This sweet and creamy treat made from milk and sugar stars in all kinds of desserts.

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Especially popular in Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Peru (where it's known as manjar or manjar blanco), and Colombia (where it's called arequipe), dulce de leche has spread far and wide and gained many fans along the way. A Spanish term that literally means "sweet from milk," it's a thick, creamy, gooey, and sweet spread that is somewhat similar to caramel. The difference? While caramel is caramelized sugar that's made by carefully cooking down granulated sugar at a high temperature, dulce de leche is made from cooking sugar with cow's milk at a lower temperature over a longer period of time. It can be store-bought (look for brands that use sugar instead of corn syrup), or made from scratch at home. Either way, it's entirely irresistible.

dulce de leche served on green plate
Credit: Claudia Totir / Getty Images

The Interesting History of Dulce de Leche

While the origins of dulce de leche are murky, most people trace them back to Latin America in the early 19th-century. One story suggests the maid of Argentinean politician Juan Manuel de Rosas discovered it in the 19th century when she was cooking milk and sugar and got called away and forgot about her pot. When she came back, she saw that the milk had turned into a thick brown sauce that was sweet and creamy. Supporting this theory is the fact that the first historical reference to dulce de leche is in an 1829 record of a meeting between Juan Manuel de Rosas and a political enemy with whom he was trying to make peace. Still, some people say it was first invented in Indonesia, then was taken to the Philippines, and when the Spanish conquered the Philippines they brought it back to Spain and then to the Americas. Others give credit to a chef of Napoleon's in 1804 who left milk and sugar on the stove for too long.

How to Make Dulce de Leche

To make dulce de leche, combine milk and sugar over low heat for several hours until the mixture turns thick and brown. Adding baking powder speeds up the process and helps counteract the bitterness that occurs from a low pH level in milk that gets even lower as it heats up. To speed it up even more, use condensed milk. You can even cook it in straight in the can.

How to Use Dulce de Leche

Once you have your creamy treat, what can you do with it? While eating it plain is certainly delicious, there are even better ways to put your dulche de leche to good use. Spread it on everything from toast to fruit (it goes especially well with bananas) to puff pastry; use it as a fondue to dip into; add it to bread pudding; use it as a frosting for a layer cake; put in brownies, bars, or tarts; use it to make ice cream or use it as a sundae topping; or try it as a decadent filling for French toast, donuts, or crepes. You can also plop a dollop in your morning coffee for a special wake up.

It's classically used in the iconic alfajores of Argentina which are essentially sandwich cookies with a dulce de leche filling (the chocolate cookie version are called chocotorta). Piononos in South America, which are like jelly roll cakes, are usually filled with dulce de leche. The national cake of Uruguay is called postre chajá and is made from layers of sponge cake, whipped cream, and dulce de leche, and then topped with meringue and peach or apricot slices. It can also be used in savory recipes like as a glaze for duck or ham.

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