Natilla is a Colombian custard-like dessert made with milk, cinnamon and coconut. This sweet treat is traditionally served alongside fried Buñuelos at Christmas time.
Every Christmas my mom and I get a bit carried away with our holiday baking. We love giving homemade shortbread cookies, marshmallows and other treats to our friends and family – it’s our tradition.
This year we tested out a few new recipes (including a chocolate truffle that just REFUSED to set), but this Colombian Natilla recipe just might be our new favourite.
I had been asking my friends what they eat during the holidays, and most people named the standard fare (cinnamon buns, pannetone, fruitcake etc.). We actually had a really interesting discussion about what people eat on Christmas morning on my page on Facebook, if you want to check that out.
Anyhow, I was talking to one of my newish friends/ex-coworker, Jeyson, and he told me about two Colombian dishes that I’ve never heard of before: Natilla and Buñuelos.
I wanted to try making Buñuelos, because they sound DELICIOUS (deep fried cheese balls!), but I couldn’t find queso fresco anywhere. I had this problem when I was testing out recipes that I had tried in Mexico too. My big-box grocery doesn’t seem to carry queso freso, oaxaca, or other Latin American cheeses. I will need to source these at some point…
Luckily for me, the ingredients for Natilla are fairly easy to find.
In fact, they are pretty similar to a Trinidadian dessert that my mom makes Cassava Pone. We’ve been meaning to share our pone recipe on the blog for YEARS now, but somehow it just hasn’t happened yet. One of these days…
OK, so let’s talk about this Colombian Natilla recipe. First of all, I’m calling it a custard, because most recipes that I found call it a custard. However, it’s important to note that this recipe does not actually contain any eggs (custards are usually cooked desserts made from milk and eggs).
Spanish versions of the recipe, called Natillas, include lemon zest and egg yolks and has a texture similar to crème anglaise. The Colombian version doesn’t have eggs, but it does contain a large amount of cornstarch. This causes the mixture to set up firm enough that you can cut it into slices.
The main ingredient in Natilla is dairy milk. Ordinarily, whole milk is used. However, whole milk can be tricky to find here in Canada so I used Homogenized 3.25% milk. Apparently, this kind of milk is something unique to Canada, so feel free to use whatever counts as whole milk, or full fat milk, in your country.
There are two other kinds of milks in this recipe: coconut milk and condensed milk.
Regardless of the brand you use, you’ll want to pour the contents of the can into a measuring cup or a bowl and stir it before measuring the amount you need. This is important because the fat (read: yummy) content of the coconut milk separates from the water in the can. Especially in cold weather! So you’ll want to stir it until everything is one smooth consistency before you measure out the amount you need.
For the condensed milk, you’ll need one entire 14 oz can. I use Eagle Brand, which seems to be the most popular brand here in Canada. Now, I realize that using an entire can of condensed milk sounds like a lot, and it is, but trust me you need that much sweetness to flavour the large quantity of cornstarch that’s in this dish.
There’s a tiny bit of brown sugar in this recipe too, which I like because it adds a slight caramel note to the dessert, and you can add more brown sugar and less condensed milk if you want to. I just find it easier to use an entire can of condensed milk in the recipe so I don’t have to worry about storing a half-used can.
The cornstarch is a crucial element in this recipe. Yes, there’s a LOT of it in there. When I was doing research on this dish, I did find other recipes that had half of the amount that I used here. But the comments on those recipes often said that the Natilla wouldn’t set up firm enough to cut.
When I was discussing the dish with Jeyson, he told me that it’s traditionally served in slices and eaten with a spoon, so I wanted to make sure that my recipe would fit those parameters.
One thing to note with the cornstarch is that if you mix it with cold milk, and set it aside, the mixture will begin to harden before you can pour it in. My mom found that by warming the milk up a bit, and then whisking the cornstarch right before adding it to the pan, you could eliminate that problem all together.
The cinnamon cooks in the milk for about 20 minutes total before you remove it, which gives it just enough time to infuse its flavour. Obviously, the longer you leave the sticks in there, the stronger the cinnamon flavour is going to be. I found that 20 minutes was enough, since I’m garnishing the finished dish with ground cinnamon anyhow.
Be careful with the heat on this dish, because if your heat is too high the mixture will scorch before you can finish making the dish. Milk can burn really easily, so keep an eye on your heat and be sure to stir the mixture often to prevent sticking.
Once you add the cornstarch, the mixture will begin to firm up pretty quickly. You’ll want to make sure that you have your loaf pan, serving dish or mini ramekins ready to go near the stove. Trust me, this makes things a lot easier.
I use a silicon or rubber spatula to pour the thickened mixture into the vessels. You need to let the Natilla cool down at room temperature for an hour or two, depending on the size of your serving dish. Once it’s cooled, you can garnish and eat them, or set them in the fridge for later.
I like eating this at room temperature, so I’ll take it out of the fridge for a bit before I enjoy a slice. But it’s actually pretty good cold too.
Now if only someone would bring over some Buñuelos…
Natilla (Colombian Custard)
- 3 cups Homogenized 3.25% Milk , or whole milk
- 18 tbsp cornstarch , (18 tbsp = 1 cup + 2 tbsp)
- 1 cup coconut milk , (from a can, mixed well)
- 3/4 cup grated coconut , (preferably frozen, not dried)
- 3 sticks cinnamon
- 14 oz condensed milk , (1 can of Eagle Brand)
- 1 tbsp dark brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 pinch ground clove , optional
- pinch salt
- ground cinnamon , to garnish
- Place the coconut milk and grated coconut in a blender, and puree until smooth. Set aside.
- Place 2 cups of milk in a medium pot and set over medium-low heat. Add the cinnamon sticks, and warm through for 8-10 minutes, or until the milk is slightly steaming.
- Once the milk and cinnamon mixture is steaming, add the condensed milk, sugar, vanilla, clove (if using) and salt. Stir well to combine.
- Increase heat to medium-high, and cook the mixture for another 8-10 minutes, stirring frequently so the milk doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan.
- Meanwhile, combine the remaining 1 cup of milk with cornstarch in a small bowl. Whisk until dissolved.
- Remove and discard the cinnamon sticks.
- Reduce heat back to medium-low, and stir in the cornstarch mixture. Stir continuously for 2-4 minutes, or until the Natilla thickens. Remove from heat, and pour into a loaf pan or small dessert cups. A plastic spatula is useful for getting all of the Natilla out of the pot.
- Allow the Natilla to cool at room temperature for 2 hours before serving. Garnish with ground cinnamon and serve with a spoon. Refrigerate unused portions, tightly wrapped, for up to 1 week.
Thank you to Jeyson for taste-testing this recipe multiple times, and answering my many questions!
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