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Dulce De Leche Makes Me Remember My Argentinian Father

I can feel his presence whenever I open up a jar of the good stuff.

08/03/2017 10:48 EDT | Updated 08/04/2017 16:50 EDT

HuffPost Canada

There are only a handful of things from my childhood that stand out for me: Watching "Batman," playing in a pile of leaves in Toronto's High Park during the fall, swimming in Georgian Bay at the family cottage, playing dress-up with my younger sister, and eating dulce de leche.

My father emigrated from Buenos Aires to Toronto in the early '80s after he met my mom. They split up when I was a child, but I still saw him occasionally. I think he didn't really know what to do with children, so, other than watching sports and sci-fi shows, he would, like any parent who's feeling guilty, buy treats for me and my sister.

One of those treats would be a jar of dulce de leche, a dessert that's popular in most Latin American countries.

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Dulce de leche is basically sweetened milk and sugar, heated up to make a delicious spread that can be put on anything from biscuits, to cupcakes, to cookies, such as the popular dessert the alfajor (or alfajores).

He would drive us to a plaza that featured Latin American shops, duck into a small grocery store, and would come out with a big smile on his face, clutching that big yellow and brown jar.

Instead of baking it into a dessert, or spreading it on a slice of bread, my dad would let us eat it straight out of the jar, like little savages with a sweet tooth.

Instead of baking it into a dessert, or spreading it on a slice of bread, my dad would let us eat it straight out of the jar, like little savages with a sweet tooth.

As I grew older, and I saw him less, he would make a point of always having a jar of dulce de leche at his home, which he knew would instantly make me happy.

I relished the anticipation of that first, melt-in-your-mouth bite. I would gingerly tuck the spoon into the soft, creamy spread and lift it out gently, not wanting to disturb its contents, so help me god if any dripped on the floor. Then I'd only take a small nibble – you really only need a bit at a time, it's that sweet – and savour the sweet flavor going down my throat. I'd nurse that first bite slowly, and then dig into the rest until, well, sometimes half the jar would be gone.

And then my dad died. I was 26.

I don't think it's a coincidence that not long after he passed I started to bake. I baked chocolate chip muffins, chocolate-caramel bark, peach pie, coconut macaroons, coffee cake, carrot cake, cinnamon buns, lemon squares, and more.

I relished the anticipation of that first, melt-in-your-mouth bite.

Then one day, as I was raiding the Sobeys baking aisle, I spotted it: a jar of dulce de leche. I almost cried in surprise. I hadn't seen a jar of it since the last time I was at my dad's many years ago. I bought it and tucked it in my kitchen cupboard, unsure of what to do with it, and there it stayed for months. Every weekend I would take a peek at it, hold it and turn it around in my hands, hoping it would inspire me to do something, I wasn't sure what. I couldn't bear to open it up and eat it.

But one day, I was browsing my favourite cooking blog at the time, Smitten Kitchen, and came across a recipe for dulce de leche cheesecake squares. I knew this was the recipe that I had to open up the unused jar for.

I felt comforted, like my dad was there, telling me to get on with it and make those squares.

When I opened it, I was instantly taken back to my dad's kitchen. It was like I was a kid again, savouring that sweet, intoxicating smell I knew so well. I took a small bite from my spoon, and smiled. I felt comforted, like my dad was there, telling me to get on with it and make those squares.

So I made them. I made them for myself, for my then-boyfriend who's now my husband, for my cousin's wedding shower, and for other family members. It's one of my favourite desserts to make (and eat), in no small part because it reminds me of my dad.

Recently, I made a video for HuffPost Canada (which you can watch above), where I made alfajores. I was a bit nervous because I had never made them before, and if you're a baker, you know that all it takes is for one little mistake to screw things up.

Toronto Star via Getty Images
Alfajores.

I had been waiting to use a brand new jar of dulce de leche, which my dad's brother, who was visiting from Argentina, gave to me in January.

Aside from some difficulty making the cookies perfectly round, they came out great. They were delicious.

When my director, Kait, asked me to take a bite of the dulce de leche from a spoon for the camera, I gladly accepted. I took that bite, and even though I couldn't see him, I knew my dad was there with me.

Born And Raised is an ongoing series by HuffPost Canada that shares the experiences of second-generation Canadians. Part reflection, part storytelling, this series on the children of immigrants explores what it means to be born and raised in Canada.