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Dulce de leche, the Maillard reaction and Coles Magazine

This is sort of part of my continuing but intermittent 'things lurking in the back of the store cupboard' series. I don't have any dulce de leche, but I'm pretty sure there are some gooey caramel like sauces back there. Toppings they call them in the supermarket - things you pour over ice cream and suchlike. I'm also pretty sure they won't have gone off no matter how long they have been sitting there because there is so much sugar in them.

But the thing that really kicked me into this particular post was a Coles product being advertised in the latest Coles Magazine. And more about the magazine itself later on.

To be fair to Coles it is not called dulce de leche but Caramel - with dulce de leche underneath in smaller characters. You see the difference is that caramel is made with sugar, and dulce de leche is made with milk and sugar. I checked the ingredients on the back of the jar on the website, and I saw that it was reasonably authentic in terms of ingredients - though as well as the milk and the sugar there was glucose, skimmed milk powder and thickeners - so not perfect, but getting close perhaps.

There seem to be a few ways of making dulce de leche, most of which sound pretty alarming - heating a can of condensed milk in a pressure cooker for a couple of hours for one. And mention of exploding cans was found here and there. Or they are very tedious - stirring your milk and sugar continuously for a pretty long time - or else it will burn. The easiest method seemed to be Donna Hay's Home-made dulce de leche, shown at right. It looks a bit paler than other versions I have seen on line, but it does sound easy - you just put sweetened condensed milk in the oven for 1 1/2 hours, but even here you have to be careful not to burn it by putting your tray inside another one with hot water. But if you have a need for dulce de leche you could give it a go.

So where does dulce de leche come from? South America is the answer. Argentina claims it as its own but other countries such as Uraguay contest this. SBS has an interesting article about it within which it gives you the legend of how it came to be.

"According to legend, one winter afternoon in 1829 at the home of political leader Juan Manuel de Rosa, a maid distracted making lechada – a drink of boiled milk and sugar – returned to the stovetop to find it had turned into a thick brown jam. Dulce de leche was born." Yasmin Newman - SBS

However, the writer thinks it may have begun back in the 15th and 16th centuries when the Spanish brought both sugar cane and milk to South America. Basically they just don't know, but it is interesting that it seems to have originated over there rather than in Spain say. And the meaning of dulce de lech is sweet milk.

Dulce de leche is a prime example of the Maillard reaction, which Samin Nosrat in her Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat book refers to constantly and describes thus:

"Continue heating proteins in the presence of carbohydrates, and a remarkable thing happens: the Maillard reaction, heat's most significant contribution to flavour. Compare bread to toasted bread, raw to seared tuna, boiled to grilled meat or vegetables. In each case the browned version is much richer and more delightfully complex in flavour ...

This transformation reorganises aromatic compounds into entirely new flavours. In other words, in browned versions of a food we can experience flavours that don't exist in the pale version!"

So really the Maillard reaction, which I seem to have seen a lot of lately, is just browning and caramelising foods. It's named after Louis-Camille Maillard - the French scientist who discovered it. So next time you hear someone going on about it - it's just browning food. Caramelisation is just browning sugar, and is a different chemical reaction.

So what can you do with dulce de leche when you've either made your own, bought a $6.00 jar from Coles, or visited a foodie store for a more authentic version? Well masses and masses of extremely decadent things. To give you an overall view take a peek at delicious Magazine's 10 recipes. The SBS site also has several recipes the best of which I thought was Dulce de leche Eton mess by Simon Bajada. And then I thought to check my database of recipes, mostly from delicious but also from here and there. I had five recipes which all looked very tempting but I thought that Valli Little's Baked dulce de leche cheesecake with toffee shards was the most inviting. Dulce de leche and caramel both in the same recipe.

None of these things are good for you of course. They are pure indulgence which brings me to Coles Magazine's current issue. It's the Easter issue and is packed full of extremely over the top chocolate and sweet things. This year, of course, we have possibly not indulged quite as much as usual as we have not been able to gather together. And here's another interesting thing - Coles makes no mention of our current social isolation and constantly talks about getting together with family and friends over Easter. Their printing schedule is obviously far more advanced than I had thought. This edition must actually date back to as far as February at least for it's final version, if not January. It will be interesting to see what happens in May.

But back to indulgence and Easter. The more I think about it the more I am convinced that Easter is really a celebration of spring, of the end of winter and not really too much to do with the story of Jesus. It's a northern hemisphere festival after all. It, like Christmas just does not make sense down under. Yes I guess Jesus rising from the dead is cause for celebration, but overall the story of the Christian Easter is pretty grim really. I wonder when Easter became a celebration of chocolate? I get the eggs - rebirth and all of that, but why the chocolate?

I also wonder when dulce de leche became so much of a thing that it has found its way into being an actual Coles product, slightly bastardised though it might be. Perhaps it's the passion for churros - I think they are sometimes dipped in dulce de leche. But they are more Portuguese than South American aren't they?

Anyway, next time I have ice cream - it's a very rare event - I should check my pantry to see if there is an exotic sauce to pour over the top.


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