Natilla is a rich, custard-like dessert that is traditionally enjoyed at Christmas, especially in Colombia. It is usually served alongside round deep-fried cheese fritters called buñuelos. Natilla is somewhat similar to dulce de leche, but it is thickened with cornstarch and flavored with panela, a dark molasses-like sugar that is a by-product of sugarcane processing. (Dark brown sugar makes a pretty good substitute). Colombian-style natilla tends to be firmer and sliceable, though it can also be served in a creamier pudding form. Many recipes for natilla include shredded fresh coconut, raisins, or nuts (or some combination of the three).
- 4 cups milk (whole)
- 8 ounces panela (or 1 cup packed light or dark brown sugar plus 1 tablespoon molasses)
- 2 to 3 cloves
- 3 to 4 cinnamon sticks
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 cup cornstarch
- 2 tablespoons butter
- Optional: 1 cup coconut (frozen, fresh, shredded)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 3/4 cup chopped nuts (optional) and/or 1/2 cup raisins
Place the cornstarch in a small bowl. Slowly whisk in 1 cup of the milk (or more if needed) until cornstarch is well incorporated and you have a smooth mixture. Pour the remaining milk into a heavy saucepan.
Grate the panela and add it to the milk mixture (or add the brown sugar and molasses). Add the baking soda, cinnamon sticks, and salt, and whisk to mix well.
Heat the milk/sugar mixture over medium-low heat, stirring, and bring just to a boil. Take out the cinnamon sticks and cloves. Whisk in the milk/cornstarch mixture and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until it starts to thicken. Stir in the coconut (optional).
Cook the mixture until has thickened enough that you can see the bottom of the pan for several seconds when you stir (do not let it come all the way to a boil), about 10-12 minutes. Stir constantly so that the cornstarch doesn't clump, and the mixture doesn't burn.
Add raisins and/or nuts if desired, and remove from heat, and stir in the butter and vanilla.
Pour the mixture into a greased 8 inch square pyrex pan, or in any greased mold. Refrigerate until firm.
Sprinkle natilla generously with powdered sugar. Cut into 3-inch rectangular pieces to serve.
Note: The cornstarch has a detectable flavor at first, which goes away once the natilla is thoroughly cooked.