In the summer of 2009, Paul and I took a trip to Buenos Aires. I had been super busy at work and knee deep in the beta phase making video game, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance II. I had never been to Argentina before and to be honest, failed to do any research on where we were going aside from locating a place to stay, completely unlike me. The upside of my lack of preparation was being pleasantly surprised in the end and leaving the city totally smitten. Lately, I've been thinking it's time to go back and visit again. Considering my failure to plan for the trip, in retrospect, we ate extraordinarily well. Flipping through the pages of my memory, I immediately recall virtual snapshots of incredible meals from El Desnivel, Cafe San Juan and Caseros. Although beef is distinctly the first thing that comes to mind when I think about Buenos Aires, the next is dulce de leche. We stayed in the neighborhood of San Telmo at a tiny boutique hotel called The Cocker. It has since been renamed and falls under new ownership but the woman that ran it at the time, generously shared her local eats recommendations. On our second night, she pointed us to El Hipopótamo, a cozy and historic old bar (from 1909) that she promised wouldn't disappoint, just around the corner from our place. One step into the bar was like walking onto the set of a classic Parisian film. Ceiling fans in slow motion, marble bistro tables, and thick layers of wood that told stories by their obvious years of wear carved deep into their layers. Vintage signs and clusters of garlic hang around the bottle lined bar, the overall look of the space just begs you to find a table and settle in for awhile. People watching is made easy with old men who've made it their daily stop for years. You'll spot them around the cafe reading a book or a paper or just quietly drinking a strong cortado; some have been patrons since childhood. El Hipopótamo offers a solid menu and a comfortable atmosphere. Most of our nights started out with a picada around 7PM, an Argentinian pre-dinner plate of meats and cheeses. After learning restaurants don't really start serving dinner until well after 9PM, this was a logical routine I easily adapted to. Often times after a picada and a bottle or two of wine, I was pretty stuffed. But it was the El Hipopótamo that tempted my taste buds with dulce de leche post picada. There were actually a few desserts on the menu incorporating this specialty but I was indecisive that night and so I just asked for dulce de leche, uncertain of what I would actually get. What arrived was simply just that. A cup of warm, gooey, sweet and creamy milk caramel. Thankfully I ordered a cortado too, a butter cookie came with it, which I later used as a dipping device for the caramel. I've never really been crazy about traditional crystallized sugar caramel, but this dulce de leche did something to me. I just kept spooning it right into my mouth. It was perfect and I didn't need anything else.
I haven't thought about that dulce de leche in a long time, but something triggered it the other day. I had never made it before but with this sudden longing for Argentina and its national sweet, I needed to take action. I'm sure you can purchase a jar of dulce de leche from Latin specialty shops pretty easily, but as always, I wanted to make it myself, so I turned to Alton Brown. Though the end result wasn't the same dense whipped caramel I grew so fond of at El Hipopótamo, I was still quite happy with his recipe. And so, for the last two weeks I've used it in cupcakes, cakes, over toast, sneaking in spoonfuls in its pure form and in these paletas.
As an avid coconut fan, I go wild for desserts that embrace the fresh stuff. I'd do just about anything for coconut ice cream in the throes of summer but I found these paletas to be the perfect stand-in for those without a clunky ice cream maker (ahem, me). They turned out great and best of all, they're seriously simple.
Makes 5 ice pop molds
Homemade dulce de leche
1 can organic coconut milk (not trying to go all Gwyneth here but it's what I used, non-organic would work just as well)
1 vanilla bean split
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 cup of fresh grated unsweetened coconut
Pinch or two of cinnamon
In a large pot on medium-high heat, add the coconut milk, cream, salt, sugar. Scrape in the vanilla beans, then add the bean to the pot as well. Cook till simmering to a boil. Drop heat to medium-low and stir in cinnamon and grated coconut. Cook for another 20 minutes and cool.
To assemble the paletas, fish the bean out and start layering in coconut and caramel, staring with the coconut first. Once all molds are filled, chill till frozen in the freezer. There's no wrong way to do it, although you want to make sure the caramel ends up in the middle portion of your pops or they won't release from the mold easily. You could also melt the dulce de leche into the pot of coconut by stirring some in, but if you do that, the paleta will take on a more intense caramel flavor and also alter the color of the pop to a light beige. It'll have less of the coconut flavor, a totally delicious option, just depends what you're in the mood for really. Not sure when I'll get back to Buenos Aires again, but in the meantime, I have dulce de leche.
Some photos from that trip here