First Things First: Dulce de Leche

Dulce de leche means “milk candy” or “sweet milk” in Spanish, and is it ever. However I should say that not every Spanish-speaker knows it by that name. In some parts of Central and South America it’s called manjar. Since my first experiences of it came by way of Mexicans in Chicago, I know it as cajeta. However I’ll caution you not to use that word in a room full of young Mexican cooks. There’s no surer way to bring a group like that to their knees laughing than to ask ¿Que es cajeta? loudly. For in addition to denoting caramel, the word also refers to…er, it’s slang for the female um…

Hey I know — let’s change the subject. Dulce de leche is a caramel, but one that’s produced in an atypical way. Whereas most caramel is made by browning sugar in a pan and only then adding cream or milk to it, dulce de leche is made by reducing a large quantity of sweetened milk down to a syrup, even a jam. Yes, you can also make it by boiling an unopened can of sweetened condensed milk in a pot for hours. However not only does that method produce what I consider a vastly inferior (one-dimensional and cloying sweet) product, it’s also been known to end in explosion.

Nope, the best way to make a great duce de leche is to man up and do it the old-fashioned way: with a pot and spoon. Sure it’ll take you an hour, but the rewards of a true goat’s milk dulce de leche are real. And delicious.

Reader Maribel from Monterrey. Mexico writes:

I wanted to share something I heard recently on the radio about the origin of the word cajeta. Cajeta was first sold in large containers but in the city of Celaya Guanajuato they started packaging it in small wooden boxes so you could conveniently take it along and eat it as candy. It became very popular among the Otomi Indians who couldn’t pronounce the word “cajita” (small box) so they asked for cajeta instead.

Just a note, I think its Argentina where cajeta is a bad word because here in Mexico that’s how we know it and we seldom use the term “dulce de leche.”

I like that story! As far as the bad word discussion is concerned, it may be that it’s people in the Mexican state of Michoacán use cajeta to denote, well, let’s not go down that road again. A great majority of the Mexican people in Chicago are from Michoacán, which is where I first became aware of the word. Then again, I’m no expert on these sort of things. Argentina may well be the source. Thanks very much for the email, Maribel!

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