Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dulce de Leche/Manjar Desde Cero

Posted by Mandy

In her article on "Rebozos: Our Cultural Blankets," my former teacher, Profe Gutiérrez y Muhs speaks of the rebozo as a Mexican cultural icon:
But the rebozo is much more than this, an at least five hundred year old icon is a symbol of resistance and inscription of a culture into various others. It is a boundary of one's body; it is a space uncrossed by others. A rebozo has been, and to some Chicanas/Mexicans or their immediate relatives continues to be, one or more of these: a belt, a coat, an apron, a garment, a cover, a shield, a purse, a pre-Columbian slinky, an insignia, a tie from mother to grandmother, a sign of womanhood, a shelter, a hiding place, a wheel barrel, a roof, an altar, a clothesline, a bandage, a string, a song, a kerchief, a tablecloth, an adornment, a tool. In our anthropological cultural quest we find that it is the umbilical chord with which every generation has been tied even to pre-Columbian times. Most importantly it reminds us of the mother image that many of us carry in our hearts with tenderness. But, because this is the most obvious use of a rebozo as a cradle for culture, Chicana/Mexicana culture, and womanhood it sometimes reminds us of the stereotype of indigenous woman/mother/rebozo. (138)
Since originally reading this piece a few years ago, I began wondering what might be a cultural icon of Chile. When I think of Chile, the motherland ("land from which my mother came"), so many images float through my mind. I think of Chilean exports: bronze and pottery, wines and grapes. The literature of Pablo Neruda, Isabel Allende, and Gabriella Mistral's "Besos." Ceramic good luck pigs with only 3 legs, tv's in the mother's rooms, and café con leche as a descriptor for shades of skin.

Three-legged Chilean good luck pig

When it comes to food, though, there are really only two things Chilena I know how to make: arroz con leche and dulce de leche: rice with milk or sweet of milk.

A few weeks ago, we discussed an article on condensed milk in the New York Times by journalist Julia Moskin. This piece explained how condensed milk has always been treated as "inferior, if useful, substitutes" by "food snobs" who favor fresh milk. Yet the article goes on to describe how condensed milk (and evaporated milk) are important if not essential to the cuisines of many non-European countries, such as the Philippines (halo-halo), Jamaica (cream punch), and Brasil (pudim de abacate).

It is also the only essential ingredient for dulce de leche.

Dulce de leche suposedly came to Chile in the seventeenth century, brought by José de San Martín when he crossed the Andes. In case you don't know, San Martín is also known as one of the Liberator, for he, along with Simón Bolívar, are national heroes in Chile (and throughout South America) for leading many countries of the continent to defeat Spain in their wars for independence.

When I first thought about making dulce de leche (aka manjar) with my mother, I pulled up some other peoples' recipes, particularly those that either said they were from Chile or authentic. You might imagine my surprise to find that many of these dubious recipes failed to include sweetened condensed milk among their lists of ingredients.

For example, the Food Network's Alton Brown calls for whole milk, sugar, a vanilla bean, and baking soda. A purportedly "authentic" recipe of Chile from includes similar items in its recipe list, with the addition of vanilla extract and subtraction of the single vanilla bean. Apart from the ingredients, cooking times and methods also vary quite considerably.

But it is more the Alton Brown recipe that rubs me the wrong way. Recipes, like this one, generally do not include cultural studies-y explanations of why a certain ingredient might have been substituted in. Yet, as Alton Brown is considered a food "expert," and the first hit on Google for "dulce de leche recipe," his is probably the most likely recipe any new dulce de leche maker is going to find. Which is just annoying, because it's inauthentic. It reminds me much of the Fern Gully, Avatar, Dances with Wolves narrative, wherein the white man learns to do "native" things better than the "native." Alton Brown has became the quintessential dulce de leche maker whom people will depend upon for an accurate recipe.

Well, Alton. Let me give you a real dulce de leche desde cero recipe.

Waiting for Dulce de Leche to Cook

Dulce de leche Recipe from my Mama
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 3 hours


  • sweetened condensed milk (my mom clarifies that it cannot have a pull tab, but must be one that is opened by a can opener)
... and that's it. If you are making it for realsies, all you need is a can of sweetened condensed milk, water, a stove, and a cooking pot (no lid is needed).

Place can of sweetened condensed milk in water in a cooking pot. Place cooking pot on stove and bring to boil. After water begins boiling, bring temperature down semi-boil on medium for 3 hours.

And there you have it. Now you know how easy it is. Although, I must admit, this method is definitely not preferable to those of Alton Brown and friends in terms of safety. Every once in a while, the can will explode. But is is worth it for the yum factor.

Dulce de leche is tastier than it looks...

The thing that most strikes me about these other recipes are how much more they would cost. Dulce de leche is pretty cheap to make, generally costing about one USD. Yet the addition of whole milk, "one vanilla bean," baking powder, and sugar must bring up the cost considerably. I remember making arroz con leche once in Japan, and having an onlooker suggest I add salt, which sweetens without adding the non-nutritious-ness of sugar. We had a long discussion on why salt wouldn't be a part of the recipe (which instead calls for adding buckets of sugar to taste), and finally decided that either salt was not available or too expensive for the relatives from whom this recipe was passed down.

Which leads me to question who Alton Brown is really writing for (recognizing that it probably is not the Latin@s who created this recipe in the first place).

Works Cited

Alvarez, Beatriz. "South American Famous Dessert - Dulce de Leche." Ezine @rticles. 1 Nov. 2010. Web.

Brown, Alton. "Dulce de Leche Recipe." Food Network. 30 Oct. 2010. Web.

Gutiérrez y Muhs, Gabriella. "Rebozos: Our Cultural Blankets." Voces 3.1-2 (Spr. 2001): 134-149. Print.

Makka. "Manjar (Dulce de Leche) from Scratch." 30 Oct. 2010. Web

Moskin, Julia. "Milk in a Can Goes Glam." The New York Times 3 March 2010, online ed. 30 Oct. 2010. Web.

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