The origin story of one of Peru’s most popular desserts is almost as romantic as its name — suspiro a la limeña, or “the sigh of a lady from Lima.”
More than a century ago, the story goes, the wife of the poet José Gálvez Barrenechea made him a custard similar to dulce de leche and topped it with meringue. He loved the dish so much that he gave it its evocative name.
It refers to the sound you might make “if your teenage heartthrob walks by, and you sigh,” said Charles Walker, a history professor at the University of California, Davis. “It’s a thunderbolt strike of love.”
The dessert, also known as suspiro de limeña, is considered by many the poet’s way of showing his deep admiration for the capital of Peru; it is now a staple on restaurant menus and for home cooks. It’s made with a can each of evaporated and sweetened condensed milk, and the meringue is flavored with red port.
“It’s an exquisite dessert that could become a guilty pleasure because it’s so rich,” said Martin Allen Morales, a cookbook author and the former owner and chef of several Peruvian restaurants in Britain, including Ceviche in London. The dish likely has international influences, including from the Moors, North Africans and Italians, he said. “It’s so seductive in terms of the aromas it carries.”
But the details of this dessert’s origins get lost in countless retellings. The first reference to the story was published in a 1994 Peruvian cookbook, “El Perú y Sus Manjares,” said Rosario Olivas Weston, a Peruvian food historian. The book was a compilation of recipes from the author’s family and friends, who included the famous poet and his wife.
The pastry chef Rocio Pereira was a teenager in Lima when she started experimenting with the dessert, adding more egg yolks to tone down the sweetness. In 2009, she met the owner of a Miami restaurant group and started selling suspiro a la limeña for its restaurants. She has since upgraded from her home kitchen to a commercial operation, where she makes about 400 cups of suspiro a la limeña daily for the group and other restaurants in the area. Before serving, she said, the dessert is topped with fresh meringue.
“The suspiro is our flagship dessert,” Ms. Pereira said in Spanish. She also prepares pickup orders through her Miami bakery, Delizzia.
At his Kousine restaurants in Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the chef and co-owner, Danny Kou, likes to add other flavors to the suspiro with fruits like passion fruit. He even once added chicha morada reduction, a Peruvian drink made with purple corn, to the meringue.
“It’s a dessert I learned to make at home,” Mr. Kou said in Spanish, “and it brings back good memories of standing on a chair to reach the kitchen counter and make the suspiro with my grandmother.”