Way up where the mountains thrust into the clouds, the quaint town of El Valle is nestled into an emerald green valley formed by a dormant volcano in Panama’s Coclé province. Laura, Ben and I were regretfully leaving our favorite Panama island one Sunday when we decided to venture off our well-worn route in hopes of finding the famed El Valle Sunday market. A narrow road runs from the very top of the mountain all the way down to the Pan-American highway that we diverted from. Thirty minutes later, a curve in the road revealed clusters of bikes and fruit-filled truck beds that signaled us to slow down. A low-hanging awning could barely contain the colorful wares and murmur of small-town gossip beneath it — El Valle’s Sunday market wasn’t hard to find at all. We pulled to the side of the road and dodged local children running circles around their parents who were catching up with neighbors — and it didn’t take us long to figure out where they got all that energy.
“Candy!” is what Amble President Ben Loomis exclaimed as Laura and I were casually admiring the wide spread of rare tropical flowers and fruits. So, of course we did what any professional er, child at heart would do — we walked right past the flowers, healthy fruits, and handcrafted goods to the candy booth, and bought enough to fill a trick-or-treat bag.
In a country where chocolate grows on trees, I had high expectations, and Panama did not disappoint on the candy front. Unlike the highly-processed candy typical of Westernized nations, the candy bought in local markets like El Valle is hand-made, hand-wrapped, caramelized in tradition, and bursting with locally grown ingredients like raw cane sugar, fresh coconut, chocolate, nuts and tropical fruit.
Our unanimous favorite: the round, caramel-colored, tissue-wrapped balls the size of a Whopper, with a taste close to that of a Sugar Daddy but the texture of a perfectly chewy peanut butter cookie. Confused yet? It was huevitos de leche – Panamanian milk candy.
Huevitos de Leche Recipe
1. Combine 2 liters milk, 2 pounds of sugar and 1 teaspoon salt. Cook in a cast iron or other heat resistant pot on medium heat, stirring constantly with a long wooden spoon to avoid burning, until the dulce de leche has thickened and a line can be traced in the bottom of the pot with the spoon. Add the vanilla and mix well.
2. Remove from the stove and add 1 cup shredded coconut (optional). Stir and let cool just enough so that you can bear the heat and make little balls with your hands. Try to make them as uniform as possible, using a teaspoon or a tablespoon measure.
3. Once the candies have cooled off, wrap them in decorative pieces of paper, suitable for food, and you’ve just made one of Panama’s sweetest treats, huevitos de leche, just like the locals do.
Time to go share your Panama-inspired sugar high with friends and family. Bon appétit!