The dessert and bakery aisles in certain areas of the U.S. feature not only bilingual boxes, but imported treats and dessert mixes from many lands. Such has not always been the case.

“When I came here from Mexico 20 years ago, the only [Hispanic] prepared foods in the supermarket were salsas and tortillas,” says María de Lourdes Sobrino, president and founder of Lulu's Dessert Factory, a Vernon, Calif. manufacturer of ready-to-eat Mexican desserts.

As Hispanic foods become more available, Latinos can enjoy more foods from their native lands, while U.S. consumers continue to explore the ethnic arena. This will likely continue because the Hispanic population (currently some 35 million strong) is growing five times faster than the U.S. population as a whole.

Flavor Evolution (Evolución del Sabor)

When Americans think of Hispanic desserts, flan probably first comes to mind. However, other popular desserts are based on gelatin, rice, citrus and tropical fruits, eggs, milk and the flavors of caramel, cinnamon, vanilla, anise, coconut and rum. Rompope, similar to eggnog, is another popular flavor.

“Recently, many tropical fruit flavors have emerged from Latin and South America, such as lulo from Columbia,” says Lee Kohnstamm, vice-president of International for Virginia Dare, Brooklyn, N.Y. Lulo is an orange-colored fruit that has an apple-like taste. Tropical fruits that have become more popular include acerola berries, guanabana, guava, passion fruit, papaya, and especially mango.

While some companies fear novel flavor creations with an ethnic twist, others relish them. The Dreamery line originally included Hot Chilly Chili, a flavor based on a Mexican theme. “We wanted to create an ice cream that would provide some heat,” says Bernard Coll, senior research scientist-R&D, Edy's/Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream, Oakland, Calif., and co-developer of the Dreamery™ line.

The flavor was a blend of vanilla ice cream and a nut blend with spices, combined with a fudge swirl with jalapeno pepper.

“First, you perceived the cold chocolate sensation, then the nuts, after which the heat kicked in,” says Coll. Although some customers said this was the best thing ever, and it won an award for innovative new flavor, the product was not a big hit overall and was discontinued.

One successful flavor is dulce de leche. Unfamiliar in this country only a few years ago, it has successfully made the transition from Hispanic to American cuisine.

Tentaciones Dulces (Sweet Temptations)

Flan, rice pudding, and gelatin are popular Hispanic desserts, while dulce de leche is used as an ingredient in many desserts.

Dulce de Leche

A traditional topping with a sweet caramel flavor, it is popular in all Hispanic countries and is used on cakes, cookies, toast, pancakes, crepes, fruits, ice cream and is even eaten straight out of the jar. It is known by other names in various countries. In Mexico, cajeta is made with goat's milk instead of cow's milk.

The flavor combines milk, sugar, vanilla and baking soda in a laborious process requiring long hours of simmering the ingredients together until the mixture reaches a thick, rich consistency and a golden brown color. Starting with sweetened, condensed milk hastens the cooking process.

The sugars caramelize, and the baking soda raises the pH to hasten the Maillard browning reaction which works better at higher pH, according to information from Dairy Management, Inc., Rosemont, Ill. Generally, dulce de leche is made anywhere from pH 5.8 to 6.5, depending on the desired browning. Higher pH also provides some protection for the whey proteins that tend to precipitate below pH 6.2 during the cooking process.

In this country, Dulce de Leche ice cream is a consistent top 10 flavor at Häagen-Dazs, which also makes Dulce de Leche ice cream bars. Since Häagen-Dazs' introduction, many ice cream manufacturers have added the flavor to their lineups, including Dannon's la Crème™ yogurt and, most recently, M&M/Mars' M&M Candies.

Edy's introduced Dreamery™ Dulce de Leche ice cream this year. Coll and colleagues tried various variegated formulations with varying levels of sweetness, sourness, milky and caramel character—and various textures—before selecting and blending the one with the preferred caramel flavor.

Latino transplants craving homemade taste simmer an unopened can of sweetened condensed milk for several hours or hasten the process by using a pressure cooker. In many Latin American countries, dulce de leche is cooked down to a very thick consistency and sold in a shelf-stable bar form, much like a candy bar. In many countries, it is available in a jar.

In the U.S., those craving the real thing can find La Salamandra Dulce de Leche, Argentina's leading brand, in some specialty stores and upscale supermarkets. This whole-milk product from de Medici Imports, Ltd., New York won the NASFT (National Association for the Specialty Food Trade) award last year in the “Outstanding Jam, Preserve, or Spread” category.


Although flan or milk pudding is a traditional baked custard-type dessert originating in Spain, it is popular in Hispanic countries and other areas with Latin populations.

Though the ratio of ingredients may vary slightly, the basic mixture includes milk, sugar and eggs. The milk portion may include sweetened condensed milk and whole milk. Some recipes contain more eggs, while a Cuban flan may include shredded coconut, lemon peel, or rum.

The caramel sauce is first prepared by caramelizing sugar and water, pouring it into a baking dish or custard cups, pouring the custard mixture on top, baking it up to an hour and serving it warm or chilled. When the dish is inverted, the custard has a caramel sauce on top.

