Thursday 22 May 2008

Condensed Milk: Heirloom Comfort Food

Condensed milk is such a comfort food in my family that I was curious recently when I came across a mention of it in my current reading matter (One Continuous Picnic by Michael Symons). He writes about the railways’ impact on the Australian diet in the 19th Century by keeping the population dependent upon the factory and alienated from fresh farm produce. Transport “provided the raw materials for utterly typical ‘Aussie’ white bread, camp pie, condensed milk, tinned apricots, tomato sauce and lollies.”

I grew up loving sweet and gooey condensed milk. Sometimes we were allowed to lick the spoon but we never went as far as a friend once claimed. She said her mother lined up the kids and squirted condensed milk in their mouths from a tube. Sounds good to me. I still take delight in how the sticky cream oozes out of the tin once you make the first cut with the can opener. Many of my treasured childhood recipes have condensed milk in them: grubs, caramel slice, coconut ice, caramel tart, cheesecake. In adulthood I have discovered many new favourite recipes: walnut fudge cake, fudge sauce and mock turtle slice are but a few.

But I have often wondered why it was named ‘condensed milk’. Now I have found that when sweetened it was called condensed milk and when unsweetened it was called evaporated milk. The history of the stuff is fascinating because it reflects on how hard it was to find fresh food in the 19th Century. Where modern children might think milk comes from a carton in the refrigerator, our ancestors might well have thought milk came from a can in the pantry. It also explains why our foremothers have given us many ‘heirloom comfort recipes’ sticky with condensed milk.

Condensed milk was invented by Mr Gail Borden in the USA in the mid-19th Century to preserve surplus milk. Milk condensers were first installed in Melbourne in 1882. In 1914 Nestle promoted it as ‘the best substitute for the mother’s milk’. How times have changed! Although I did notice the claim on my modern Nestle tin that it is made from ‘fresh milk’ which made me laugh because, by the time you get it out of the tin, it is most definitely not fresh. says that condensed milk was used more than fresh milk at the turn of last century because it was long lasting and posed less of a health risk in the days before refridgeration. The idea came to Mr Borden during a transatlantic crossing where the cows became too seasick to be milked. He was either concerned about calves or babies lacking their milk supply depending on if you read or The Old Foodie. He received a patent for it in 1852 and added sugar to inhibit the growth of bacteria. Unsweetened canned milk (known as ‘evaporated’) was not patented until 1885.

Mr Borden’s company became Eagle Brand. The Eagle Brand website credits condensed milk with feeding the army and lowering the child mortality rate in America. Winning wars and saving babies sounds like marketing hype but may have a grain of truth. More credible is the notes on a competition for condensed milk recipes in 1931 that produced over 80,000 recipes. If you go to Lidian’s Kitchen Retro you will find a post on a 1952 Eagle Brand book of 70 magic recipes with a recipe reproduced for ‘cookies that almost make themselves’.

The Old Foodie has a few old condensed milk recipes – a 1896 recipe from the Manual for Army Cooks has a Christmas Pudding made with milk or condensed milk, a recipe for ice- cream from 1942, and a recipe called All That from 1970s which sounds a bit like a baked versions of my grubs. Most fascinating were a couple of recipes from Alice Bradley’s For Luncheon and Supper Guests from 1923. One recipe was for salad dressing and the other for Cocoanut Cakes. The two recipes used a tin of condensed milk between them to avoid the cook taking furtive spoonfuls of the leftovers.

I don’t fancy condensed milk in salad dressing but I was fascinated by the ‘cocoanut cakes’. Mainly consisting of coconut, condensed milk and egg whites, they were similar to condensed milk macaroons that I made on the weekend. Like Alice Bradley, I was using up leftover condensed milk. I had made a favourite Mock Turtle slice. One of my former housemates, Yarrow used to make it because his mum had made it for him when he was young. The name always sounded very Lewis Carroll but I have since discovered that there is such a thing as a turtle bars but I am still not exactly sure what they are.

Nevertheless, Mock Turtle is most excellent. It has a chewy buttery oaty base that reminds me of Anzac Biscuits. The topping is a gooey concoction of condensed milk, cocoa and coconut. Not the healthiest of treats but guaranteed to delight small children and big children alike. I took them into work for morning tea this week and was berated by E when he discovered I had only left a few at home.

