Dulce de leche is a thick caramelized milk “jam,” and you should probably have some on hand for impromptu treats. You can warm it up and spoon it over cinnamon ice cream, spread a layer in the bottom of an apple pie before you bake it or drizzle it over a freeform galette just out of the oven, or just slather it still cold onto a toasted store-bought hot dog bun (no judgment here). It makes a great hostess gift, too, and will keep for quite a while in the refrigerator.
Put the milk, sugar, and vanilla bean, if using, in the slow cooker. Put the lid on slightly askew and cook on high for 12 to 20 hours (it really depends on your cooker), stirring occasionally, especially at the beginning (to dissolve the sugar as the milk heats) and the end (as it darkens on the bottom and edges). If using the vanilla bean or cinnamon, remove it when the milk has enough of its flavor for your taste (cinnamon especially can overwhelm the dulce de leche). When the mixture is a deep caramel color—it’ll be unevenly dark, and lumpy-looking, but that’s okay—it’s ready. Use an immersion blender to smooth it out, tipping the pot to submerge the head of the blender fully. If it’s lumpy or grainy, pass it through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl before it cools. Pour into clean canning jars or other containers, let cool, cover, and put in the refrigerator. The dulce de leche will keep for at least 2 weeks.
Divide the sweetened condensed milk among three half-pint (
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