evenly. It also reduces the scalding of milk at high temperatures.

Use raw milk or fresh farm milk.

Be patient and have a love for cooking, especially when something takes time.

Don’t multitask when making dulce de leche. It requires your time and attention.