Dulce De Leche: Latin America’s Gift to the Sweet Tooth in Us All

Marcela Valladolid/APMarcela Valladolid/AP

It's the sweet stuff the dreams of Latin American kids have been made of for generations, and recently it has invaded the US market. Dulce de leche, also known as manjar or cajeta (depending on which Spanish-speaking country you're in) and doce de leite in Brazil, is an exotic ingredient quickly becoming a mainstream favorite much like lime and jalapeño.

Basically prepared by heating condensed milk slowly while constantly stirring until it caramelizes and turns a light amber color, dulce de leche is used in cookies (Argentina's alfajores are among the most famous), cakes, flans and even pancakes. You may have seen the treat popping up on grocery shelves in products like Häagen-Dazs' "Dulce de leche" ice cream, Starbucks' flavored coffee, Girl Scout cookies and, most recently, Cheerios. Celebrity Chef and star of Food Network's "Mexican Made Easy", Marcela Valladolid, who has helped launch the campaign for Dulce de Leche Cheerios, shares some of her favorite cajeta recipes.

Pineapple-Cajeta Empanadas (serves 8 to 10)

"These are addictive. No matter what size batch you make, they will disappear. To make an empanada, you usually have to make the dough, which can be a hassle. I like to use purchased puff pastry instead. Press the empanadas tightly to enclose the filling so the dulce de leche doesn't seep out during baking," says Valladolid.

Nonstick cooking spray

1 (1-pound) package frozen puff pastry, thawed

All-purpose flour

¼ cup cajeta or caramel sauce

½ cup grated Monterey Jack cheese

1 cup cubed (½ inch) fresh pineapple

2 large eggs, beaten with 1 tbsp. water

2 tbsp. demarara sugar or raw sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Coat a large baking sheet with cooking spray.

2. Unfold one sheet of puff pastry on a lightly floured surface. Using a floured rolling pin, roll out to a ¼-inch thickness. Using a 3-inch round cutter or inverted glass, cut out 9 circles. Repeat with the remaining puff pastry sheet. Spoon a scant teaspoon of cajeta in the center of each round.

3. Top each with a sprinkling of grated cheese and three or four pieces of pineapple. Brush the edge of each circle with egg wash and fold each empanada into a half-moon. Crimp the edges with a fork.

4. Transfer the empanadas to the prepared baking sheet, and brush them with the remaining egg wash. Sprinkle the empanadas with demarara sugar and bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Serve warm.

More recipes:

Chef Valladolid's Coconut Flan Recipe

Dulce de Leche Snack Bars

Marcela Valladolid was born in San Diego and raised in Tijuana. She had already started her studies in architecture at the university, when she decided to spend a school break in Baja California, working at her aunt's cooking school. It was love at first bite. Marcela changed college careers and entered the Los Angeles Culinary Institute, followed by the Ritz Cooking School in Paris. Years after a very satisfying tenure as Food Editor for "Bon Appetit", she began starring in her own show, "Mexican Made Easy", now in its second season at the Food Network.