This rich, caramelly confection is known by many names: dulce de leche in much of South and Central America; cajeta in Mexico and Nicaragua; arequipe in Columbia; manjar in Chile, Ecuador and Panama; and manjar blanco in Peru. It possibly began as a Spanish/Moor-inspired recipe of cooked milk or almond milk, sugar, rice, and sometimes chicken or fish.
In French cuisine, its counterpart is blancmange, a milk gelatin dessert similar to pannacotta. But it evolved into a gelatinized, almond-based sweet in Spanish cuisine; and then was altered again by each Latin American cuisine it entered. Most Latin American versions have a similar theme: slow-cooked sweetened milk, reduced down to a thick caramel pudding consistency.
This is my favorite manjar blanco recipe – it’s simple and straightforward, and I’ve found it to be consistent. The key is low, steady heat and frequent stirring. Use it as a spread, a filling, or – if you don’t reduce it quite as much – a dessert sauce. Its primary use in Peruvian cuisine is as a filling for alfajores.
Combine milks and soda in a high, heavy copper-bottomed saucepot two to three larger than the amount of liquid.
Bring to low boil over medium heat, whisking constantly (soda will foam over!).
Reduce to very low heat; whisk until foaming ceases and volume falls.
Continue to cook, stirring very frequently; watch for scorching.
Reduce by at least one-third to one-half volume. Cook to a medium caramel color (about 45 minutes to 1 hour). Be careful when it begins to color, because it will turn very dark very quickly.
Manjar blanco is ready when the mixture stays separated for a few seconds when a wooden spoon is dragged across bottom of the pan.Alternately, you can take a small spoonful out and allow it to cool, in order to determine if it has reached the desired thickness.
Remove from heat; stir in vanilla.
Cool completely in pot, stirring occasionally.
Store in an airtight container at room temperature, or use immediately.
Despite the baking soda, manjar blanco can re-crystallize easily; do not refrigerate or reheat.
Chocolate: stir in 1 oz. butter and ¼ cup sifted cocoa (or 1-2 ounces chopped dark chocolate) when removing from heat.
If making sauce: don't reduce quite as much; and add 1 Tbsp. light corn syrup with the vanilla.