A Harte Appetite: Remember the Alamo (and condensed milk)

Sep 17, 2018

When people, especially Texans, think of the battle of the Alamo they think of Davy Crockett and his coonskin cap, Jim Bowie and his famous knife and the iconic phrase, "Remember the Alamo." But, strange as it may sound, when I think of the Alamo I think of key lime pie. It's really not quite as odd as it may seem, because the man who coined that famous phrase also invented a crucial ingredient in the pie - sweetened condensed milk. 

Sweetened condensed milk is a clear exception to the notion that when something is condensed or reduced it is inferior to the original. That's no doubt true when it comes to condensed history, condensed novels, and most certainly condensed soup. But when it comes to cooking, condensed milk is actually more, not less, than the uncondensed version.

It is an essential addition to Vietnamese coffee and Thai iced tea, the perfect starting point for making dulce de leche, a central component of key lime pie and similar concoctions and an almost magical ingredient in baking and candy-making.

The fellow who invented this exceptional substance, Gail Borden Jr., was a man of many talents. As a publisher he founded the first permanent newspaper in Texas, the first to report the fall of the Alamo - with his unforgettable "Remember the Alamo" headline. But it was his work as an inventor that earned Borden the title "Father of the Modern Dairy Industry." Borrowing a technique from the Shakers, he used a vacuum pan and added sugar to the milk to retard bacterial growth and invented condensed milk -- a boon in the era before refrigeration.

During the Civil War Borden's condensed milk, patriotically dubbed Eagle Brand, helped nourish the Union troops. 

Nowadays with stepped-up sanitation laws and the prevalence of refrigerators, we no longer need an alternative to fresh milk for drinking but condensed milk still has a role to play. As a cooking ingredient, its udderly remarkable.

+++++ Hello Dolly Parton Bars +++++
1½ cups corn flake crumbs
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup butter
2 cups chopped walnuts
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
2 2/3 cups flaked coconut
2 cans (14 ounces each) sweetened condensed milk

Melt butter and combine crumbs and sugar. Press mixture evenly on bottom of a 9-by-13-inch pan. In order, sprinkle walnuts, chocolate chips and coconut evenly over crust. Pour condensed milk evenly over top. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes or until lightly browned around the edges. Cool and cut into bars.