We stood on the well-worn tiles of yet another Panamanian panaderia (bakery), this one set on a mountainside in Chiriqui Province, when my husband, Cesar, handed our kids and me a plastic cup filled with what looked like brown syrup.
My husband had arrived in his native Panama for our month-long trip with one goal: find the perfect manjar blanco from his childhood.
Manjar blanco, also sometimes called dulce de leche (although this treat is prepared a little differently) is a traditional dessert in Panama made by reducing sweetened milk into a rich caramel. Sometimes cooks add cinnamon or almonds, but Cesar prefers the simple recipe of milk, sugar, and vanilla that allows the unmasked flavors to stand out and showcase a cook’s accomplished technique.
He shook his head after tasting the manjar blanco. “No,” Cesar said, “too soft.” The dulce dripped from the spoon like velvety ice cream topping.
My husband’s quest for a divine Panamanian dessert surprised me because I know him back home in the United States as the man who forgoes cake at birthday parties. He lacks a sweet tooth almost completely.
Yet in Panama, Cesar transformed into a kid in a candy store. As he scanned the glass cases in the panaderias and dulcerías across the country, his eyes would widen with childlike glee and then he’d order something in rapid Spanish to share with our kids and me. These pit-stops for dessert punctuated our road trip from Panama City to Chiriquí Province.
“Suspiros,” Cesar said as he pulled off the Pan-American Highway somewhere near Chame. We stepped out of a dirt parking lot and into a panaderia with its doors and windows flung wide open. He ordered plantain chips, national cheese, and a baggie filled with small wafers.
“Suspiro means ‘sigh,’” he said as he handed some wafers to me and the kids. “It releases air. Don’t chew it right away.” We stood in the sun-drenched parking lot and let the suspiros sigh on our tongues.
Along the way, we also sucked on fresh sugarcane, spooned up custardy flan, and sampled huevitos de leche. In David, we devoured cocaditas rolled in flecks of local coconut, which we bought from a tiny unmarked shop on a hot, bustling city street. In the cooler climate of Bambito we popped in at a roadside stand surrounded by fields and horse ranches to eat fresas con crema made with fresh strawberries and homemade cream.
No matter where we stopped, we always ordered the manjar blanco.
The manjar blanco in Volcan stretched from the spoon to the bowl in sugary threads, while the thicker one in David crystallized on the surface like homemade frosting. We tasted manjar blanco of every variety, from thin and saucy to stiff as taffy, from Panama City to Cerro Punta, yet the manjar blanco imprinted on Cesar’s memory eluded us.
And then, during the last week of our month-long stay, my ever-composed husband burst into my in-laws’ guestroom holding a little cup with a tabbed lid. He popped open the container and handed it to me, showing me how to convert the lid into a spoon.
“This is it,” he said. The spoon sank into the dulce when I pressed it slightly, and then I scooped up a smooth, honey-colored dollop. The manjar blanco tasted buttery and sweet and perfect. The flavor penetrated my taste buds and melted Cesar’s temperate demeanor.
A youthful excitement overcame my husband’s voice as he explained that his mother had found the perfect manjar blanco while passing through Penonome the day before. Time fell in on itself, and I sampled not only a rich Panamanian dessert, but also a Panamanian childhood.
Panamanian Candies and Desserts
- Manjar blanco: a caramel treat made from reduced sweetened milk with a consistency that ranges from saucy to solid
- Cocaditas: a candy made from condensed milk and rolled in coconut
- Huevitos de leche: firm balls of milk candy
- Bocadillos: hardened milk candies cut into squares
- Suspiros: hard wafers made from flour that release air when you eat them
- Orejitas: sugar-coated flour pastries shaped like little ears
- Bolitas de tamarindo: sugar balls made with tamarind fruit
- Merengue: whipped eggs and sugar baked until golden and crisp