Everyday life has gotten a lot safer since I was a kid. Some of the stuff we did, it's a wonder we survived.
A few of us in the office were talking about the status-quos of our youth that are complete no-nos in today's society: standing on the front seat of the car between your parents; people smoking anywhere, even in hospitals; lathering your skin with baby oil and broiling on the beach under a summer sun.
I don't think that boiling sweetened condensed milk in its can quite reaches the danger zones of those things, but it once was an accepted practice to caramelize the milk in this way, as some widely circulated recipes directed. It was a do-it-yourself dulce de leche, which translates from Spanish as "candy of milk."
But there are mentions of exploding cans on the Internet, enough to make you wonder, even though a number of people still swear by the method.
Eagle, a leading brand, weighs in on its website: "For safety reasons, do not heat in the can (an old cooking method)."
This all came to the fore after Marie Link of Ridgeville called asking about an older recipe for homemade caramel cake. The recipe she's lost called for the boiling-in-the-can way.
Of course, I can't recommend that now, but I did put out a call for alternatives that still use sweetened condensed milk. And a couple of faithful readers responded.
Joanne Alexander of West Ashley found these three methods to share. "Then the reader can proceed with the rest of the recipe," she says.
Stovetop: Pour 1 can (14-ounce) sweetened condensed milk into top of double-boiler pan; cover. Place over boiling water. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 40 to 50 minutes, or until thick and light caramel-colored. Remove from heat. Beat until smooth.
Oven: Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Pour 1 can (14-ounce) sweetened condensed milk into a 9-inch pie plate. Cover with aluminum foil; place in shallow pan (pan should be larger than pie plate). Fill pan with hot water. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until thick and light caramel-colored. Pour milk into small mixer bowl; beat until smooth.
Microwave: Pour 1 can (14-ounce) sweetened condensed milk into large microwave-safe bowl. Cook on medium (50 percent) power for 4 minutes, stirring halfway through heating time. Reduce power to medium-low (30 percent) power; cook for 8 to 12 minutes, stirring with wire whisk every few minutes, until thick and light caramel-colored.
Note: Microwave ovens may vary; adjust timing accordingly.
Sharon Cook of Charleston has an even easier solution, now that dulce de leche is ever-more available in mainstream supermarkets. One well-known label is Nestle La Lechera, but there are others as well.
All I know is, homemade or store-bought, this stuff is eating-out-of-the-can addictive. If you are prone to that, beware.
Sharon also sent a cake recipe from the Betty Crocker website, but I'm sure other brands of similar cake mix could be substituted. The description reads, "Browned butter creates the 'wow' in a caramel-frosted cake jump-started with a cake mix."
Dulce de Leche Cake
1/3 cup butter (do not use margarine)
1 box Betty Crocker SuperMoist butter recipe yellow cake mix
1 cup water
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 can (13.4-ounce) dulce de leche (caramelized sweetened condensed milk)
1 package (8-ounce) cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup whipping cream
Heat oven to 350 degrees (325 for dark or nonstick pan). Grease or spray bottom only of 13x9-inch pan.
In 1-quart saucepan, heat butter over medium heat 4 to 6 minutes, stirring frequently, just until golden brown. Remove from heat. Cool 15 minutes.
In large bowl, beat cake mix, browned butter, water, vanilla and eggs with electric mixer on low speed 30 seconds, then on medium speed 2 minutes (brown flecks from butter will appear in batter). Pour into pan.
Bake as directed on box for 13x9-inch pan. Cool completely, about 1 hour.
Meanwhile, in large bowl, beat dulce de leche and cream cheese with electric mixer on high speed about 2 minutes or until blended and smooth. Beat in whipping cream until stiff peaks form. Spread frosting over cooled cake. Serve immediately, or refrigerate until serving. Store loosely covered in refrigerator.
You won't want to substitute margarine or vegetable oil spreads for the butter in this richly flavored recipe. Because those products don't contain the milk proteins found in butter, they will not brown and will burn instead.
For a crunchy topper, try sprinkling this caramel cake with chopped macadamia nuts or toasted coconut.
Why stop here with dulce de leche? (I told you it is addictive.) This recipe is adapted from the 2013 cookbook, "Latin American Street Food: The Best Flavors of Markets, Beaches and Roadside Stands from Mexico to Argentina." It's the second cookbook from Sandra A. Gutierrez and is published by the University of North Carolina Press.
She writes, "These pretty cookies are sold on the streets of many South American cities. In recent years, alfajores have become very trendy, moving from the streets into city cafes that specialize in this kind of cookie."
Dulce de Leche Sandwich Cookies (Alfajores)
Makes 16 cookies
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon cognac or brandy
1 teaspoon vanilla
21/4 cups prepared dulce de leche
1 cup grated coconut
Sift the flour, cornstarch, baking powder and salt into a large bowl; set aside. Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and the sugar on high speed until creamy, about 2 minutes. With the mixer on low speed, add the egg, egg yolk, cognac and vanilla; beat just until combined, about 1 minute (stopping once or twice to scrape the sides of the bowl). Add the flour mixture in batches, mixing at low speed just until the dough comes together (stopping to scrape the sides of the bowl as needed). Do not overmix. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill it for at least 4 hours (or overnight).
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it sit at room temperature until soft enough to roll out, about 10 minutes. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to 1/8-inch thickness. With a 21/2-inch round cookie cutter, cut out 32 rounds (rerolling the dough as needed). Transfer the rounds to the prepared baking sheets and bake for 15-18 minutes or until the edges turn lightly golden. Cool the cookies for 1 minute on the sheets before transferring to cooling racks; cool completely.
Spread out the coconut on a shallow plate; set aside. Evenly spread 1 tablespoon of the dulce de leche onto the bottom of a cookie; top with another cookie and press gently to join. Repeat until all the cookies are filled. Using a spatula, spread a bit of dulce de leche along the outer edges of the cookies and roll the edges into the grated coconut.
Eat the alfajores within 2 days or freeze for up to 2 months; thaw, uncovered at room temperature before serving.
And one last option, from Nestle's website, www.elmejornido.com.
No-Bake Dulce de Leche Cheesecake
1 envelope (7 grams) unflavored gelatin
1/2 cup hot water
1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, at room temperature
1 can (13.4 ounces) dulce de leche
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup whipping cream and 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, whipped until soft peaks form
1 prepared 10-inch (9 ounces) graham cracker crust
Mix gelatin and hot water in small bowl until gelatin is dissolved; set aside.
Beat cream cheese and dulce de leche in large mixer bowl until creamy. Stir in gelatin mixture and vanilla extract. Fold in whipped cream. Pour into graham cracker crust. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours or until set. Serve drizzled with chocolate syrup.