While authentic flan is a baked product, many box mixes and ready-to-eat (RTE) flan desserts are not. LuLu's Dessert Factory recently introduced its RTE Premium Baked Flan, the most challenging item to manufacture in the LuLu's Dessert line, according to Sobrino.

“As our only baked product, it is more difficult to determine the baking temperatures, which vary during the baking process,” says Sobrino. “We wanted to produce an authentic flan, not just a custard-like product.” LuLu's Dessert will be introducing a sugar-free flan sweetened with sucralose in the near future.

Rice Pudding

Arroz con Leche—rice with milk—is a traditional Hispanic dessert generally prepared with raisins and cinnamon when made at home.

While Ariza Cheese Co., Paramount, Calif., is the oldest Hispanic cheese maker in the country, the company has been making Hispanic desserts for only two years. The company produces four RTE desserts in 6-ounce single serving containers: Rice Pudding, Creamy Flan, Vanilla Gelatin, and Rainbow Gelatin—geared toward Hispanic consumers.

Making authentic Hispanic rice pudding involves keeping the integrity of the whole rice grain, accomplished by keeping the batch size small, according to Blake Johnson, general manager of Ariza Cheese.

Ariza's rice pudding is made with rice, milk, sugar, cinnamon, artificial vanilla extract, and potassium sorbate.


While gelatin is common for breakfast in Mexico, fancier gelatins are eaten for holidays and special occasions. In Mexico, a slice of gelatin is commonly served with cake for birthdays and special occasions.

Sobrino developed a line of Hispanic gelatin desserts in the U.S. after she could not find them in this country. LuLu's produces three-layer rainbow gelatins and parfaits that contain chunks of gelatin mixed into a milky medium. Flavors include Dulce de Leche Gelatin and Creamy Vanilla with Cinnamon Gelatin. LuLu's Original Creamy Gelatin comes in strawberry, vanilla and the popular rompope flavor.

Essential Ingredients (Ingredientes Esenciales)

Food companies offer consumers built-in convenience when it comes to ethnic desserts, whether in a RTE or dry mix format. Both benefit from the use of hydrocolloids for thickening, gelling and stabilizing. Including carrageenan, alginates, locust bean gum, xanthan gum and proteins such as gelatin, these polysaccharides vary in their ability to solubilize under various conditions such as temperature and pH.

Used for years as gelling agents in gelatin desserts, gelatin gels provide an elastic texture, smooth meltaway, and excellent flavor release, according to Leiner Davis Gelatin Specialty Proteins, Davenport, Iowa. Gelatin's high solubility and strong water binding properties are used to produce gels with high clarity and no syneresis.

Dessert texture and setting rate can be controlled by bloom strength (a measure of gel strength) and gelatin concentration. The levels and combinations of acids and buffering salts help achieve the desired finished product.

Gelatin is often combined with milk in Latin American countries, which is not typical for U.S. desserts. Gelatin-milk desserts (“parfait” types) are produced by heating gelatin in the presence of milk, then cooling to produce a smooth texture and creamy mouthfeel. Carrageenan may be added for extra stability because of its ability to complex with milk proteins, in addition to its water-gelling properties.

Carrageenan is a popular hydrocolloid in flans, mousses and water-based desserts as a gel, thickener and stabilizer, according to FMC BioPolymer, Philadelphia. Milk proteins (casein) react with carrageenan to produce excellent gel strength.

FMC's prototype flan formulation prepared without eggs is a dry mix of sugar, color, flavor and carrageenan. The mix is added to milk, heated and boiled to form a variety of textures.

The synergy between kappa-carrageenan and locust bean gum produces a more resilient elastic gel structure with reduced syneresis, according to Doug Vargo, product manager for Cultured & Fluid Dairy Systems, Germantown USA, West Chester, Pa. This common stabilizer system helps create a gel system in either water and/or dairy-based desserts.

Starch/carrageenan combinations are used to produce a creamier flan with reduced syneresis. A variety of hydrocolloids, such as alginates, carrageenans and starches, can approximate some of the textural properties of gelatin.

Mexican desserts are often multi-layered with different colors and bases. Germantown has a patented stabilizer system for simultaneously filling two dessert bases vertically into one container for various visual effects. A gelatin/gellan gum stabilizer system is available as well as a sodium alginate, locust bean gum, and xanthan gum blend.

Future Challenges (Desafíos del Futuro)

Product developers still face one main challenge when developing ethnic-inspired products.

“I have to develop flavors that are ethnic, yet appeal to mainstream America,” says Coll. Americans don't seem to be ready for some ethnic flavors, such as hazelnut, he adds. “In the future, I think we will be able to introduce just about any ethnic flavor in this country and people will embrace it.” PF

Acknowledgements: Muchas gracias to the following for providing ethnic insight into this article: Rosario Rottenborn (Peru), Maritza Fernandez (Puerto Rico), Carlos Arambula (Mexico).