Four ways with dulce de leche

Author: Emma Knowles
Photography: William Meppem

The Hispanic world's gift to sweet tooths everywhere, this rich caramel in the cupboard is a dessert waiting to happen.

A common theme in Latin American desserts, dulce de leche - also variously referred to as manjar and cajeta, depending on the country you're in and the kind of milk used - is a glorious concoction usually made by long, gentle simmering of milk and sugar to form a thick, glossy, utterly moreish caramel.

It isn't difficult to make your own dulce de leche (see the tip for a cheat's version using condensed milk), but good versions are readily available in shops. You'll find it in jars in Latin American and Spanish grocers, and select delicatessens; we love the Havanna brand.
With a jar in the pantry you have the makings of all manner of sweets - flans, ice-creams, pastries and cakes for starters. It makes for an ideal sauce to dip warm churros into and a delicious spiced milk.

Or take a cue from the Chileans and spread it between crisp layers of puff pastry to make torta de mil hojas - their answer to France's millefeuille - or fold it with whipped cream and layer it with banana and roasted peanuts for a salty-sweet trifle. In fact, use dulce de leche in any dish that could be improved by luscious caramel. The only challenge is to resist eating it from the jar.

Torta de mil hojas
Serves 6
Preheat oven to 200C and line 2 oven trays with baking paper. Cut a 375gm sheet of butter puff pastry into 3 even rectangles and place on prepared trays. Dock the pastry with a fork and bake, swapping trays partway through cooking, until golden brown and crisp (15-20 minutes), then cool on wire racks. Whisk 300ml thickened cream with 200gm crème fraîche in a bowl to soft peaks and set aside. Split each pastry rectangle horizontally so you have 6 rectangles, and place a piece on a serving plate. Spread thickly with dulce de leche, then cream mixture. Repeat layering, finishing with dulce de leche (you'll need about 800gm of dulce de leche in total). Scatter with 50gm coarsely chopped roast walnuts and serve.

Banana, caramel and peanut trifle
Serves 4
Whisk 300ml thickened cream, 200gm crème fraîche, 1 tbsp golden rum and the scraped seeds of 1 vanilla bean in a bowl to combine, then partially fold in 200gm dulce de leche to form a ripple effect. Layer in serving glasses with 2 thickly sliced bananas and 2½ tbsp coarsely chopped roasted salted peanuts, then serve.

Spiced caramel milk
Serves 4
Combine 800ml milk, 200gm dulce de leche, 3 cinnamon quills and 1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped, in a saucepan, and bring to a simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally to combine. Simmer for 5 minutes, then strain into cups and serve dusted with ground cinnamon.

Baked dulce de leche custard
Serves 6-8
Preheat oven to 160C. Stir 500ml milk, 300gm dulce de leche and scraped seeds of 1 vanilla bean in a saucepan over medium-high heat until combined, then bring to a simmer. Meanwhile, whisk 4 eggs, 2 yolks and the finely grated rind of 1 lemon in a bowl until combined, then pour into milk mixture, whisking continuously. Strain custard into a 20cm-diameter baking dish, place in a water bath and bake until set with a slight wobble in the centre (20-25 minutes). Remove from water bath and stand at room temperature for 30 minutes, then refrigerate until completely chilled (2-3 hours or overnight). Serve dusted with a little finely grated nutmeg and ground cinnamon.

See 10 more recipes using dulce de leche here.

Hot tips

For a cheat's dulce de leche:

  • Simmer a can of condensed milk in a large saucepan covered with a weighted lid over low heat for 3½ hours. 
  • Do not uncover or touch it while it cooks. 
  • Cool completely in the water before opening (1 - 2 hours; do not open can until it's completely cold).

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