>Childhood taste memories, the really great ones, get embedded in your soul, in the very fabric of who you are. Most people, even the most jaded and sophisticated ones, have a memory of childhood food that they describe with a faraway look in their eyes. For my husband it is his mother’s rice pudding. For me, it’s dulce de leche.
I was just a little girl, no older than eight when I tasted dulce de leche for the first time. My father had just come back from a lengthy trip to visit his parents in Brazil and he had brought back a few of the sweets that he’d loved as a child. He laid them out on the kitchen table, thick pale brown caramel bars and bright red fruit pastes in crinkly plastic labelled with strange words. The dulce de leche was baked into chunky bars. He cut a morsel off with a knife and speared it on the tip before daring me to try it. I took a tiny corner bite that melted on my tongue: the foreign and exciting tangy caramel flavor filled my mouth. It was crumbly and delicious, so sweet, yet like nothing I’d ever tasted before and I felt more awake somehow.
My initial hesitation turned to greed, and I threw myself into the rest of the feast from far away. I shoved the rest of the dulce de leche in my mouth, craving more of this novel sweetness, moving on to guayaba paste and the other foreign fruits, flavors I’ve been searching for ever since without success. I devoured this gift from my father, this unexpected concert of tastes and sensations too quickly, but the exciting new flavors were burned in my taste memory forever. I haven’t found the fruit pastes that I tried that day, but dulce de leche is now a favorite dessert flavor of mine. It’s easy to make, and never fails to take me back to the thrill I felt when it first touched my tongue.
Dulce de Leche is nothing more than caramelized condensed milk. It’s now so popular that you can buy it ready made in most supermarkets, in the baking aisle or the ethnic aisle. But buying it is not nearly as fun as making it, and you’ll have way more excuses to sneak tastes that way. To turn a plain old can of condensed milk into dulce de leche, simply pour the condensed milk into the top of a double boiler and cook it on low heat, stirring occasionally for an hour and a half or until it turns light brown. Never put the unopened can in boiling water as it might explode, possibly burning you and definitely making a big mess in your kitchen. I’ve also seen some sites recommending putting the unopened can in a pressure cooker which sounds even more dangerous. Why risk explosions when you can sneak tastes from a double boiler?
To celebrate Steve breaking his Passover with some sweet carbs as well as the visit of my friend Tricia, I made a Dulce de Leche Cheesecake. I find that the creaminess of this light cheesecake pairs perfectly with the sweet tang of dulce de leche. Topped with some rich, dark chocolate ganache and a homemade graham cracker crust, the cake was a huge success.
Dulce de Leche Ganache Cheesecake
For the Graham Cracker Crust (adapted from Marie’s Makes and Takes recipe):
1 1/2 cups of graham cracker crumbs (either storebought or made by crushing a sleeve of graham crackers in the food processor)
1/3 cups of sugar
6 tablespoons of melted butter
For the Dulce de Leche Filling:
2 cans of condensed milk
2 eggs (always use large eggs unless directed otherwise)
4 ounces of cream cheese
For the Ganache Topping:
4 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate
1/4 cups of heavy cream
- In the top of a boiler, or in a heat-proof bowl if you don’t have a double boiler, pour the contents of two cans of condensed milk. Fill the bottom of the double boiler with 2 inches of water (use a saucepan the bowl fits into if you don’t have a double boiler). Place on the range on low to medium heat, and cook the condensed milk for an hour and a half, stirring occasionally. Watch your water level, refilling when it gets low. The dulce de leche will be a light brown when it is complete. Definitely taste it as it changes!
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Mix the graham cracker crust ingredients in a food processor. Press into a pie pan until packed all around and the surface is reasonably smooth. You can press it in with your fingers, and even use the side of a small bowl or mug to get the bottom really pushed in. That said, I like mine a little loose and crumbly.
- Bake in the oven for 10 minutes to brown it up. Remove and set aside.
- Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Once the dulce de leche is ready, pour it in a food processor. Add the cream cheese and the eggs and pulse until blended.
- Pour into the prepared pie shell. Bake in the middle shelf of the oven for 25-30 minutes, until the center is firm and not jiggly. Remove from the oven and let it cool for 30 minutes to an hour.
- Now it’s time to prepare the ganache. In the double boiler, put the chocolate broken by hand into coarse chunks, and the heavy cream. Cook on low to medium heat until melted. Mix with a spatula and spread onto the cheesecake.
- Serve immediately. Will keep in the fridge (although the ganache will harden a bit) for up to 5 days.