Insanely sweet, gooey and lusciously drippy, nothing inspires an otherwise civilised person to eat straight from a can like sweetened condensed milk does. It’s made by slowly boiling whole milk, which evaporates water and forms a thick, concentrated milky liquid. Plenty of sugar (in a ratio of nearly half sugar to milk) gets added along the way.
The concept of condensing milk isn’t a new one. According to Marco Polo, the 13th-century Tatars were doing it, and Nicolas Appert, the French inventor of airtight food preservation, finessed the process in 1820. Appert, who used glass jars to preserve food, was answering the call of Napoleon, looking for a way to provide food that wouldn’t spoil for his vast armies. Canned foods, including condensed milk, were later used widely as field rations during the American Civil War, as milk in this form was easy to store and transport. Troops returning home sang the praises of the stuff and – bingo! – consumer demand was born.
Today, sweetened condensed milk is consumed around the globe and is especially useful in tropical climes, thanks to an almost indefinite shelf life. It is used in places like Malaysia and Vietnam in coffee, fruit shakes and to sweeten tea. It’s also used as an ingredient in certain desserts across Asia and the subcontinent, and is even slathered on toast for breakfast. In Latin America it shows up in sweets such as Brazilian brigadeiros (a confection not unlike chocolate truffles) and torta de bolacha, a baroque arrangement of biscuits, creamy custard, lemon juice and condensed milk. It’s also the base for dulce de leche, used widely in South America for cake and biscuit fillings. Maybe the most famous condensed milk based desserts though, are the American key lime pie and modern British creation, banoffee pie.
Traditional recipes for these ridiculously delicious buns tend to be dense with flour, but here’s a slightly fluffier version for you to try. As if the condensed milk in the filling isn’t enough, you get to pour more over the end result.
2. Condensed milk jelly
In a cup, soften 2½ tsp powdered gelatine in 2½ tbsp cold water. Place the cup in a saucepan of simmering water and heat until dissolved. Heat ⅔ cup sweetened condensed milk and 330 ml soy milk together. Stir in the gelatine mixture, divide among glasses then refrigerate. Simmer 250 g sugar, ⅓ cup ground coffee and 400 ml water until slightly thickened. Cool, strain and serve with jelly.
3. Carrot halva
In a large saucepan, cook 1.5 kg grated carrot in ½ cup ghee over medium heat for 30 minutes, stirring, until quite dry. Stir in 1 x 395 g can condensed milk, 1 tsp ground cardamom, ⅓ cup sugar and ½ cup each chopped cashews and raisins. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring, for another 1 hour or until very thick. Press mixture into a dish, set aside to cool, then cut into pieces.
Otherwise known as caramel slice, delve into this timeless favourite that is a delicious combo of crunchy, biscuity base, gooey caramel filling and glossy chocolate coating. The addition of salted peanuts only makes an already very good thing even better. This does make an admittedly large batch but you can easily just halve everything and bake it in a smaller dish.
5. Dulce de leche
Pierce the top of a can of sweetened condensed milk three times around the edge. Place in a saucepan of water, pierced side up, and fill the pan with water to come three-quarters of the way up the side of the can. Simmer for 4 hours, topping up the water as necessary. Remove can carefully from pan, cool can completely, then open and remove dulce de leche.
6. No-churn cherry ice-cream
In a bowl, whisk 600 ml pouring cream until it starts to thicken. Pour in 1 x 395 g can sweetened condensed milk and whisk for 3 minutes or until creamy. Pour into a 16 cm x 20 cm x 5 cm ceramic dish and drop 8 tablespoonfuls of cherry jam over the top. Cover with plastic wrap then freeze overnight. Stand for 5 minutes to soften before serving with pitted cherries.
Pound cake is so-called because of the ratio of flour, butter, eggs and sugar; the weight of each is more or less identical, and recipes in imperial measurements often called for a pound of each. The condensed milk gives the cake a tenderness and richness that is rather seductive.
8. Spiced rice pudding
Cook 1⅔ cups arborio rice in 1⅓ cups milk and 1½ cups water with 2 cinnamon sticks, covered, until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender. Stir in 400 ml milk, 1 x 395g can sweetened condensed milk and ½ cup sugar. Stir over low heat for 15 minutes or until creamy. Remove cinnamon and serve hot or warm.
9. Condensed milk mayo
Surprise yourself by trying this version of a years-gone-by favourite lightly drizzled over bitter leaves such as radicchio and curly endive. In a bowl, whisk together 1 x 395g can sweetened condensed milk, 2 teaspoons powdered mustard and 1 cup malt vinegar, until smooth. Stand for a few minutes then season with salt and pepper. Thin with a little water, if you like.
This rich Lebanese dessert is traditionally made using clotted cream, while some cooks use whipped ricotta sweetened with sugar and flavoured with orange blossom water. Needless to say, versions abound, but the condensed milk cream in this recipe works super-well.
Photography, styling and food preparation by china squirrel.
View previous 10 ways with… columns and recipes. When she doesn’t have her head in the pantry cupboard, Leanne Kitchen finds time to photograph food and write cookbooks. You can view her work on her website.