Handy Canned Milk

by R.B. Quinn and Min Merrell

canned milk

 My grandmother Johnye, who ran a household mostly in Carlsbad, New Mexico, from the age of 16 through 74, in the 1930s through the early 1990s, was always an enthusiastic early adapter of technology in the kitchen. She was a busy, smart, curious, working woman with a strong interest in finding ways to make home life easier. Products like condensed and evaporated milk, along with poppin’ fresh canned biscuits and Bisquick baking mix were always on hand. “Why make biscuits when Pillsbury makes them just as well as I can?,” she’d say.

Pam cooking spray that eliminated the need for greasing pans was one of her favorite new-fangled product. She pretty much ran her own grassroots campaign to get her friends to try Pam, telling everyone how it frees you from lugging out the can of shortening. Squirt, squirt, you’re finished! She would have loved a smartphone and an iPad, definitely a connector who’d be Facebooking, texting and tweeting away.

How ironic that all this kitchen technology, so important for easing the burdens of everyday life in small-town America, is now taking the uncool backseat to doing everything the old-fashioned hard way.

Cool or not, you still can’t beat the frugal usefulness of keeping canned milk in the pantry. Remember there are two kinds, one sweetened and one not. The unsweetened evaporated milk is just a shelf-stable twice as strong version of fresh milk that comes in different fat levels. The characteristic cooked taste makes it most useful for cooking and baking, especially if you don’t want to keep full-fat milk products on hand. Sure you can put it in your pancake batter, enrich a white sauce for mac and cheese, make a custard, and, of course, Libby’s famous pumpkin pie. Add it to just about anything that needs a little creamy richness.

The sweetened kind is a must for Key lime pie (because it won’t curdle when combined with an acid like lime juice) and Vietnamese iced coffee. It’s an easy way like marshmallow creme for keeping fudge silky and inhibiting large grainy crystal growth. And there’s that famously dangerous way to turn it into dulce de leche while still in the sealed can, but you can caramelize the milk easily by emptying the contents into a saucepan and simmering it until golden brown.

Johnye never made her summer peach ice cream without Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk. She just called it Eagle Brand, they were on that kind of first name basis. Already sweetened, rich and creamy, it keeps the ice crystal growth in check, and it’s cheaper than fresh cream. Is it better than cream? Not really, it’s shelf- stable, convenient and delicious in its own way.

I sighed with relief the other evening when I went searching in my own pantry and found a can of evaporated milk. I was desperate for anything richer-than-low fat milk for making a quick chocolate frosting. Those last minute reminders that someone needs a cake for school the next day are a real killer. It was easy thanks to a cake mix, evaporated milk and my friend Anne’s Fluffy Chocolate Frosting from her Cake Mix Doctor book. Make your own frosting, it’s easy and so worth it. 


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