It won't be easy / you'll think it strange / when I try to explain how I feel / that I still need your love after all that I've done. So sings María Eva Duarte de Perón in the legendary Broadway hit Evita. Well Eva dear, you do have some explaining to do regarding a certain dulce de leche recipe…
One of the highlights of Buenos Aires was our visit to the Museo Evita, housed in a magnificent mansion in the posh Palermo neighborhood. This beautiful Italian Renaissance style residence was acquired by Eva Perón's Foundation as one of her "Temporary Homes," a safe haven for vulnerable women and girls who might otherwise turn to a life of vice on the streets.
The majestic interiors are the perfect backdrop for the large collection of couture dresses, shoes, hats and and jewelry displayed, along with film clips, photos and other documentation of her life of innumerable good works. I loved the kitchen — large, open, sunny, so easy to imagine the generous, nutritious meals created for the down-at-heels residents. And lo and behold, the gift shop offered a cookbook with a recipe for dulce de leche. Think of it: how might the dulce de leche prepared here compare to contemporary offerings?
And so begat the great dulce de leche taste-off. First, a top Argentine brand, Jumbo, with its nueva fórmula mas cremosa. Next, a widely available brand found here in the U.S., Alpina, which is imported from Columbia. When dulce de leche began its conquest of America, the go-to recipe was established as canned sweetened condensed milk, boiled for two hours in the unopened can submerged in at least a couple of inches of water. (This method is somewhat controversial, safety-wise, but I've had no calamities yet. Just make sure to keep it well covered in the boiling water.)
And then the recipe from Evita's home for wayward women. It's an open-pan recipe: 1.5 L milk (I used whole, organic); .5 L sugar dissolved in 1/4 L hot water, and a whole vanilla bean. Bring the milk, with a pinch of baking soda, to the boil in a wide copper pan. Add the sugar and the vanilla, return to the boil and cook 50 minutes, stirring all the while to prevent sticking and burning.
After 50 minutes the mixture had thickened nicely, though the color was somewhat wan. But 50 minutes is 50 minutes, and Fascists are nothing if not particular about time schedules. So then you continue to stir as the mixture cools, which is accelerated by placing the copper pan in a sink of cold water.
Now the test: a blind tasting of the four versions, maintaining the most rigorous scientific protocols, conducted in our office, home to many avowed lovers of dulce de leche. What were their expectations? A strong caramel taste, a richness in consistency, not too thick, not too watery. An inviting brown color.
Careful records were kept to judge each for flavor, consistency and sweetness.
Sadly, sample "B," Evita's notably pale version was roundly dismissed. While still warm, this recipe had a smoothy spreadability, though upon cooling the sugar crystallized and solidified alarmingly. Of our 12 tasters, only two ranked it tops for sweetness. Adding further indignity, some tasters went out of their way to deride it. Comments such as "B is bad" and "B was nasty" were recorded, and others indicated specific displeasure as well.
That left "A": Jumbo from Argentina; "C": the Eagle Brand condensed milk; and "D": Alpina, from Columbia. Surprisingly, our panelists delivered another blow to Argentine pride. Jumbo earned a single mark for sweetness, two for consistency, and one for flavor. It was the darkest, but that ultimately did not sway our tasters. No one went out of their way to denounce it, but it was a mere two points ahead of the foul Evita offering.
So it came down to the boiled-in-the can American condensed milk recipe and the off-the-shelf Alpina from Columbia
The condensed milk version took the day! Four tasters gave it top marks across the board, clean sweeps totaling 12 top marks, with comments including "Fabulous." Still, Alpina garnered respectable support; though only a single taster ranked it tops in all three categories, proclaiming "Yum, D by far."
The condensed milk version went on to win highest praise for flavor three more times, twice for consistency, and an additional recognition for sweetness. Total top score = 18 points.
Alpina received three additional wins for flavor, two for consistency, and then three more for sweetness. Alpina's final score = 11 points.
RECIPE FOR THE BEST DULCE DE LECHE:
Get a regular sized can of sweetened condensed milk (no low fat, low calorie options please). Do not open or puncture the can in any way. Put in a pot of water with at least 2 inches of water to cover. Boil for 2 hours. Keep an eye on it to make sure the water level stays high. The label will fall off, don't worry. Remove and let cool. It's now done — open it right away or keep it in the pantry, it needn't be refrigerated until it's opened.