Amanda Hesser Didn’t Have a Reason to Buy Condensed Milk

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I’ve had a lifelong fondness for sweetened condensed milk. My mother used it as a key layering ingredient in Magic Cookie Bars; the sweet, pale, sauce-like milk transformed them from layers of chocolate and coconut into gooey sugar bombs. Condensed milk is also the magic in Vietnamese coffee, and the shortcut to dulce de leche. For the latter, you’re supposed to cook the milk right in its sealed can in a pan of simmering water. I’ve never had the guts to do this—a friend once forgot hers on the stove and it exploded, raining mostly cooked dulce de leche all over her walls, her table, and her pet prairie dogs (talk about the confusing lives of pets).

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Condensed milk is one of those ingredients that I pass in the grocery store and feel a little bad for. Poor thing, stuck on a low shelf—no one’s paying for eye-level shelf space for you! And when I do buy it, I find myself a little ashamed at check out. I shop at the Greenmarket, stranger behind me assessing the contents of my cart, I do, I do!

Mostly, I haven’t had much reason to buy it. But a trip to Panama changed this. After a long hike in the Cloud Forest, our guide took us to a local place in Boquete specializing in strawberry desserts. My eye went straight to a strawberry ice capped with condensed milk and dense whipped cream. The creamy milk quietly mediated between the fruit and cream, working its magic much like it does in coffee and cookie bars.

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At home I futzed around in the kitchen until I got the strawberry ice right. It’s best to use fresh, sweet strawberries and freeze them. If you have to use store bought frozen strawberries, they’ll work. Add the sugar and lemon to taste and as long as you don’t overmix the ice, you’ll be all set. Let it firm up, then spoon it into tumblers and douse with condensed milk straight from its dignified can.

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