I have discovered a most dangerous, dangerous secret. Dulce de leche, is ridiculously, stupid-easy to make. And all you need is a slow cooker. Throw it in and forget it overnight. Dulce de leche (or confiture de lait in French) literally translates to “candied milk”. Sweetened milk is cooked over low, slow heat for hours to caramelize the sugar. Eventually forming a dark, thick, caramelized, fudgy milk jam, so to speak.
I first encountered dulce de leche in Russia, of all places. I can’t remember exactly what it was called, but all I know is it was heavenly delicious. During my junior year in high school, I spent a month studying in Rostov-on-Don, Russia and living with a wonderful host family. Mama Tatiana was an incredible cook and as a special treat for me, she made a sweet waffle cookie rolled into a little cone and filled with dulce de leche. Oh, man! I’m pretty sure I ate my weight in these things…two times over. The day before assembly, Tatiana would throw a whole, unopened can of sweetened condensed milk into a big pot of water and she would let it simmer on the stovetop all day long, carefully making sure the water never dropped below the top of the can. The day of, she had this old, ancient looking pizzelle press that she would use to create barely sweet, buttery waffle cookies. As soon as they came off the press, she would quickly roll them into a small cone, like a mini ice cream cone. Then she’d fill the cones with dulce de leche made the night before. Finally, topping them very lightly with a sprinkle of salt. Salt! These were the days way before salted caramel was chic. The first time I saw her do that, I almost had a conniption. All that work and she’s ruining it!! You can’t put salt on caramel! But, oh, my word. That first bite transformed me. I still remember that moment standing in Tatiana’s tiny kitchen, salted dulce de leche dripping from my fingers. I swore this was one thing I would take home with me and make.
But that was over a decade ago now. And the one thing that has stopped me is the thought of cooking a whole entire can over the stove for hours. That’s just a recipe for disaster! Every time I think about it, I imagine exploding cans, metal shrapnel, and hot napalm-like condensed milk flying everywhere. It just seems like a disaster waiting to happen. And thus, I’ve never had the nerve to try it. Until now…
There are several methods that I’ve seen around. There’s the stovetop, unopened can method. Umm. No. Watching the pot for hours, waiting for the IED to go off? No thanks. There’s the oven method outlined here. I absolutely trust everything David Lebovitz has to say, but there’s still a little bit of fiddling and whisking you have to do. A friend tried it this way and had problems with uneven browning and taking much longer than the 1.5 hours prescribed. And then I ran across the slow cooker method: can, water, turn to warm, ignore overnight. Now that’s my kind of recipe! Even though you’re still cooking the entire, unopened can, it feels safer to me somehow. There’s no constant watching over a boiling pot, etc. And it works like an absolute charm! I popped the can into the slow cooker right before going to bed. Turned it off in the morning, removed and cooled the can, then opened it to discover the most glorious, caramelly, fudgy dulce de leche ever!
So what do you do with it from here? Oh, dear reader! So many glorious things. There’s this dulce de leche brownie, use it as a dip for tart green apples, Russian waffle cones, or straight off the spoon (which is my favorite!). Of course whatever you do, top it with a tiny sprinkle of sea salt ala Tatiana who was far, far ahead of her time. I’ll be saving this for a surprise birthday treat. Stay tuned for details!
(And please excuse the blurry pics. I need to work on my shaky hands! )
Dulce de Leche
(stupid-easy aka slow cooker method, inspired by A Year of Slow Cooking)
You will need…
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk*
Old kitchen towel
Sea salt flakes
Place the kitchen towel on the bottom of the slow cooker pot; this will protect the pot from any rust that forms during the cooking process. Because the can sits in water for so long, the edges may rust, but this won’t affect the milk inside.
Remove the paper label from around the can. Place the can on its side on top of the towel in the slow cooker pot. Fill the slow cooker with water until there is at least an inch of water covering the top of the can. The only reason I turn the can on its side is because it’s shorter than its height, and thus you’ll need to use less water to cover the can.
Turn the slow cooker on low and cook for 8 to 12 hours. I left it cooking for 12 hours and the dulce de leche came out incredibly thick and delicious! Cook it less if you like a looser consistency.
Serve on a spoon, topped with the lightest sprinkling of sea salt flakes 🙂 Or use it in a recipe, I suppose…
*for condensed milk, I prefer the Longevity Brand, which you can find in most Asian supermarkets. I think it’s richer and slightly less sweet tasting than supermarket brands.