March 3, 2010
Milk in a Can Goes Glam
SWEETENED condensed milk is everywhere. There’s probably a can or two lurking in your cabinets. It is the key to Key lime pie; it brings the sweet to Vietnamese coffee; it went to Rio for Carnaval last month in the shape of brigadeiros, bite-size balls of milk fudge that are a Brazilian national treat.
But Victoria Belanger, a photographer also known as the Jello Mold Mistress of Brooklyn, may have a unique relationship with the stuff.
“Sweetened condensed milk solved a lot of problems for me,” said Ms. Belanger, who brings her professional understanding of light and color to an ongoing jellied-desserts experiment. “Now I can make opaque layers that set off the clear, bright-colored ones.”
Every few weeks, Ms. Belanger fills a few of her 30 molds — in shapes like fish, roses and starfish — with a mixture of condensed milk and gelatin. She’s drawn to imported and self-created flavors, like mango or crème caramel or milk chocolate-macadamia nut. She unmolds the shapes, photographs them while they still have their satiny sheen, then feeds them to pals and neighbors. “The condensed milk makes it more like a pudding, more satisfying for people,” she said. “I tried Cool Whip and vanilla ice cream, but only condensed milk got it really smooth.”
Sweetened condensed milk and its unsweetened cousin, evaporated milk, have never been in favor with food snobs. “Originally, these were marketed as nutritional solutions, not luxury ingredients,” said Anne Mendelson, a food historian and the author of “Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages.” Fresh milk and cream have always been preferred by American consumers, she said, with the shelf-stable products seen as inferior, if useful, substitutes.
“It was probably frowned on because it comes in a can,” said Alex Stupak, the pastry chef at WD-50 on the Lower East Side, who has made frozen “Oreo” centers, doughnut fillings and even a tart-sweet mayonnaise from sweetened condensed milk. “It’s a righteous emulsifier,” he said. At Momofuku Milk Bar, the chef Christina Tosi uses it to smooth soft-serve ice creams like peaches-and-cream and cherries jubilee.
And as more American home cooks with roots in Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean chime into the national culinary conversation, condensed milk is getting a lot of love. “Just try telling anyone from Latin America that canned milk isn’t real milk,” Ms. Mendelson said. “You’ll have a fight on your hands.”
In the Philippines, it is drizzled onto halo-halo, the popular dessert of shaved ice, coconut and a riot of toppings; in Jamaica, it’s mixed with stout, sherry and nutmeg to make a robust cream punch. Hong Kong-style “French toast,” served at cafes there, is toasted white bread glazed with condensed milk and peanut butter; it is a key ingredient in Thai iced tea and in Vietnamese coffee; and Brazilian cooks whip it with avocado to make gorgeous pale-green desserts like pudim de abacate.
In regions like these, where dairy-making might be difficult, expensive or untraditional, the stability and reliable sweetness of condensed milk has earned it a lot of fans. “It is hard to explain the relationship people have with it in Latin America,” said Leticia Moreinos Schwartz, a cooking teacher in Connecticut who grew up in Rio de Janeiro. “Leite moça came when life was hard and there were not many treats,” she said, using the generic Brazilian term that means “milk of the lady,” a reference to the Swiss milkmaid on cans of Nestlé condensed milk, introduced to Brazil in 1921.
It is one of the three milks in Mexican tres leches cake, and can be caramelized right in the can to make dulce de leche. (Put the can in a pot and boil for three hours; keep the can covered with boiling water or it will overheat and may explode.)
Sweetened condensed milk came on the United States market in 1856, the brainchild of Gail Borden, a chronic culinary inventor. (He had already patented a prototype of a complete nutrition bar, which he called a “meat biscuit.”) Mr. Borden began experimenting with sterilized milk after a series of “swill milk” scandals that revealed the true contents of much of the milk then for sale in American cities: chalk powder, molasses and vermin.
His process — a combination of vacuum pressure, heat and added sugar — produced a dairy product that is nearly indestructible, with a shelf life of years. Mr. Borden made his fortune supplying condensed milk to the Union Army in the Civil War. It was airlifted into Berlin in the 1940s, and more recently has opened up Asia as a major market for American milk.
“We grow up with it,” said Kathy Wong, an owner of Laut restaurant, one of few places in New York that serves real Malaysian pulled tea, or teh tarik. It is a thick brew of strong tea — preferably Boh brand, grown in the cool Cameron Highlands north of Kuala Lumpur — and condensed milk. (Fresh-squeezed ginger juice can be added to make teh halia, reminiscent of Indian chai.) The mixture is poured vigorously back and forth from one pot to another: this is the “pulling” process, which makes the drink smooth and gives it a frothy top. “The higher the pour, the thicker the top,” said her partner Camie Lai, who said that hawkers compete for customers by pulling the tea behind their backs, or from ever-greater heights. Among those who see cooking as an ongoing science experiment or craft project, condensed milk can do the work of milk, sugar and eggs combined — and can often stand in for all three.
