gaucho on the pampas

It’s funny how condiments can reflect a culture. The Aussies have their Veggiemite. The Brits their Colman’s mustard. The Japanese their soy sauce. We Americans our peanut butter. There’s so much patriotism wrapped up in a screw-top jar.

My mother, who teaches English as a second language, often to international college students, has on several occasions been asked to explain the difference between ketchup, mayonnaise, and peanut butter. To an outsider, these condiments would seem to be interchangeable. Does ketchup go on a hot dog, or peanut butter?

You laugh, until you’re the one asking the questions.

street fair in La Boca

When I was 19, I lived abroad for an academic year in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Packing for my departure flight, I carefully tucked a Costco-sized tub of Jiffy into my luggage—an emergency stash in case no peanut butter could be found in this South American land of grass-fed steak and chimichurri sauce. Sure enough, a month into my home stay and feeling homesick I ate peanut butter straight from the jar with a spoon and a sprinkle of hot cocoa.

By November I began adapting. There was so much to take in, from the grilled meats of the asados, to the city’s feast of tango shows, to the insane fútbol Superclásico—a stadium bursting with fans for River Plate and Boca Juniors, a throbbing mob of soccer mania, chanting and cheering their rival teams to victory.

tango show

El Superclasico: River Plate vs. Boca Juniors

in a tree near San Martin de los Andes

And soon I discovered the delights of dulce de leche.

During my time in Buenos Aires I stayed with two different families—who could not have been more different from one another, save one similarity: Dessert. While one family often served a perfectly ripe honeydew melon, selected with care by the vendor at the frutería down the street, and the other tended toward flan and oranges, both would regularly dish up a scoop of dulce de leche and bananas. Now this, I thought, licking the spoon, is an education.

banana and dulce de leche

A smooth caramel made from simmering milk and sugar at a low temperature for hours, dulce de leche is no ordinary caramel sauce; it’s red carpet caramel sauce. It’s delicious wedged between two slim cookies—whoopee-pie style—or, as the Argentines call them, alfajores. Needless to say, when I packed my bags to fly home for Christmas, I carefully tucked away a jar of dulce de leche to share.

Now, nearly a decade later, I wanted to make my own dulce and reminisce.

Tracking down recipes proved to be a cinch, with many writers pitching the process as simple and foolproof as watching liquid simmer on a stove.

On my first attempt, the flavor was spot on—sweet and rich—but the texture was a far cry from a proper dulce de leche. Instead of a luscious, velvety caramel, it was a thin sauce, good for splashing on ice cream, but that’s all.

Every subsequent attempt ended in disaster, with dishes that took days of soaking to clean. Only one family member was pleased with the results.

Denali on dish duty

burned dulce de leche

I tried different recipes. First this one from Alton Brown seemed promising. Then this one from David Leibovitz. At last I threw up my hands. Clearly I lack the patience.

So, instead, a recommendation. Don’t DIY; buy this stuff instead. Then pair dulce de leche with milder or tarter companions, such as:

Or give your sweet tooth full reign with these pairings:

vanilla ice cream, dulce de leche, and bananas