I enjoy a good chewy sugar sweet, especially tiny squares of creamy caramel. I love sucking on them until you have just a tiny little drop on the tip of your tongue. Of course anything sweet paired with salt is a wet dream for your taste buds. I also love the more complex caramel flavor of dulce de leche. It’s the most beautiful reddish brown and has a velvety texture that hold its own but doesn’t feel like a thick, sticky caramel sauce. Oh, did I mention, I just adore dairy and sugar combined? Well, if my professed love of caramels and milk wasn’t cloyingly sweet enough for you, please, read on.
Sweets, well, I like them in small delicious doses. I prefer them chewy and melty when you can close your eyes as the layers of sweetness and butteriness unfold on your tongue. So naturally I thought to myself, why can’t dulce de leche come in a caramel? Since I’ve never made caramels before my self did not respond. Nevertheless, mom and I decided to investigate over Thanksgiving with a lot of whole milk, vanilla beans, raw sugar, cream, butter, some brown rice syrup, a candy thermometer, and a good sea salt. Christmas is definitely the time for sugar experimentation. Holy Christmas candy handouts Batman.
Caramels are funny little things – in basic form just sugar and some water heated slowly until the mixture caramelizes and then immediately cooled. Sugar daddies on a stick come to mind. When sucrose or fructose is heated over a prolonged period the sugar starts to break down. The destruction triggers many chemical reactions that form new compounds and result in new flavors and aromas. The water in caramels is eventually cooked off, but in the beginning allows the sugar to cook more slowly without burning, long enough to develop the flavors we so covet. Add in some milk and the proteins and sugars involved produce an even wider range of flavors. So naturally a milk-based caramel of different sugars combined with a good salt is a complex and prolonged party in your mouth.
We used the goldilocks approach to test this recipe:
First attempt. We cooked milk, sugar, and vanilla beans very slowly on low heat until it was a super thick leche, about 3 hours. We then attempted to raise its temperature to 250F without stirring (you never stir candy, right?), but the result burned too quickly and we were forced to remove it from the heat at only 220F, stir in some butter, and get it into our 8×8 pan quick. After letting the mixture cool we realized the texture would never get passed a thick, sticky fudge. So we cut it into squares, dipped in with spoons, delighted in its flavor, and called it a night. Our findings: When making caramel, the added water helps to keep the sugars from burning. Our dulce de leche, having cooked for so long, was too delicate and dry to get to the temperature we needed. Adding in the butter at the end caused it to ooze out the sides and did not enhance the flavor or texture. And… we probably rushed, heh. But it smelled so good!
Making more leche. A few days later mom had the ingenious idea to try simply making dulce de leche and making caramels and then combining the two. This would give us the flavor + the texture we wanted. Mom had a more traditional (and quicker, as in half the time) dulce de leche recipe from Uruguay that called for increasing the heat and also adding leavening in the form of baking soda. The resulting leche was exactly like the incredibly velvety smooth sweet leche we remembered from our trip to Lapataia in Punta del Este. Our findings: The recipes that call for no leavening and lower heats produce a slightly grittier, thicker, but delightfully complex dulce de leche that cooks with minimal attendance in 3 hours. The recipes that call for leavening and higher heat cook in half the time but requires much more stirring. If you can put in the work, the leavening leche is worth the effort.
Second and third attempts. The second and third times around we tried a more successful technique that involved heating cream, butter, and salt in one pan and sugar, water, and syrup in another pan. Once the sugar water had begun to turn golden, we poured in the milk and heated the mixture slowly to 250 F, stirring frequently. The results were much more dependable. But how to add in the dulce de leche? In one recipe we substituted it for butter, and in the other for syrup.
Our findings: Adding the cream into the sugar works much better. As for the leche, you can substitute 4-8 tablespoons dule de leche for sugar in the recipe but add it at the end and mix before placing the caramels in the pan. Brown rice syrup is an excellent substitute for corn syrup. It’s already caramelly and thicker in texture and more healthy because 50% comes from complex carbohydrates. The resulting caramel will be a delight to savor throughout the holidays, or any other time of year for that matter.
Our real find, though, was that when we shared these caramels we found that each version had its own fans. Each one was delicious, rich, and complex, and each one a tiny reprise when melted on the tip of your tongue. Yet when we originally went to do research for caramels we found all the recipes the same. Same proportions, same shitty ingredients, same lack of panache. Caramelizing sugars, be it vegetables, caramels, or dairy needs much attention in the American kitchen. If we all love sugar so much, why not try for a more complex way to enjoy sweets?
Dulce de Leche de Uruguay Makes 2 3/4 cups
2 cups raw sugar
1/2 gallon Organic whole milk
2 fresh vanilla beans, their insides scraped (reserve pods)
1 teaspoon baking soda
Simmer ingredients over medium heat. Put the ingredients in a heavy-bottomed sauce pot. Turn onto medium and slowly bring to a boil, stirring often with a wooden spoon. Once the milk comes a boil, about 20 minutes, turn down to medium-low and simmer until the thickness of bechamel just about 90 minutes. Stir often, every five minutes or so in the beginning and toward the end continuously, scraping the spoon along the bottom so the milk doesn’t stick.
Note: If the milk starts to foam, don’t be alarmed. Just stir until it reduces in size, about 1 minute. You want to be sure you do not burn the milk, which you will be able to tell by a browning on the side of the pan and also a burnt smell. A lower flame has much less chance of burning, so make sure your milk is simmering, with slow bubbles, not boiling.
After half an hour. After about half an hour, the milk will be the color of masala chai and have almost a cheesy aroma. It will have reduced its size by more than half. A foam will form on the surface of the milk when you stop stirring. Less an hour into cooking the color will start to darken, a thick coating will form on the sides of the pan, and the aroma will be more caramely, closer to dulce de leche. You can scrape the pan of the coating with your spoon and throw it away, but don’t mix it back into the dulce de leche.
After an hour. When you stir you will notice clots floating in the mixture, and when you leave the milk standing it will form a thicker skin. The texture will be incredibly velvety. At this point you need to stir more often, slowly dragging the spoon through the mixture.
After 75 minutes. The mixture will thicken further to about 2/5 its original size (its final yield is about 2 3/4 cups). You need to keep stirring now. You will know when its done when it has the consistency of a thick bechamel. As you drag your spoon along the bottom, the mixture will pull away from the pot for a moment and you will hear a hissing as it starts to stick. There’s very little water left now. The smell and color will remind you of the most heavenly caramel.
Remove from heat. Remove from the heat immediately and pour into a bowl. Only remove the velvety caramel. Don’t scrap around the sides of the pan where crust will have formed because it will change overall consistency. Eat whatever is left with your fingers straight from the pot! Your significant other will thank you for giving them the opportunity to lick the dishes clean.
Cool and store. Allow to cool completely before covering. To ensure a smooth consistency, stir the mixture every so often. When you first remove it from the pot the dulce de leche will be thinner on the spoon. As it cools it will become thicker, leaving its shape as you move it and sticking to the spoon. Once completely cool, it will have the consistency of warm chocolate pudding. Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to one month.