With the leftover condensed milk I made macaroons which were both gluten free and egg free. We have a few gluten free people at work and I thought they might appreciate some condensed milk treats, given that mock turtle is out of bounds. (I tried some apricot balls which were not a success but you can also see them pictured above.) I was pleased to substitute condensed milk for eggs – a fine exchange in my books! These macaroons were warm and soft when straight out of the oven. When they cooled, I initially worried they were too hard. The next day they were delightfully chewy, but not popular with E.

Both macaroons and mock turtle disappeared quickly at work. I can’t imagine anyone not loving anything with condensed milk in it. It tastes of old-fashioned childhood comforts, it pairs perfectly with chocolate and it makes anything taste absolutely delicious. No wonder it has stood the test of time.

Mock Turtle
(from Yarrow’s mum)

1 egg
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup sugar
1 cup self raising flour
1 cup (100g) desiccated coconut
1 tbsp golden syrup
125g (4oz) butter

½ cup condensed milk
60g (2oz) butter
1 cup icing sugar (confectioner’s sugar)
1 cup desiccated coconut
1 tbsp cocoa

To make the base: Mix all dry ingredients in a medium to large bowl. Melt golden syrup and butter in a small saucepan. Remove from heat and stir in lightly beaten egg. Pour butter mixture into dry ingredients and mix well. Spread into a greased lamington tin (9x 13 inch). Bake at 150 C for 15-20 minutes until golden brown. (I used a skewer to check it was cooked when just turning golden.)

Make the topping about 10 minutes after the base has gone into the oven. Combine butter and condensed milk in a small saucepan over low heat til the butter has melted and the ingredients are combined. Remove from the heat and mix in icing sugar, coconut and cocoa.

Spread topping over the base using the back of a spoon or a knife. This is easiest when both base and topping are warm. It always seems like it will never be enough topping but it should cover all the base if you dont get carried away eating it out of the saucepan. (I never have but it tastes so good it is very tempting.) Allow to cool to room temperature and cut into bars or squares.

Condensed Milk Macaroons
(From Best Gluten Free Recipes)
Makes about 30 bite size macaroons

1 cup shredded coconut
1 cup desiccated coconut
½ tin (200g) condensed milk
125 choc chips (I used white) OR chopped dried apricots

Mix all ingredients together. Drop in teaspoonfuls on a greased or lined baking tray. Baked at 150 C for about 15-20 minutes or til just turning golden brown. (Don’t let them get too well cooked – I once threw out a batch that I gave a few more minutes in the oven.) I found the mixture seemed to fall apart a bit and made an effort to shape it into balls but when baked it held together easily.

On the Stereo:
Worker’s Playtime: Billy Bragg


  1. Oh, my, I am craving one (ANY ONE) of those goodies!! This post did bring back lots of childhood baking memories for me. I used to love the stuff (and while my mother never squirted it, we definitely licked the spoon).

    RE: Turtles--over here they are chocolate candies, caramel with a few pecan halves stuck in the bottom and the whole coated with chocolate (so that the rounded dome on top and pecans sticking out from underneath look like turtles). But your bars sound delicious, too. And the apricot cookies look great in the picture!

  2. Hi Johanna, Thank you for the link!I like your blog very much and will be back again I know!


  3. A very very informative post. I always have been curious about the difference between evaporated and condensed milk.

  4. Oooh, my mouth is watering! I've hardly ever cooked with condensed (or evaporated - I never realised the difference was such a simple rule) milk. I think it's part of my non-British heritage. I've never heard of Mock Turtle bars either, though they sound like fun!

    Those poor sea-sick cows though (and the poor babies who had to live on condensed milk. Mothers often thought it was more 'scientific' food than breast milk because it was purchased)

    I love your history posts - keep them coming!

  5. What an informative post! I have been curious about evaporated and condensed milk but never took the time to investigate. In the States, these are big sellers at Thanksgiving because they are a staple ingredient in Pumpkin Pie.

    I have only tasted condensed milk a couple of times but I can still recall the flavor and texture, it IS really tasty!

    I wouldn't know which treat to try and would have to have one (or two) of each. Lucky co-workers :)

  6. Once made myself very, very sick when I was about 10 as I ate an entire tin...strangely it hasn't put me off the stuff!

    Gosh. Imagine now trying to claim it as a 'health' food?!

