At about the same moment that gray was becoming the new black -- though with far less fanfare -- caramel was becoming the new chocolate. It was taking over as the perker-upper of innumerable cappuccinos, as the zigzag trim drizzled across a plate of mango macadamia mousse, as the swirl in half a dozen new ice cream flavors. Not everyone is as happy about this shift as I am.
Like the color gray, which can strike a casual observer as simply colorless, caramel at first taste seems so single-minded in its pursuit of sweetness that it‘s easy to dismiss it as jejune -- especially when compared to chocolate’s cosmopolitan sophistication and dark complexities. And caramel is simple. It‘s what happens when sugar meets fire. First the crystals melt, then, as their temperature rises above 310 degrees Fahrenheit, they begin to turn the color of the California hills. The process is essentially the same whatever the sugar in question -- the refined table product or one of the molecular components of an onion.
Nevertheless, as with gray -- which may, in fact, mean any shade from almost slaty blue to nearly pearly yellow -- chocolate’s teddy-bear-toned replacement teaches that there are subtleties of sweet. These are especially evident in the form of caramel known as ”dulce de leche.“ (Just saying the words feels a little like eating the substance itself: The tongue seems to stick to the roof of one‘s mouth.) Popular across Latin America, it consists of quantities of milk simmered, sometimes for hours, with lesser amounts of sugar. The final product ranges from golden brown to butterscotch to dark mahogany, and has the consistency and sheen of opaque honey.
Regional variations abound: Chile’s manjar blanco is flavored with vanilla or cinnamon; Mexico‘s cajeta de Celaya is made with goat’s milk, and sometimes wine. Argentina, however, may be ground zero in terms of milk-caramel consumption. There, in addition to filling a variety of pastries, the sweet is also, like some New World Nutella, spread on breakfast toast. Local delighters in dulce de leche can experience the Argentine passion closer to hand thanks to Glendale‘s El Morfi cafe. Though it’s not open for breakfast, its menu offers a full range of caramel-enhanced desserts: flan, crepes, bread pudding and a layer cake.
Entered at noon from the hot bustle of Brand Boulevard, El Morfi, which describes its cuisine as ”Argentinian-Italian,“ is a coolly underlit haven of Eurochic. Sleek gray walls stand behind a lighted case of desserts and salads; a low balustrade of glass cubes divides counter and dining area; several languages bounce softly off the exposed brick wall displaying scenes of Buenos Aires. Like Glendale itself, lunch is both unpretentious and surprisingly cosmopolitan.
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Many of El Morfi‘s Argentine specialties betray Italian roots. A Milanesa sandwich is the svelte and elegant cousin of a veal parmigiana sub. A fillet of beef or chicken breast is pounded exceptionally thin, fried in a coating of herbed crumbs, and served on homemade bread with lettuce and tomato. Matambre is a cool, compressed variant of beef bracciole, flank steak spiced and rolled around a mosaic of hard-boiled eggs, vinegary carrots and pimientos, then served in thin slices with a pale-yellow scoop of creamy, carrot-studded potato salad. The house antipasto combines Old World ingredients -- salami, mozzarella, lettuce and chickpeas -- New World--style, in a chopped pyramid reminiscent of a California Cobb salad. Happily, a lunch of spiced meat and savory vegetables makes a perfect foil for the sweetness to come.
The flan, flanked with a generous scoop of caramel and two of whipped cream, makes one regret having spent one’s childhood in a northern latitude. The chaja, a yellow cake layered with dulce de leche, whipped cream and poached peaches and topped with crumbled meringue, is a seductive tango of textures. But caramel reaches its apogee as the runny filling for a pair of thin, warm crepes. After the first overpowering rush of sweetness, a rush that leaves so many flavor sensors responding that the mouth aches, the taste buds gradually begin to distinguish echoes of toast, hay, a slight animal pungency, and finally the benign tongue-coating familiarity of milk itself.
It seems a kind of miracle that something so bland and lily-white can give rise to this gilded lusciousness. And yet the transformation of milk and sugar, stirred the old-fashioned way for an hour over a hot stove, is not instantaneous. Both spoon and eye sense a change. What‘s thin and watery takes on substance and begins to resist the stroke; what’s pale first yellows and then browns. Oddly enough, it‘s taken modern life to supply the magic. ”Everyone in Latin America knows the truco, or trick, of boiling an unopened can of sweetened condensed milk until it caramelizes,“ Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz confides in The Book of Latin American Cooking. It’s the method used at El Morfi as well. Caramel may never achieve anything like chocolate‘s reputation for dark powers, but boil an ordinary can of milk for three hours, and pour out heaven? That’s gray magic at least.
241 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale; (818) 547-4420. Open daily for lunch and dinner.