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Dulce de leche is a straight-up vat of caramel, soft enough that it's easy to spread or warm for drizzling.

Whether that's a good thing depends on how much self-control you have.

Traditionally made by cooking milk and sugar over low heat for hours, dulce de leche becomes the rich foundation of myriad desserts.

In Mexico and Latin America, it's baked into the classic Tres Leches cake. In the southern United States, you'll find it swirled into brownie batter for easy caramel brownies. It's also half of a simple yet satisfying dessert when it's spread between two shortbread, chocolate or spice cookies to make little dulce de leche sandwiches.

Dulce de leche can be bought by the can in the Latino ingredients section of many grocery stores. Or you can -- with caution -- make your own.

If you boil an unopened can of sweetened condensed milk for three hours, you will have dulce de leche. Add water periodically so the can is always covered, or it may explode, spraying boiling caramel across the room. Let it cool before opening.

Less dramatically, scrape a can of sweetened condensed milk into a microwaveable bowl, and zap it in one to two minute bursts. It'll bubble up, so use a big bowl. Whisk between bursts, and it'll reach dulce de leche stage in about 15 minutes of cooking.

Here, dulce de leche adds its caramel flavor to gelatin, along with espresso and cinnamon. Sprinkled with toasted almonds and whipped cream, it's a comforting treat.

>Coffee-Caramel Gelatin

1 13.4-ounce can dulce de leche

2 7-gram envelopes unflavored gelatin

1/2 cup cold water

1/4 cup hot water

1 tablespoon powdered espresso

1 1/2 cups milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds, optional

Whipped cream, for serving

Put cold water in medium bowl. Sprinkle gelatin over surface and stir, to avoid lumps. Set bowl aside for 5 minutes.

Dissolve powdered espresso in hot water, and stir into gelatin to combine.

Pour gelatin mixture into blender. Add milk, dulce de leche, vanilla and cinnamon. Blend until fully combined, 3 to 5 minutes.

Pour into bowl or molds. If unmolding finished dessert, butter molds or spray with vegetable cooking spray. Pour gelatin mixture into molds. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

Dip into hot water to loosen for serving. Top with toasted almonds and whipped cream, if using.

e-mail: agalarneau@buffnews.com