The Dish - Confiture de lait
You may have heard of Dulce de leche. It’s been a flavour in fashion with North American chefs and in cooking magazines for some time, because it has been adopted as an American favourite thanks to the Latin American influence. Mexico , Argentina , Paraguay , Chile , Uruguay , Cuba , etc etc – they all have their versions. Haagan daz even has a Dulce de leche ice cream on the market.
When I first heard of Dulce de leche five or six years or seven years ago (I can’t remember), I was intrigued. Before I had a chance to taste or experiment with this flavour, I came across a Québecoise girl, the girlfriend of one of my fellow cooks at l’Eau, who spoke to me of her mom’s ‘confiture de lait’. With some further exploration, I realized that Quebec culture had its own dulce de leche. It turns out that it’s pretty much the same thing – caramelized milk, or milk reduced down to a caramel. A little more digging indicated that it all likely stems from Normandy and people forgetting their morning hot milk on the stove.
To make confiture de lait or Dulce de leche, some sugar is added to milk to help the process unless you are using condensed milk as they do in many Latin American countries. It is reduced down to the point of color change. Often some butter or white chocolate is folded in at the end to add complexity, but this last step is a modern addition as far as I can tell. Maybe because the milk we have now is less complex in itself. Or maybe because we can’t help but improve on old recipes; we want to do more things with it besides butter toast, or because we typically don’t have condensed milk in our cupboards. In any case, its milk and sugar = caramel that tastes like toffee. Even the English incorporated into their tradition in the form of Banoffee pie!
Why confiture de lait? Well, a little while ago, I was reviewing some old inspirational menu-notes of mine, when I came across the confiture de lait thread on my ‘things to try’ list – I had totally forgotten about it. Yet, it’s just the kind of thing I love – so humble, yet so exciting, because it’s so widespread but not understood, there’s a story behind it and plus, I’ve never done it. It was time to give it a go.
Since I had recently done a cooking session with Patrice Demers where he made a white chocolate yogourt mousse to top a grapefruit Campari hibiscus salad (with litchi granite), I thought I might combine some of both in my dessert for the weekend – I loved the idea of cutting the sweetness of white chocolate with tangy yogourt. I had also seen a very appetizing modern version of the millefeuille somewhere (that until then, I always associated with that horrible Vachon cake), so now I had all the components I needed: Confiture de lait, crispy pastry, some fruit on the side; add some wild flavours, and I’d be all set.
I made a confiture de lait à la Québecoise (as opposed to Mexican) well because I am Québecoise. Then I added white chocolate at the end and whisked in some yogourt. White chocolate is already so sickly sweet, add milk caramel (it’s almost redundant actually) therefore the yogurt was mandatory (Thanks Patrice). I flavoured it with vanilla grass (foin d’odeur), an aromatic wild herb that I often use in dessert preparations. I suppose you could use any flavouring that you would in a flan or crème anglaise, a shot of liqueur like Amaretto or Frangelico comes to mind, chai spices, or ginger. Anyway, I then layered it puff pastry with a tart compote of wild berries (partridgeberry, blueberry, blackberry, elderberry ) and served a sorbet of the same berries on the side. It was a hit, maybe not like a chocolate hit, but still, I was encouraged.
So I kept it it around for another week but refined it a little. I used phyllo for a crisper element, less like a traditional millefeuille, but more reasonable for me (since puff pastry is super labour intensive if you want to make it yourself) and plus, phyllo tastes lighter so I figured I could layer it more, play around some with the presentation. It ended up being 3 (x5) layers, very delicate and crisp and assembled à la minute with confiture de lait and berry coulis holding it all together, I was happy.
As you can see, I’m having fun here, but it’s just a fling; I will have moved on to something else by next week, but still I like the whole Dulce de leche thing. My conclusion however, is that it is best on its own - on toast, with pound cake, kind of like jam or icing. Even if it tastes great everywhere, it’s too subtle to be mixing with all kinds of things – it just becomes indistinguishable. I could have made pastry cream and served a caramel sauce alongside, and no one would have known, maybe it would even have been better. That doesn’t mean that confiture de lait or Dulce de leche is not a great thing. Not only is it extremely versatile, but it has history, and it’s dear to so many people around the world. I just love that Quebec has a common recipe to Latin America, all thanks to our careless, yet adventurous French ancestors or conquerors. To me, that makes it that much more interesting, worth trying and worthy of a post.
Back to the kitchen: Think about all the possibilities.. We could flavour it with traditional flavours like vanilla or cinnamon or coffee or exotic flavours like tonka bean, passionfruit or licorice … We could use brown sugar instead of plain sugar. We could kick it up a notch with some booze (in Latin America , rum would be a natural), but any brandy or liqueur would be good. We could use cream, a combination of milk and cream, or just milk. We could use coconut milk. We could make it thick and spreadable, light and fluffy, or thin it out to make a sauce. We could use it as icing on a cupcake or as jam on toast. We could use it as a filling like pastry cream… Or we could make ice cream with it by just adding it to cream - you don’t even need yolks – see epicurious recipe http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/238431.
My recipe for Confiture de Lait (Milk caramel or Dulce de leche), based on various others and tests:
1 L of milk (or 3 cups of milk and 1 cup cream –better!)
1 1/2 cup sugar (300g)
1 vanilla bean (or a generous pinch of cinnamon, or I used 20g vanilla-grass)
1 tsp baking soda
a good pinch of salt
Combine all and reduce slowly (1+ hrs) until it looks and smells like a light caramel.
At this point, you can whisk in a pat of butter or a spoon of honey, or some chocolate depending on what you think you want taste-wise, what texture you are in the mood for, and what you are using it for. The butter or chocolate will make it more decadent as well as thicken it up once cold, which is good for a spread, but if you want a sauce, then thin it down with cream after. If you add yogurt like I did, wait until it cools slightly. Keep refrigerated. On my last night of service, I folded in barely sweetened Chantilly (whipped cream) to it and loved the results (very mousse like), would make a terrific crepe filling or trifle component.
Serve with toast, crêpes or croissant. Or serve in a bowl with berries or with pound cake or butter cookies and berries or a fruit coulis.