Friday, 6 January 2012

notes on all things caramel and confiture de lait (milk jam)

confiture de lait in the making
i have a very distinct memory of my first taste of caramel and the reason for that is a scalded finger. mama was making caramel custard at home and despite being told not to touch the liquid in the pan i did so anyway with the tip of ring finger. knowing that i would get no sympathy for having not listened to her, i spent the rest of my afternoon with my finger held against the cold air of the air-conditioner. that evening, we had a delicious cold caramel custard and i have loved the thin dark syrup since. shortly after that baba started bringing home bags of krówki, a polish confection which i have now learnt literally translates to ‘little cows’. the fudge like candy had a fairly solid exterior but when you bit into it the centre was partly crumbly. it is these little rectangles which made me a firm lover of sugar and milk reductions. another guilty pleasure was spoonfuls of polac sweetened condensed milk, a can of which my grandparents always had in their fridge. no doubt when mama reads this she will despair as i did this in my plump days when my parents were trying to get me to have better eating habits.

given my love of milk reductions, it is small wonder that i love pakistani mithai (sweetmeats) like barfi, rabadi kheer (a specific kind of rice-pudding) and halva with khoya in it. o recently bought me alandavidson’s oxford companion to food and on writing about milk reduction he says that ‘reduced milk sweets reach their zenith as a genre in india… it is not an exaggeration to say that indian cuisine contains within it a minicuisine evolved around the various stages of thickness that milk attains as its water evaporates, its proteins coagulate, and its natural sugars turn a gentle brown’. so milk which is reduced to a quarter of its original volume becomes a light beige liquid called rabadi. i love the rich, dense and creamy rice pudding made with it. furthermore, rabadi is further reduced to a fudge like solid called khoya which i love best stirred into hot gajar halva (carrot halva) that mama made in winter. to make gajar halva carrots are softened in milk, then browned in ghee to bring out their natural caramel tones after which sugar and aromatics like caradamom are added. khoya is stirred into the halva at the last stage and it was served with slivered almonds and raisins in it. 

when we started travelling abroad i discovered new variations of milk reductions which i have come to love equally. it was in america that i first tried dulce de leche. the spread is the colour of coffee and is a sweet smooth caramel. i had it sandwiched between crumbly biscuits known as alfajores, a common sweet treat in argentina. when i moved to london i bought a jar of it from a spanish delicatessen called r garcia and sons. i ate it on toasted bread, swirled into yoghurt and mostly just with a spoon. on a recent trip to berne i came across a jar of what looked like dulce de leche but was confiture de lait. confiture de lait (literally milk jam) comes from the normandy region in france and tastes very similar to dulce de leche. as delicious as it was, i was not inclined to shell out eight euros for it. when i looked up recipes for it i discovered that it was actually quite easy albeit time intensive to make. most popular recipes for dulce de leche call for a reduction of condensed milk and i’ve never been comfortable with that. i don’t think it is quite safe to be boiling a can of condensed milk in excess of two hours. and in any case it seems a waste of time and energy to make something homemade out of reducing a readymade product. the confiture de lait recipes are simply based on a combination of milk, sugar, vanilla and seasalt. some call for the addition of soda bicarbonate which i included in mine but am unsure of why it is added. incidentally it is the addition of vanilla which makes confiture de lait different from dulce de leche. since i had run out of vanilla pods i used essence instead, and since i use a really good quality one, it tasted very good. but there is nothing like real vanilla flavouring so try and get a pod. the flecked seeds will give the confiture a beautiful finish as well.

confiture de lait cannot hurry itself up. it’s a slow sensual pleasure that fills the house with a caramel scent. it’s the kind of thing one should make on a bleak and rainy london day. the weather gods brought the new year to a rather stormy start with gale force winds and showers like whiplashes. it was was on such a morning that i brought out my trusty volcanic le crueset and set out to make milk jam. the recipe i used came from citrusandcandy. in hindsight i wish i had seen chez pim’s and becoming lola’s recipes earlier. the latter includes a shot of rum and the former reduces the amount of sugar. i had thought of reducing the sugar content but wasn’t unsure but chez pim manages to do it successfully.

