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Taste of Tucson: Mexican candies to satisfy your sweet tooth

Jamoncillo de leche is easy to make and uses ingredients you may already have on hand.

It’s nice around the holidays to have a little something on hand to offer to guests, or to give as a small gift.

It’s equally nice to have a little something on hand to indulge in yourself. I won’t tell on you.

This simple Mexican milk candy, jamoncillo de leche, is easy to make and uses ingredients you may already have on hand. If you don’t have them, the ingredients store well, so stock up sometime soon and make the candy when you wish. It ships well, if you have friends or family back East who might like a little taste of the Old Pueblo.

There is a whole family of brown sugar fudge-type things in the world. Perhaps the best known is penuche, a sort of fudge that is thought to have Portuguese origins. The Portuguese whalers who settled around New Bedford, Massachusetts, brought it with them and popularized it.

I saw it often when I lived in New England, where maple syrup is sometimes added.

When I lived in the Deep South, I also saw penuche, but in the South, it’s usually called “cream pralines” or “milk pralines.” In Hawaii, penuche is used as an icing for cakes.

The texture of penuche is a little different from this candy, though. Jamoncillo de leche is softer to the tooth, less crumbly, a little easier to eat. It should be smooth, not grainy, with a distinctive caramel flavor from the brown sugar.

I’ve never had much luck with fudge-making; it’s a finicky process that may or may not turn out, depending on environmental factors we can’t control, such as the humidity and the temperature. Jamoncillo is much easier to make, and I’ve never had a failed batch.

I’ve played around with a lot of recipes for this candy. Some call themselves “no-cook,” but I found them lacking in the texture I wanted. I’ve also seen recipes that say they don’t require beating the cooked mixture, but they, too, lacked the texture I wanted.

Some recipes rely on milk or cream rather than the evaporated milk, but I haven’t had good luck with them — the evaporated milk adds some structure that milk and cream cannot.

This recipe is as streamlined as I could make it, but every step is necessary. Chill the jamoncillo before cutting into squares and dip your knife in hot water before every cut to keep things neat and tidy.

You definitely will want a stand mixture for the beating step. That sugar-milk mixture is hot, as hot and sticky as molten lava, and a hand mixer puts you at risk of being splattered while you beat it. Take your time scraping the hot candy into the mixing bowl of your stand mixer. There’s no rush.

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