Growing up in Miami, which many refer to as “the gateway to the Americas,” I've had the privilege of sampling desserts from all over Latin America. There always seems to be some unspoken competition about which country has the sweetest, most decadent dessert. We Latin Americans are pretty infamous for our high sweetness threshold, often adding sugar to things that are already sweet or combining two or more intensely sweet parts to make an even sweeter whole. I attribute our collective sweet tooth to the historic role that sugar production has had in our economies.
I admit that I can be very patriotic when it comes to Peruvian cuisine, but I am reasonable. For instance, the award for best tamal goes to Nicaragua. And the best empanadas come from Bolivia. However, the sweetest and most decadent dessert in Latin America has to be from Peru.
Topped with fluffy Italian meringue, flavored with port wine and dusted generously with cinnamon, suspiro de limeña is a rich pudding that tastes like the offspring of dulce de leche and custard. As a kid, I considered it the Peruvian dessert par excellence. It was our reward for behaving well at Peruvian restaurants. If we ordered very Peruvian dishes (i.e., nothing from the kid’s menu), didn’t complain about how spicy the food was, and spoke in Spanish throughout the whole meal, then we'd each earn our own individual cup of Peruvian heaven.
The name of this dessert translates to “the sigh of a girl from Lima.” It originated in the 19th century with a woman named Amparo Ayarza, who was the wife of a poet named José Galvez. Allegedly, Galvez took a bite of her creation and declared that it was as sweet and as light as the sound of a young city girl's sigh, daydreaming about her beau.
I believe that this dessert’s name is more of a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the exasperating process of making it. Those who have taken it upon themselves to recreate this dish know that the real sighs come from having to constantly stir a pot of sweetened milk for over an hour until it achieves the right consistency. In the 1800s, this would have been achieved by combining fresh milk and refined white sugar—both luxuries back then. However, 20th-century advances in food production made this dessert a lot more accessible to the average Peruvian. The modern version of this culinary "sigh" is made with two ingredients that have forever changed the way Peruvians and other Latin Americans cook: evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk.
Nestlé first introduced canned dairy products to Peru in 1919 through a small imports office in Lima. Over 20 years later, the Swiss company became firmly established in the South American country, opening a permanent office and then a factory in the port city of Callao. In the middle of the 1940s, Nestlé decided to develop the region of Cajamarca—whose climate and terrain was similar to that of Switzerland—as a dairy-producing area.
However, Nestlé wasn’t the only provider of shelf-stable dairy products in Peru. While the Swiss conglomerate had its eyes set on Cajamarca, competition was brewing further south in the region of Arequipa under the name Gloria. “Leche Gloria” (Gloria milk), with its iconic label featuring a holstein cow against a navy blue and white backdrop, is the most popular brand of milk in Peru. Although Nestlé bought out the company in 1985, it still exists as an independent brand, and Peruvians are fiercely loyal to it.
Evaporated milk is the de facto milk in Peru. You need it to make everything from hot chocolate to cold appetizers and pasta dishes. I once watched an interview with a famous Creole Peruvian cook about a recipe for creamy chicken stew. The interviewer asked what kind of milk she used. “Leche de tarro,” she responded indignantly as if it were ridiculous to think that any milk but canned milk could find a place in her kitchen.
Nestlé and other companies have also made sweetened condensed milk a fixture in Peruvian kitchens. It has become a necessity for creating a myriad of typical confections, although many Peruvians (and other Latinos) enjoy it straight from the can. In fact, you can find individual serving cans of the thick, sugary ambrosia to pack in kids’ lunchboxes. You can even find condensed milk in tubes or squeeze bottles to squirt onto fruit and crackers, or directly into your mouth.
The availability of this culinary technology, however, hasn’t improved the drawn-out preparation of suspiro de limeña. This dessert really isn’t something you can shortcut. My American mom thought she could bypass the seemingly perpetual hour-long stirring by pressure-cooking cans of condensed milk and topping it with a light American-style meringue (the kind you’d put on top of a pie). It was her thrifty “suspiro de americana”—and frankly, it was really disappointing if you were expecting the real thing.
I've since learned the contemporary, authentic way of making it with evaporated and condensed milks. I’ve also experimented with different tricks to save time, but none seem to work. Pressure cooking will yield dark brown dulce de leche. The Crock-Pot will get crusty at the edges. The only other solution I can think of is sous vide, but do we really want to go there?
You really do need to park yourself in front of the stove and stir for about an hour until you can see the bottom of the saucepan after drawing your spoon across it—or else suffer the consequences of a burnt or clumpy suspiro. What I do to pass the time is watch a movie on my phone or bring my laptop into the kitchen. If you have a stool you can sit on, it makes the experience much more comfortable. The result is always worth the labor, though.
Topped with fluffy Italian meringue, flavored with port wine and dusted generously with cinnamon, suspiro de limeña is a rich pudding that tastes like the offspring of dulce de leche and custard.
Since this dessert takes a while to prepare, I usually reserve it for special occasions, such as Peruvian Independence Day on July 28. Traditionally, suspiro de limeña is served in single-portion cups, but that can be too much of a hassle when planning a party and can take up precious room in the refrigerator. I’ve served this dessert in a large bowl or trifle dish before. However, by the time a couple of guests have served themselves, the beautiful dessert has ended up looking like the aftermath of a mudslide that nobody wanted to go near.
I needed to find an easy solution both for preparing and serving this favorite Peruvian dessert while preserving its visual appeal. One of the advantages of being bicultural (I'm half-Peruvian, half-American) is that you can always look to one side of your family to find culinary solutions for your other side, and for this I did just that. The answer to my dessert dilemma was to make suspiro de limeña into a pie.
I chose a shortbread crust to add some structure to the dessert and decided to bake it in a square cake pan so that I could cut it into squares for my guests to pick up like ornately decorated bars. The lightly caramelized, milky custard is traditionally never baked, but in all my experimenting I wasn’t thinking and baked it on top of the crust. The result was a happy accident. It made the filling firm enough to hold up to slicing while retaining the velvety texture of a traditional suspiro.
The billowy, port-spiked Italian meringue topping is the crown that finishes these elegant little bites. The finished product gives you three different textures: soft and marshmallow-y on top, rich and custardy in the middle, and crunchy on the bottom. The best part is that they still evoke the sighs of a lovelorn limeña while looking as lovely as one, too.
I was born in Peru to a Limeño father and a Texan mother. We moved to Miami when I was five, and I grew up in the "Kendall-suyo" neighborhood—often called the 5th province of the Inca Empire because of its large Peruvian population. I've been writing about food since I was 11 years old, and in 2016 I received a master's degree in Gastronomy from Boston University. A travel columnist at Food52, I'm currently based in Hollywood, Florida—another vibrant Peruvian community—where I am a writer, culinary tour guide, and consultant.
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