Condensed milk is underappreciated. Perhaps that’s because, like distilled water, it has a particularly unsexy name. But unlike distilled water, condensed milk is delicious and, I think, ought to be more widely employed as a sweetener in hot drinks, a confection on fruit, ice cream and cake, or simply as a snack on its own, spooned straight from the can. I say this as a salt hound with no special predilection for sweets. I find most food to be cloying, unnecessarily saturated in sugar. But condensed milk—and by that I mean sweetened condensed milk, which is how it’s most often sold—is different. It’s a simple combination of sugar and milk, with more than half of its water content removed. It comes in a can. It’s no frills. It’s cheap. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else than what it is.
I say this because I’ve recently gotten into condensed milk after having indulged in a Vietnamese coffee and remembering how satisfying condensed milk can be. A small spoonful is a good addition to coffee because it does double duty, obviating the need for both creamer and sweetener, those two ingredients combined in one handy can. Condensed milk, I’ve found, is also good drizzled over blackberries and other tart fruits, a nice substitute for powdered sugar. It’s an adaptable ingredient. Simmer the can long enough in boiling water and you’ve got yourself dulce de leche.
Condensed milk, thick and gooey and slightly yellow, is the poor man’s honey, perhaps sweeter, albeit with less flavor—though there’s a satisfyingly creamy kick that somehow breaks through the overpowering taste of sugar. I think more households should keep a can handy in their cupboards. Left unopened, condensed milk, I’ve read, can last about a year past its expiration date.
There’s something elemental about condensed milk that makes me feel warm inside. Perhaps it’s because the stuff reminds me of baby food, sold as it is in cans with old-fashioned labels and big type, with brand names like Condal and Carnation and Magnolia. The late Russian writer Varlam Shalamov got at a similar idea in his short story “Condensed Milk,” published in his collection, The Kolyma Tales. The story tells the tale of an unnamed narrator, a prison in a forced labor camp who is asked by a fellow inmate named Shestakov to take part in an escape. The narrator agrees, but says he needs food to get his strength up. So Shestakov agrees to bring him two cans of condensed milk.
“There are a lot of canned foods in the world—meat, fish, fruit, vegetables … But best of all was condensed milk,” the narrator says. “Of course, there was no sense drinking it with hot water. You had to eat it with a spoon, smear it on bread, or swallow it slowly, from the can, eat it little by little, watching how the light liquid mass grew yellow and how a small sugar star would stick to the can …”
Before the milk arrives, the narrator hungrily dreams about it, like a starved child: “Enormous and blue as the night sky, the can had a thousand holes punched in it, and the milk seeped out and flowed in a stream as broad as the Milky Way. My hands easily reached the sky and greedily I drank the thick, sweet, starry milk.” The idea is that he has been so infantilized by prison that all he can think about is milk. A can of condensed milk goes a long way.