(vegan baking + other minor obsessions)
My earliest memory somehow revolves around dulce de leche. I was only 2 and my parents and grandparents had been invited to a dinner party at a neighbour’s house. We were on holiday in Uruguay and the two houses were a good 100 metres apart, with a large untamed plot between them. They left me in the care of my 18-year old uncle, who went to sleep after safely tucking me into bed. And at that point I decided to get up and go to where the action was, opened the kitchen door and in my pyjamas and bare feet made my way to our neighbour’s and quietly knocked on the door. After the adults got over the shock of seeing me there (what to do now, I had obviously made it safely to the right place) I was given a dulce de leche alfajor and allowed to stay and play with the kids in the house.
Argentineans are passionate about their dulce de leche (which literally translates into “milk jam” and is a sticky, creamy, caramelly confection), and convinced that they (we) invented it. Many other Latin American nations have their own versions and some also claim it as their own, but foodie patriotism aside, the fact is we’ll probably never know where it originated, and there is historical evidence of its existence dating back to the 17th century. Actually, let’s go back to foodie patriotism: my preference is definitely for Argentinean-style dulce de leche, which I think has the best balance of consistency, flavour and just the hint of vanilla it needs. This is the style I am trying to replicate here.
The main ingredient being milk, how do you make vegan dulce de leche? There are a few vegan recipes around, but many feature ingredients that you would never find in a classic dulce de leche. Coconut-milk based recipes will give you dulce de coco, arguably a delicacy in its own right, but not dulce de leche. Other exotic ingredients such as brown rice syrup or brown sugar will have the same effect: introducing flavours that don’t belong there. And another pitfall to avoid is the all-too-common mistake (in both vegan and conventional recipes alike) of adding too much vanilla – there should be just a hint, a backdrop to the main caramelised milk flavour.
With these principles in mind I set out to create a recipe that is as close to a classic dulce de leche as you can get, without the dairy. After testing with nut milks, all of which introduced nut flavours which didn’t quite belong, I finally decided on soya milk – it simply gives the best results. It is important to choose a soya milk that has no additives, as any thickeners or stabilisers will affect the final consistency of the dulce de leche. Look for a milk that lists just soya beans and water as ingredients.
And finally, dulce de leche, and especially soya dulce de leche, likes to climb up the sides of the pan. Use a large saucepan for this recipe and if you are thinking of making a double+ batch, get out your stockpot!
Vegan Classic Dulce de Leche
1L/35fl oz/4 cups unsweetened soya milk
200g/7oz/scant 1 cup granulated sugar
50g/1¾oz/2½ tbsp liquid glucose
¼ tsp bicarbonate
¼ tsp vanilla extract
6 kids’ glass marbles (optional, to help the stirring action and preventing the mixture from sticking to the pan)
digital thermometer or sugar thermometer (recommended)
metal mesh sieve/strainer
Put the soya milk, sugar, glucose and bicarbonate in a large saucepan; do not stir. Bring to a gentle boil over a medium heat without stirring (this will help to prevent the DDL from crystallizing during storage, should it ever last that long).
As the mixture approaches the boil, it will foam up. Quickly remove it from the heat, stir, and reduce the heat to low. Put the pan back on the heat and add the glass marbles, if using. If using a probe you can set it over the side of the pan, taking care that the tip stays submerged in the mixture but doesn’t touch the base or side of the pan.
Cook slowly, stirring frequently, for about 45–60 minutes, until thickened and caramel brown. If you are using a thermometer, go by temperature rather than time: initially stir every 5–10 minutes until the mixture reaches 100°C/200°F. At 100°C/200°F the colour will have deepened and it will be starting to get thicker; check and stir every 5 minutes now.
Once the mixture reaches 102°C/216°F, things will start to happen very quickly; stay by the pan and stir constantly at this point.
When the dulce de leche reaches 105°C/221°F, it is ready. Alternatively, you can check the setting point by putting a drop of the mixture on a cold plate; it should hold its shape and not run when tilted.
Remove the pan from the heat and quickly pour the mixture through a sieve to remove the marbles and any hard caramelised bits. Pour into jam jars, filling them to the top, then immediately cover with the lids and invert the jars so the hot dulce de leche sterilises the lids. Cool completely. Store in a cool place and refrigerate once opened.