it is an obvious fact but i will restate it anyway. do not attempt to make confiture de lait with a semi-skimmed milk. when it comes to matters of edible pleasure a little bit of a real deal is better than a lot of the unsatisfying one. also, use a very good quality milk, ideally organic. if you are in the uk i’d suggest using milk from guernsey/jersey cows. milk from channel islands cattle is full bodied. it is creamier than whole milk because it is naturally higher in fat (5.2% as opposed to 3.5% in regular whole milk) and has is a lovely golden colour. it is often known as gold top due to the distinctive gold foil top that its bottles used to feature in the days when milk came delivered in glass bottles. the good news is that you can buy gold top milk from your local waitrose and sainsburys. sadly, the bottle isn’t glass and doesn’t have a gold foil top. instead there is a plastic ersatz gold top.

to make confiture de lait at home you will need the following ingredients
an abundance of patience
about three hours of uninterrupted time as the boiling milk mixture needs frequent attention
a litre of organic whole-milk (i used gold top milk as noted above)
300 grams of caster sugar
1 and a ½ teaspoons of maldon sea salt
½ a teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
a thick heavy bottomed pan large enough to accommodate a litre of milk with at least a 10 – 15 cm gap from the top of the pan to the level of the milk
2 sterilised jam jars   
place all the ingredients in your thick heavy bottomed pan and give them a quick stir. then place the pan on a medium-high heat and bring the mixture to a near boil without stirring. when you see that the boiling stage is imminent be vigilant. you want to lower the heat to the lowest possible setting as soon as the boil begins to rise. having made this on an electric hob i would advise that you lower the heat the moment you see the milk begin to froth. this is because electric hobs do not lose heat as quickly as gas or induction hobs do and the milk will rise.

skim the froth and continue to cook the mixture on the lowest heat for around 2 to 2.5 hours, stirring at intervals of ten minutes. you will need a lot of patience as the process of caramelisation only becomes apparent in the final stages. at the end you will have a bronzed reduction of the original mixture.

the 2.5 hour mark will give you a semi-solid confiture de lait. i like mine quite dense and figure that if i need to thin it i can do so later. for this reason i boiled mine for half an hour longer and checked it for soft ball stage by dropping a small amount into a glass of cold water. i turned the heat off when the confiture solidified into a little ball the moment it dropped into the cold water. this is an old technique mama taught me when making fudge since we didn’t have a candy thermometre. i am sure you can buy them in pakistan nowadays but when i was younger they were a rare find.

jar the confiture when hot. i got one 380 gram jar and one 170 gram one having used an old bonne maman and meridan jar. when warm it tasted a bit like a caramel sauce. o had the cooled version today spread on a chocolate-chip cookie. it is now the texture of a spreadable fudge with a dark caramel flavour. i am glad that i put in more sea-salt than was called for in the citrusandcandy recipe as i find it tones the sweetness. this will be the perfect excuse for a luxurious brunch. i intend to eat it on sunday spread rough and thick on a toasted baguette with a mug of filter coffee. in the process of writing this, as always i turned to david lebovitz who always has interesting insight into sweet things. i didn’t take his advice on ducle de leche though as chez pim rightly notes that he had a ‘sandra lee’ moment with it, having made it by reducing condensed milk with the addition of sea-salt (for uk readers sandra lee is an american tv cook and author who is best known for keeping it simple, smart, sweet and notably semi-homemade). however, he does in his post talk about cajeta which is exactly like dulce de leche but made out of goats milk. next time i’ll be making confiture de lait with goats milk and yes o, you will just had to put up with it.    

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9.1.12

    I had no idea how dulce de leche was made, now I really want to try! Although Sandy doesn't like caramel/toffee products so I would have to eat the whole thing by myself....oh well, there are worst problems to worry about! ;)