Jessica P Lin, who has a blog, epicuriouseateries.blogspot.com, where she posts recipes and restaurant reviews, long tinkered with recipes for ice cream that wouldn’t require an ice cream maker. “At the time, I was a culinary student, but all I had at home was a $10 hand mixer,” said Ms. Lin, who grew up in Dallas and now lives in New York. She has often visited Taiwan, where her parents were born, and where condensed milk is a popular topping for dessert, or bread.
Ms. Lin said that she finally hit on the idea of whipping condensed milk, which she always keeps on hand, into heavy cream. “I was basically trying to be lazy and avoid making an egg custard,” she said. The result takes just a few minutes to get into the freezer.
Condensed milk has a very different chemical profile than fresh, and behaves accordingly. It will not curdle in the presence of acid, like regular milk would (that’s why it’s used for Key lime pie). The sugar crystals in condensed milk will not clump together and harden (this is called seizing), making it useful for candies like fudge.
“All candy-making is about preventing crystallization,” said Michael Chu, an engineer based in Austin, Tex., who writes about his kitchen experiments online at Cooking for Engineers. Mr. Chu’s chocolate fudge recipe, which he calls “absurdly easy,” has the pleasantly cakey, almost sandy texture desirable in fudge, which can be tricky to achieve using milk and butter. He uses condensed milk to reduce the ingredients in the fudge to a mere three (salt is optional), and to eliminate the dreaded step of cooking the sugar syrup to the soft-ball stage. “The manufacturing process has already done that work for you,” he said.
Fudge made from condensed milk is the base for brigadeiros, bite-size sweets served in paper frills and covered with sprinkles. “Brigadeiros are like the cupcakes of Brazil,” Ms. Moreinos Schwartz said. “They are at every birthday party.” (They are named for a once-popular politician, Brigadier Eduardo Gomes, who ran for president in 1945 under the slogan “Vote no brigadeiro, que é bonito e é solteiro” — “Vote for the brigadier, who’s good-looking and single.”)
Once, Ms. Moreinos Schwartz said, it would have been odd to serve brigadeiros at a grown-up dinner party — “it would have been a French chocolate mousse instead” — but now Brazilian cooks like her are embracing their own traditions. In her new book, “The Brazilian Kitchen,” she has transformed the classic, tooth-aching recipe with unsweetened coconut, pistachio paste and real chocolate sprinkles. “Now when I go home, the brigadeiros taste too sweet,” she said ruefully. “I’m like, guys, come on! You’re killing the fudge!”
Absurdly Easy Chocolate Fudge
Adapted from Michael Chu, Cooking for Engineers
Time: 15 minutes, plus at least 4 hours’ cooling
4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) butter, plus extra for greasing the pan
1 pound semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1/8 teaspoon salt (optional)
1/2 cup chopped nuts (optional).
1. Butter an 8-inch-square baking pan. Line with parchment or wax paper, letting edges of paper hang over sides of pan.
2. In top of a double boiler or a metal bowl set over (not resting in) simmering water, combine all ingredients except nuts. Mix just until melted and well combined. (Alternatively, use a microwave on low power to melt ingredients, stopping every 10 to 20 seconds to mix well.) The mixture should be heated as little as possible. Mix in nuts, if using.
3. Scrape mixture into prepared pan. Refrigerate until set, about 4 hours or overnight. Lift fudge on paper out of pan and use a large knife to cut into squares.
Yield: 16 two-inch squares.
Adapted from Leticia Moreinos Schwartz, ‘The Brazilian Kitchen’ (Kyle Books, 2010)
Time: 20 minutes, plus at least 4 hours’ cooling
1 cup sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup coconut milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons light corn syrup
1 1/2 cups finely shredded unsweetened coconut (see note).
1. In a medium-size heavy saucepan, combine condensed milk, coconut milk, butter, corn syrup, and 1/2 cup shredded coconut. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and whisk constantly until fudgy, 8 to 10 minutes. When mixture is ready, it will pull together into one soft piece, leaving browned residue on bottom of pan.
2. Slide mixture into a bowl. (Don’t scrape the pan; leave any residue behind.) Let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until very firm, at least 4 hours.
3. Scoop out teaspoonfuls of the mixture and use your hands to roll into balls, about 3/4-inch in diameter. Set aside on a baking sheet.
4. Place remaining 1 cup coconut in a wide bowl. Roll 4 to 6 brigadeiros at a time through coconut, covering surface completely. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for 2 days, or refrigerate for up to 1 month. Serve at room temperature.
Yield: About 30 brigadeiros.
Note: Sweetened flaked coconut will be too sweet. If desired for flavor, toast coconut beforehand on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven, stirring every 2 minutes.
Condensed Milk Ice Cream
Adapted from Jessica Lin, epicuriouseateries.blogspot.com
Time: 15 minutes, plus cooling
1 cup cold heavy cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 (14-ounce) can cold sweetened condensed milk.
1. In a mixer, whip heavy cream just until it begins to thicken. Add vanilla and whip until soft peaks form. With mixer running, slowly pour in condensed milk and whip until high peaks form.
2. Transfer into a container or bowl for freezing. Freeze at least 4 hours or overnight.
Yield: 6 servings.