The Most Addictive Substance Known to Man

by Liz Caskey on February 12, 2010

Thanks to Roboppy for this yummy pic.

You may be wondering what that is. No, it’s not illegal, although like crack, it will turn you into a junkie. It’s not caffeine either, but you will get a buzz–of sorts.

Can you guess what it is?

It’s a sweet, thick spreadable milk caramel called dulce de leche in Argentina and Uruguay, and manjar in Chile.  I call it, “cow candy”, or “death by milky, gooey sugar”. The secret officially got out in the US with Haagen Daz swirling it into its vanilla ice cream . Starbucks followed suit with pumping it into its dessert-disguised-as-a-coffee-beverage Frappuccino. And on my last trip up north, I found it in yogurt and on a lot of restaurant dessert menus. It has caught on, with reason.

The stuff is delicious, addictive, and habit-forming like all things such as sugar can be. If you aren’t careful, you WILL quickly become a dulce de leche whore. (Sigh) It happened to me. All the healthy eating, no cow’s milk motto, and balanced diet willpower just flies out the window when this stuff appears in my frig. I cannot control myself. It’s just too good. Be warned.

Dulce de leche is sweetened milk, with sugar, slowly simmered to form a thick sauce with a syrup-like consistency and caramel color. Popular throughout all of South America and brought to the New World by the Spanish and Portuguese colonists, this caramel shows up in desserts, cakes, alfajores, ice creams, flans, and pudding. It begs to be spread over warm toast as it melts, add some heavenly creaminess to buttery Argentine medialunas (type of croissant), or as my husband prefers it, with a big spoon straight out of the container. It is so prolific in these latitudes, I can only compare it to Nutella in Europe, or peanut butter in North America.

There are some subtle differences worth mentioning between countries in the Southern Cone, my dulce de leche/manjar territory, naturally, since the milk consistency and flavor varies.

Argentina: The marked vanilla accent really sets the dulce de leche apart from its neighbors. In general, while very sweet, it tastes less sugary to me than manjar in Chile, and the spreadable factor is divine. La Salamandra is widely exported now to the States although my favorite in-country brand is La Serenissima, which comes in traditional or colonial style. These stylistic differences usually refer to the thickness. Colonial is “stiffer” and used more in facturas, pastries.

Chile: In Chile, there are really three types of manjar: commercial, de campo (countryside), and the white variety. The commercial kind is your basic “stiff” manjar with a consistency on par with toothpaste. It is overly sweet for my tastebuds and would probably send a diabetic to the ER since it is made with reduced condensed milk. Manjar from the countryside is a different story since 5 liters of fresh milk and 1 kilo of sugar are simmered down over the better part of a day to yield about 1 liter (4 cups). The woman who stands there to churn this manjar, literally meaning “nectar”, must have the patience of Buddha. This caramel has a runnier consistency. It is cooked down even further, chilled, and cut into calugas, caramel bites, that induce ecstasy. In the South, there is a tradition of white manjar, very difficult to make since to keep the sugar from scorching and caramelizing. In Chile, I don’t really have a favorite brand. I love picking it up at country shops or delis where the señora of the house keeps hers on hand.

Uruguay: God knows there are a LOT of cows in Uruguay; four cows for every human to be exact. This would explain the predominance of cheese, milk, and well, a lot of dulce de leche. The milk in Uruguay, with the cattle feeding on verdant pastures, has a unique, superior taste in my opinion. It has body, a slightly green/floral note, and a lot of fat. The best dulce de leche I have had so far is from Uruguay. Subtle with the vanilla aroma, creamy, spreadable, thick, and not oh-so-sweet, the 4 jars of La Pataia we brought back lasted, no kidding, not even two weeks. Junkies, yes? So how do we get these goods in Chile, por favor?

If you are really Gung ho and want to try this at home there are two methods: 1. The easy method, proposed by Ashley of the Not without Salt blog, is to simmer a can of sweetened condensed milk in water for roughly three hours. Or 2. try my fellow blogger, Rebecca Caro’s, homemade recipe for the slow, stirring option. For the latter, remember, you have to have prerequisite patience of Buddha; although surely your taste buds will see the light when you lick the wooden spoon.


Dan February 12, 2010 at 12:48 pm

I think it’s one of those “love it or hate it” substances. Even having it on the table makes my teeth hurt and I rarely, if ever, can bring myself to actually injest it. But then, I tend to like salty things and not sweet… 😉

Rebecca February 14, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Liz, thanks so much for the link! One of the best inventions ever, and it’s good on just about everything!

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