My cousins and I would scamper down from the tangled banyan tree and run in from a sweaty day of frolicking in the heat to plead for the keys to the pantry. My aunt would fish them from the depths of her pocket and ask that we lock up behind us and return the rattling, janitor-worthy keychan as soon as we had gathered our ingredients.
The pantry always smelled a bit humid, as if a damp gym sock had been forgotten somewhere behind the bags of tiny red kidney beans. There was a hint of farmyard smell, no doubt from the burlap sacks of white rice, and floating over everything, the astringent, fake floral whiff of cheap, nationally produced Bayclin floor cleaner. Mostly, the mix of odors smelled of summer vacation, the freedom of childhood, and the intoxicating promise of secrets lurking behind any door that always lies under lock and key.
What we were there to get: one large box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes and one can of sweetened condensed milk. Someone sprinted to the living room to return the keys while someone else fetched a stool. Yet another would rattle and rummage for a large pot and a long-handled wooden stirring spoon. I would fill a bowl with water while baking sheets were set up in the dining room. This was a house of seven children, though some were too young to participate, and I loved the buzz of activity and sense that everyone had a task, much like Cinderella's mice.
Finally, we were ready. Huddled around the pot, we'd see the sugar slowly begin to pool, then clump, then melt into an ever deepening amber slick. A thin wisp of smoke would unfurl and we could smell the sharp, bitter bite of caramel.
Quickly! Quickly! Pats of butter were tossed in while the lead cook stirred furiously. Next, the moment of glory: the ribbon of thick, sweet, rich, addictive condensed milk fell heavily in—we'd all get a lick of whatever clung to the can afterwards.
Golden crunchy flakes of cereal, usually so dull and unexciting at the bottom of a breakfast bowl, became the main attraction, as they rustled out of the bag and tumbled into the dark golden, sticky swamp we'd brewed in the generous pot. Much stirring and slapping of hands went on then—we all wanted to snatch a taste, even at the risk of burning our fingertips.
The pot was carried to the dining room, a line of greedy, giddy kids trailing in its wake. All hands—hopefully scrubbed clean, but who knows?—plunged into the bowl of water and the shaping of nubby, unruly nests of delight began. I don't know if we ever got the yield expected or whether we allowed them to set properly because we kept licking our fingers and nibbling on the bocaditos.
Parents would stroll in to check on the rumpus, but their ulterior motive was to eat!
Instead of Rice Krispies treats, many Latin Americans grow up eating these (no-bake!) clusters of cereal, sugar, and sweetened condensed milk. At a glance, the recipe appears too sweet, but the burnt sugar adds nuance and complexity to these irresistible morsels.