Why It Works
- Heavy cream adds fat for a fuller flavor while reducing the risk of curdling.
- Stirring and scraping further prevents the milk solids from scorching.
- Powdered milk adds a second layer of rich dairy flavor and contributes to a firmer, slightly chewy texture.
I have fond childhood memories of the sweet milk-based treat known as pastillas de leche, which my family often received as pasalubong, or gifts, from relatives visiting from the Philippines. Traditionally made from carabao, or water buffalo, milk and white sugar, pastillas de leche are now more commonly made from a combination of cow milk, condensed milk, sugar, and/or powdered milk. While we’d sometimes receive ones flavored with ube (purple yam) or macapuno (also known as coconut sport, the soft flesh of the coconut from a dwarf mutant tree), which have become more popular, my favorite then and now continues to be the original, because of its rich, creamy dairy-forward flavor.
When I set out to recreate pastillas at home, my priority was nailing the specific flavor and texture of the sweets I’d eaten as a child. Since carabao milk isn’t readily available in the United States, I've combined cow milk and heavy cream to replicate its higher fat content and richer flavor. Heavy cream also helps to prevent the milk from curdling during the cooking process (thanks to its larger concentration of fat). As a result, you can use any kind of milk you have on hand for the rest of the mixture–from skim to whole milk.
I discovered during testing that simply cooking down a mixture of milk, cream, and sugar into a paste-like consistency and forming little candies yielded pastillas that were too soft and didn’t hold their shape well; they were also bland. Adding powdered milk (along with a pinch of salt) to the cooked, thickened milk provided the pastilla dough with a more complex dairy flavor and a firmer texture. I tested both whole and nonfat powdered milk, but nonfat powdered milk ultimately produced a grainy candy, in part because it wasn’t as easy to dissolve into the mixture. Whole powdered milk, however, blended seamlessly into the mixture, producing smooth, creamy candies. (I also tested a combination of condensed milk and powdered milk, a quick no-cook method for making pastillas at home, which resulted in stiff candies with an off-putting canned flavor).
To make the candies, I chill the dough and then form it into a cylinder from which I cut pieces and shape them into bite-size logs. Tossing the logs in sugar gives them a touch of crunch and extra sweetness. They look just like the pastillas de leche I'd eat as a kid, even if their flavor is a little different because of the lack of carabao milk. But I've been sharing the pastillas with my toddler, who is creating his own memories of enjoying these unique Filipino treats.
- 2 cups (470ml) milk, any fat percentage
- 3 fluid ounces (90ml) heavy cream
- 2 ounces (1/4 cup; 55g) granulated sugar, plus extra for coating the pastillas
- 1/8 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume
- 2 ounces (1/4 cup; 55g) powdered whole milk
In a 10-inch stainless steel skillet, combine milk and heavy cream, and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally with a rubber spatula to prevent a skin from forming on the sides of the pan. Reduce heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook, stirring and scraping frequently, until mixture is reduced by half, about 30 minutes.
Add sugar and salt, and stir to combine. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until mixture has reduced to a viscous paste-like consistency (it is ready when you drag the spatula against the bottom of the pan and the milk mixture is slow to fill the space left behind), about 1 hour.
Transfer to a heatproof medium bowl (you should have about 3/4 cup (6 ounces; 170g) of milk paste), add powdered milk, and stir until thoroughly combined. Continue stirring until no dry powder remains, and a sticky dough forms, about 30 seconds. Let cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled, at least 1 hour and up to 8 hours.
Lightly grease your hands with cooking spray, and transfer chilled dough to a clean cutting board. Using your hands, roll dough into a roughly 5-inch long cylinder. Using a paring knife or bench scraper, divide cylinder in half crosswise. Roll each piece into a 5-inch long cylinder. Divide each cylinder into 8 equal portions (1/2 ounce; 15g each). Using your hands, roll each portion between your palms into a 2-inch long cylinder. At this point, pastillas can be transferred to an airtight container and refrigerated for up to 1 week until ready to serve.
When you are ready to serve, place 1/2 cup sugar (4 ounces; 115g) in a wide, shallow bowl. Add up to 4 pastillas at a time to the bowl and shake to coat pieces on all sides with sugar. Transfer sugar-coated pastillas to a serving plate, and repeat coating process with remaining pastillas. Serve.
10-inch stainless steel skillet
If desired, you can also shape pastillas into balls instead of cylinders.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Uncoated pastillas can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week. Roll in sugar before serving.