I'm back! And I have something to share.
On my last day at the farm, as the volunteers were huddled over the counter in the kitchen making homemade dulce de leche, Cynthia told us a secret. Boil a can of condensed milk, she said. Don't forget to remove the label. Let it simmer. A few hours later, you'll have dulce de leche. That morning we were making a liter of the sweet with fresh milk and cream from her cow Margarita that we'd reserved for two days. Cynthia keeps five marbles specifically for when she makes dulce de leche. She tosses them in to the pot of boiling milk to ensure the liquid never stops moving.
Dulce de leche was never really my thing, at least up until that morning it wasn't. To me it was just a fancy term for the caramel sometimes found in too sweet cheesecakes, and the flavor featured in every Argentine ice cream shop. But when I tasted the first bite of Cynthia's homemade version, still hot from the pot and about half an hour away from truly being ready, I changed my mind. This dulce de leche was milky and creamy, rich and smooth, soft, but not too sweet. I licked the pot, my spoon fighting for a spot with those of the other volunteers and Cynthia's husband's, Nacho. I wanted more. Luckily, the jar Cynthia prepared for us cooled just as she pulled a loaf of homemade bread from the oven.
I tried all afternoon to stop eating, but every time I walked by the bread and dulce jar (That was often. Very often. They were arranged on the counter in the teeny casita I was staying in) I had to take just one more slice - I couldn't help it! The bread was still warm and so soft - and about three more spoonfuls. My stomach ached until the next morning.
The farm's volunteers - in December, three to five American girls in their twenties - headed into town on the weekends. We had a routine. Take the collectivo straight to the coffee shop. Order a large coffee with milk on the side. Enjoy. And then head to La Nona, a friendly bakery down the road. We'd often get three or four things each, planning to save for later, but never holding out for very long. On a day when we skipped La Nona for breakfast, I went in after lunch, craving a sweet snack. I didn't debate as I usually did in the mornings, and went straight for the mini alfajores, sandwich cookies filled with dulce de leche and rimmed with coconut flakes. An excellent choice. The dough was dry and crumbly, almost bready, but not too heavy, not too buttery. A perfect complement to offset the sugary filling. I got another. And another every day after that that I could go back.
I thought of making dulce de leche every day since I learned how. I don't have a milk cow or special marbles for the occasion, so I devoted my day to tending a pot boiling two tiny cans. Making alfajores seemed the only natural next step.
Dulce de Leche
1 16-oz can of sweetened condensed milk
Remove the label from the can. Submerge the can(s) in water in a pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat so that the water simmers. Leave the cans simmering for 3 1/2 - 4 hours for a large can, and closer to 3 for a small can. Check periodically to make sure that the cans are always submerged.
Remove the cans from the water with tongs.
makes 18 sandwiches
1 stick good quality butter, room temperature
4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 tbsp cognac, or brandy
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 c orange juice
1 tsp orange or lemon zest
1/2 c sugar
2 c flour
1 c corn starch
pinch of salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
dulce de leche
sweetened coconut flakes
In a medium bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until fluffy and creamy Add the egg yolks, beaten lightly, one by one, followed by the vanilla, brandy, orange zest and orange juice. With a mixer on low speed, combine well. Add vanilla and brandy and mix well.
In a separate medium-sized bowl, combine the flour, cornstarch, salt, baking soda, and baking powder. Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients. Combine using a low speed until the dough is soft and cohesive. Using your hands, work it into a ball. Chill for 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 325°. Roll out the dough to 1/4-inch thick on a floured work surface. Cut into 2-inch rounds and transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for about 1o minutes. The cookies should dry, and not brown. Let cool.
Meanwhile, fill a bowl with coconut flakes.
When the cookies are cool, spread a generous layer of dulce de leche on one. Close it with another to create a sandwich, squeezing slightly for a little of the filling to peek over the edges. Roll the dulce de leche in coconut flakes to coat entirely.