You may know dulce de leche made from simmering a can of condensed milk, but this cheat's version is a far cry from the real deal, which is a silkier, darker and beguilingly complex.
It explains why dulce de leche, Spanish for 'sweetness of milk', is often described as 'magical' and 'mystical' among its loyal fans and sparks fierce debates about whose version is best.
Argentina is often touted as the birthplace of the thick, creamy, caramel-like treat. According to legend, one winter afternoon in 1829 at the home of political leader Juan Manuel de Rosa, a maid distracted making lechada – a drink of boiled milk and sugar – returned to the stovetop to find it had turned into a thick brown jam. Dulce de leche was born.
So beloved is dulce de leche it was declared part of Argentina's 'cultural and gastronomic heritage' in 2010. Its patrimony is hotly contested, particularly by Uruguay, but it is agreed that dulce's first inklings of life began between the 16th and 19th centuries when sugarcane and dairy cattle arrived on the continent with Spanish and Portuguese colonisers.
Today, depending on where you hail from in Latin America, dulce de leche is known as manjar blanco, cajeta or arequipe, however, variations of milk jam can be found from France (confiture de lait) to the Philippines (pastillas de leche).
While often described as caramel, dulce de leche is technically a milk confection. Made from just milk, sugar and time, it's deep golden colour is a result of the Maillard reaction of milk proteins, not caramelised sugars and its sweet flavour from evaporating milk moisture to form concentrated lactose.
According to Lenice Schmitz, co-founder of La Feliz, an artisan dulce de leche producer based in Sydney, the ratios of these simple ingredients produce a world of various styles.
In Argentina, where supermarket aisles are dedicated to dulce, you can find clásico (spread for toast), del campo (country-style), estilo colonial or criollo (Spanish or Creole-style), repostero (for cakes and desserts) and heladero (for making ice cream), as well as con miel (with honey) and con chocolate (with chocolate).
Meanwhile, in Paraguay, dulce de leche is more liquid, in El Salvador, it's a semi-hard toffee, in Mexico, it's made with goat milk, in Chile, fruit and nuts are often added and in Panama, it's served on banana leaves.
Missing the alfajores (dulce de leche-stuffed shortbread) of her hometown Sao Paulo and lacking a quality supply of it here in Australia, Brazilian-born Schmitz and her husband Daniel began making dulce de leche themselves.
While most dulce today is produced by industrial machines, the artisan producer makes the firm-style 'repostero' signature to alfajores in small batches by hand. "There's a lot of simmering and stirring involved!" explains Schmitz, who says that temperature and time are key to success. "You can't be distracted as the milk can easily burn."
"There's a lot of simmering and stirring involved!"
La Feliz's beautifully boxed alfajores and bottled dulce de leche have struck a chord for hens, weddings and corporate events as delicious gifts.
In Australia, real dulce de leche has traditionally been hard to find due to strict customs and commercial import regulations surrounding milk – further exacerbated by fear of foot and mouth disease in Argentina.
The limitation was the sweet catalyst for dessert powerhouse Gelato Messina to make dulce in-house. The gooey, sticky spread had long been a favourite ingredient, making frequent cameos in their daily changing range of gelatos.
"It took a trip to Argentina, some long sessions (in broken Spanglish) with a sweet-talking man called Santiago, and the installation of a brand spanking new machine at Messina HQ in Rosebery, called a paila," says Nick Palumbo, Messina founder and co-owner. "Making it properly and on a relatively large scale is not a small task."
Messina's own herd of 450 jersey cows on a farm in country Victoria supply the 1600-2000 litres per day of full-cream jersey milk for gelato production and any excess is used to make dulce – a whopping 1500 kilograms per week.
"Seasonality plays a huge part in the amount of milk our cows produce, but using it in dulce de leche means we have much less wastage," explains Palumbo. "We've also used goat's milk in the past and it tastes very different, so you can alter the taste a lot based on the milk you use."
Today, Messina's dulce is available by the bottle and the 'caramel' in every gelato. For World Dulce De Leche Day (which falls on October 11), they're going all dulce with limited edition The Hat Trick: dulce de leche gelato smothered with dulce de leche and baked dulce de leche cheesecake. Oh my.
In fact, there doesn't seem to be anything dulce de leche isn't good in. Traditionally, it's a spread for bread and cookies, a dip for churros or a topping for flan. Flick through Instagram's 1 million #dulcedeleche posts and counting and you’ll see dulce slathered, smeared, stuffed, layered, twisted into just about everything sweet: tarts, doughnuts, crepes, molten, cheesecakes, brownies, ice cream, french toast, waffles.
If you've never tried real dulce de leche, there's no shortage of inspiration.
In this column, I scour bakeries, patisseries and dessert joints from around the world for the hottest sweet trends, up-and-coming ingredients and game-changing pastry techniques.
Brownie lovers, take note: with every portion holding its very own generous dollop of dulce de leche, this is the brownie you have been searching for all your life! For a particularly wicked dessert, serve it drizzled with warmed extra dulce de leche and topped with a generous scoop of vanilla ice-cream.
Bite-sized, nutty and incredibly more-ish these cookies bring together a heavenly flavour combination – caramel, peanuts and oats.
Dulce de leche has experienced an increased popularity outside Argentina these last few years, and it's easy to see why. The process of slowly cooking milk results in a unique caramel colour and a rich, nutty taste. We guarantee this heavenly ice-cream won't last long in your freezer!
Dulce de leche literally means candy made of milk and is said to have originated from Argentina. Our version is sweet, soft, salty and with a crunchy crisp biscuit, this little dessert has it all. Mix it up and try your favourite biscuit instead of a waffle.
This popular English dessert is given a Latin twist with Spanish caramel, banana and almonds.