Back before dulce de leche became ubiquitous in the dessert world, I had my first taste at my friend Zoë's house. It was a recipe she had learned from her Chilean ex-mother-in-law and couldn't wait to make for me. The thick caramel pudding was nutty, smooth on the tongue and unlike any other I'd had.
At the time it seemed thrilling, mysterious ... dangerous, even, since the method called for boiling a can of sweetened condensed milk for hours, hoping it didn't explode.
So when I recently decided to try replacing the cow's milk with coconut milk, I wanted to see if I could use the same boil-in-a-can technique.
I used canned sweetened cream of coconut, the kind of stuff you'd blend into a piña colada. After two hours of rattling around the saucepan, I opened the can. It looked completely unchanged: white, syrupy, not at all caramelized. Clearly I needed another approach.
It took five more attempts before I got something with the color and texture of regular dulce de leche, but with a deep coconut flavor. The trick turned out to be a simple combination of unsweetened coconut milk and dark brown sugar, simmered for hours.
(Note that the timing can vary widely, depending on your stove and your pan, so keep an eye on it.)
No matter what kind of milk you use, dulce de leche is definitely for people with an oversize sweet tooth. To keep it from becoming too cloying, I like to serve it with something tart. Here I use tender cubes of caramelized pineapple. But fresh pineapple, grapes or citrus fruit would also work. Then to finish the dish, I sprinkle it with toasted coconut and a few flakes of sea salt to add complexity and crunch. It's a very elegant presentation.