cradled in the caldera /// condensed coconut milk (vegan + gluten free)

Approximately three hours south of Quito, at 3,800 meters above sea level in the Ecuadorian Andes, lies a lake within a caldera known as Quilotoa. It formed around 800 years ago, when a 14,000 year dormant volcano decided to erupt all of a sudden. It’s still active (although there hasn’t been a major eruption since the lake was formed), as evidenced by the otherwise unexplainable bubbles coming up to the surface at certain points along the shoreline.

Hiking down is easier than up, but still tricky trying not to slip on the loose dirt. Once at the bottom, there are two person kayaks for rent, and I believe a hostel or camp for those who wish to spend the night. For the ascent, mules for available to rent for a 45 minute ride up, but we chose to walk…a very vertical trail that climbs 300 meters (that supposedly takes and hour and a half but we got that done in just 60 minutes, hellllll yeahhhhh). Lake level temps are almost warm compared to the freezing (by Ecuadorian standards) temperature and wind at the top.

So that’s what I spent all of last Saturday doing. In the evening after arriving back in Quito I went to La Ronda for my best friends 19th birthday. We were a group of 14, all but two exchange students (hailing from the United States, Belgium, and Germany). La Ronda is a pedestrian street in El Centro Historico, Quito’s Old Town (approximately 500 years old, actually, and the largest historical center in South America). It’s got your choice of bars, salsa bars, tiny little restaurants…did I mention bars?

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Sampling traditional dishes is one of the things most travelers look forward to when on the road, but as a vegan I usually have to forego the local fare or make some adaptations. While I was in Brazil, I did just that with brigadeiro.

It’s a traditional Brazilian dessert made with condensed milk, cocoa/cacao, and butter. In select health food stores in São Paulo there are cans of condensed soy milk available for purchase, but I’ve never seen any in the United States and I highly doubt that you’d be able to find those anywhere in Ecuador. Aside from the lack of availability, the ingredients list was not something I’d like to consume on a regular basis.

So on a quest to make my own brigadeiro in Ecuador, I first had to make my own condensed milk. I tried with almond milk (fail all around), coconut milk, and rice milk. Coconut came out the winner, with the closest resemblance to traditional cows condensed milk. It’s a tiny bit time consuming but crazy easy and with kick-ass results.

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CONDENSED COCONUT MILK

  • 2 cups full fat coconut milk
  • 1/2 cup granulated panela

Combine the panela and coconut milk in a sauce pan. Cook on medium-high heat for approximately 45 minutes, stirring frequently. You’ll know its done when you drag the stirring spoon against the bottom of the pan and the mixture briefly parts so you can see the metal. It’ll be reduced to approximately 1 cup of condensed milk. Refrigerate overnight before using.

Notes: The only ingredients on the can/carton of coconut milk you use should be coconut, coconut pulp, water, or coconut water. No additives or added sugars. Panela is essentially unprocessed cane sugar. In the U.S. I believe the brand name for the same product is Sucanat, but substituting coconut sugar should work (although I haven’t tried it) and if you can’t find either you can use (vegan) brown sugar. You can make more or less of the condensed milk depending on your needs, the formula is 1 cup coconut milk to 1/4 panela. The final product will be reduced to approximately half of the starting amount. If you increase the amount of coconut milk you’re starting with just be aware that the cooking time will be longer. The most I’ve tried this with is 3 cups of coconut milk and it took 55 minutes-1 hour. 

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