Have you ever tasted something and thought, “this is so amazing, how have I never heard of it until now?”
That’s exactly how I felt about cajeta. It is one of the most incredible food stuffs you’ve (probably) never heard of, unless you’ve spent some time in Mexico, where it is basically a candy staple. Okay, so maybe you have heard of it, but I hadn’t, so let’s go with that.
For those of you in the same boat I was, cajeta is like a cross between sweetened condensed milk and caramel. Basically, dulce de leche. The twist is, it’s made with goats milk, which, when cooked down for a couple of hours until the sugars begin to caramelize, becomes one of the richest, most complex caramel flavors you could ever imagine.
Don’t worry, that weak-in-the-knees feeling is totally normal.
Traditionally, cajeta is cooked for hours and hours in large copper pots, until the milk has reduced and the sugars have started to caramelize. While it cooks, it gets stirred with huge wooden paddles, and once it’s finished? Well, that’s where things get interesting. The mixture can be left exactly as it is, or things like vanilla, fleur de sel, rum, or other flavorings can be added to make it even more complex and tantalizing.
Making cajeta at home is just like that, only minus the giant copper pot and wooden paddle. Instead, you can use just about any pot you have, provided it’s big enough to accommodate the bubbling mixer, and a long handled wooden spoon to stir as it reduces. When it’s done, the consistency is like warm honey or maple syrup, and as it cools, it thickens into a rich, creamy, dreamy caramel sauce.
In an effort to make my cajeta more or less traditional, I opted for some piloncillo in place of regular sugar. Piloncillo is an unrefined brown sugar, made by reducing the sugar cane juices until they begin to crystallize, then solidifying them into a block or cone shape, without filtering out the natural molasses and minerals. Sugars here in the US are strictly regulated, and even sugars labeled “raw” have actually been put through quite a bit of refinement in order to meet the FDA standards. (Regular brown sugar, for instance, is made by fully refining the granules into white sugar, then mixing a small amount of molasses back into it.)
Because the piloncillo retains some of the natural, unfiltered molasses, it has a slightly more complex flavor than the average brown sugar. It’s a product I’ve wanted to play with for a long time, and this cajeta gave me the perfect excuse to order some. And when I say some, I mean a huge case, because let’s face it, this is going into everything from now on.
Because piloncillo is like the ultimate in hard-as-a-rock brown sugar, it requires a little extra elbow grease to work with, either in the form of grating on a rasp, or smashing it to bits with a hammer. (I’ve heard that Mexican households that use piloncillo keep a brick or stone in the kitchen for this very purpose.) If you have any pent up aggression, now is the time to let it out.
If you can’t get your hands on piloncillo, or just don’t feel like it’s worth the bother, you can always sub in another kind of sugar. Regular dark brown sugar will work, or turbinado, muscovado, or even coconut sugar. Whatever you use, it’s guaranteed to make for a delicious cajeta.
Here are just a few of the ways I’ll be using up my batch (assuming I can keep from eating it all straight off the spoon):
- Spooned over ice cream
- Sandwiched between cookies
- Drizled over cake, pie, cobbler, bread pudding, etc. (best mud pie ever)
- Poured over pancakes, waffles, crepes, etc.
- Swirled into hot coffee for the most insane caramel latte ever
- As a dip for fresh fruit
- Layered into these individual caramel apple tartlets
First up? Dip spoon into cajeta, drizzle with chocolate, sprinkle with flaked sea salt, devour.
Many spoons to share with friends, plus a couple extra for The Husband and myself. Added bonus: I get to feel like the Jackson Pollock of chocolate.
Have you ever had cajeta, or made it at home? If so, what are your favorite ways to use it? I’m taking notes for my next batch!
- 4 cups (1 quart) whole goats milk, pasteurized*
- 1 cone (8oz by weight) piloncillo, or 1 cup packed dark brown sugar
- 1 cinnamon stick (or other whole spices -- optional)
- ¼ tsp. baking soda, dissolved in ½ TBSP goats milk
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- OPTIONAL ADD-INS: splash of rum, bourbon, or other liquor (added at the end, once the cajeta is removed from the heat) // a whole vanilla bean (split and seeds scraped out), or other warming spices (added at the beginning of cooking, then removed once the cajeta has cooled slightly) // pinch of sea salt, or smoked sea salt, to taste (added at the end, I suggest starting with just a little and tasting as you go)
- Place the milk, piloncillo, and cinnamon stick in a large saucepan (larger than you think you'll need), over medium to medium-high heat, reserving a small amount of goats milk to be mixed with the baking soda. Bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring frequently to dissolve the sugar.
- Once simmering, remove the pot from the heat and carefully add in the dissolved baking soda and goats milk. The mixture will froth up violently, nearly doubling in volume. Once the bubbling subsides, return the pot to the heat, and bring it back to a steady simmer.
- Cook, stirring frequently, until the liquid has reduced and thickened (mine took about 1½ hours, but your time may vary depending on your stove and pot). Be sure to scrape the bottom of the pot as you stir, and adjust the heat if necessary as the sauce reduces to avoid scorching. The cajeta is ready when it is the consistency of warm honey or maple syrup, and a rich golden color. Remove from the heat and let cool.
- Stir in the vanilla extract, and any other add-ins, if using. Pour into a jar or other sealed container, and store in the fridge for up to a few weeks.
- (The cajeta will thicken significantly as it cools, and once refrigerated will become quite firm. It can be softened again by placing the jar, without the lid, in the microwave for a few seconds, or in a shallow pot of simmering water.)
Some of the goats milk can be replaced with cows milk for a slightly less tangy flavor, or all of it can be replaced to make a decadent cows milk dulce de leche.
Piloncillo is a form of unrefined brown sugar, and adds a little extra depth of flavor. It can be purchased in some specialty stores or online, or it can be substituted one-for-one with regular dark brown sugar, or other types of brown sugar like turbinado, muscovado, or even coconut sugar.
This recipe makes about 1½ cups of cajeta, which is great for someone like me with no willpower. If you want a bigger batch, the recipe can easily be doubled or trippled -- just keep in mind that the bigger the batch, the longer it will take to reduce.
Recipe adapted from Rick Bayless