  7. Johanna, when I saw the recipe I thought of the US version of "turtles" (the candy) which, incidentally, are heavenly. Anyway, I was going to put together a couple of pans of coconut rum brownies for a picnic this weekend, but have changed my mind. Mock-Turtle Bars sound great (and I've made the brownies for this crowd before-- something different would be better). Thanks so much for posting the recipe!

    Also, as I got to the end of your post I noticed what you were listening to. Hmmm. I woke to Billy Bragg on the radio (I think the song is titled "New England") and I spent most of the day humming it to myself. Now it's back! ;)

  8. wow fantastic post johanna - i also have wonderful nostalgia about this stuff and can't wait to try your recipes. thanks for bringing it all back.

  9. Thanks for the info into the condensed milk, very interesting. Both your recipe sound yummy.

  10. My mother used to make salad dressing from condensed milk. It was actually really yummy - unless you hit a lump of mustard powder because she'd been in a hurry. When I went on a school tramping trip (many, many years ago), one of the provisions on the list was a tube of condensed milk. Sure enough, it was squirt in the mouth stuff for energy. The canny trampers usually had more than one tube, lol.

  11. thanks Ricki - I only found out that there was such a sweet thing as turtles last year - they sounds like something I would love and E would love them even more. The apricot cookies were too full of gritty sugar which is why I was disappointed with them - edible but could be so much better

    thanks for visiting Lidian - am intrigued by your kitchen retro posts

    thanks Mary - I have often wondered if there was an unsweetened condensed milk - but never realised it was actually evaporated milk

    thanks Lysy - I'd never thought of condensed milk being particularly british - would recommend it to you but not for health benefits

    thanks LisaRene - I didn't realise condensed milk is often in pumpkin pie - I have only made it once and don't remember using condensed milk (but then I see versions of my mum's caramel tart without condensed milk too)

    thanks Lucy - I can understand why you would have eaten a whole can of condensed milk as a child - makes me wonder why I never did - but probably a good thing by the sounds of it

    thanks Victoria - hope you enjoy the bars - they really are a treat - often my on the stereo is incidental but occasionally it has meaning and I thought billy bragg appropriate for this post as Yarrow introduced me to him as well as mock turtle

    thanks frances - nostaglia about condensed milk is a wonderful thing - and it always tastes as good as I remember!

    thanks Katie - am sure your monday munchers would love some of these

    thanks Keely - I did wonder about making the dressing so am encouraged by your memories - and that sounds wonderful to have a tube of condensed milk when tramping

  12. Mock Turtle sounds and looks so fun. I think they'd make anybody happy.
    Very interesting research on this one.

  13. thanks Tanna - I was surprised how fascinating condensed milk is!

  14. Mmm I love condensed milk! I've been dying to try making/eating a key lime pie with it. One of my favourite ways to eat it is on a thick slice of white toast, and baked. Not the healthiest thing but definitely delicious! I love the idea of using condensed milk instead of eggs for macaroons, I'll have to try that.

  15. thanks Ashley - I only recently discovered that condensed milk was a key ingredient in key lime pie - now I really want to try it and I want to try your condensed milk baked on bread - sounds like great comfort food!

  16. My Auntie Jennie used to eat condensed milk sandwiches, while my gran ate sugar sanwiches. Must have been down to rationing during the war! Way to sweet for me, but it makes for some yummy treats.

  17. Oh, thanks for all this research! How fascinating. When I was a child in Sub-Saharan Africa, we couldn't get milk other than in powdered or condensed form (Tse Tse fly). My Mom absolutely adored condensed milk; we would purchase little carton "sucker" snacks at the corner store right by our elementary school. These triangular, cardboard products held about 1/4 cup of condensed milk and we would rip off a corner and suck to our heart's content. I'm so glad to hear that other folks love the stuff as well! Although it must be horrible for our teeth...

  18. thanks Holler - condensed milk sandwiches does sound a tad bizarre but I guess they were different times

    thanks Neen - you are in fine company as a lover of condensed milk but you have reminded me that I had better get a dentist appt soon :-)

  19. I still eat condensed milk sandwiches and I remember the pyramid-shaped cartons (mentioned by Neen)from my childhood in the late 60s/early 70s. Somehow, the condensed milk in those cartons tasted different from the condensed milk in a tin. Much more special but I'm sure it was psychological.

    Evaporated milk is not as thick and it is unsweetened. Many Malaysians (including myself)like it with coffee. - Daphne Lee (


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