One of my favorite memories of Mexico was the day we went to Pacheco, which is a small shrine of sorts out in the country outside of San Julian. We arrived shortly before lunch time, and sat down for a casual picnic style lunch. The best part of the meal, in my mind was the last part. We ate bolillos smeared with cajeta and créma under the eucalyptus trees. It was sweet and amazing with the créma. Cajeta is a very close relative of dulce de leche, but is set apart by the use of goats milk. As far as I know, it is often made with cow’s milk, goat’s milk, or a combination of both. I particularly like the goaty quality of the real deal, but it tastes good either way.
For this recipe, I followed the guidance of Rick Bayless, but altered the recipe slightly on the second go around. The first time, I made it, the cajeta crystalized in the last stages, so I added honey to help prevent that. His recipe, shockingly, didn’t call for any salt, so I added a pretty generous portion.
4 Qts. Whole Fat Milk (I did 3 Qts. Cow/1 Qt. Goat (That stuff isn’t cheap))
4 C. Sugar (I used fancy Turbinado, because I wanted a strong rustic full flavor)
4 T. Honey
2 T. Vanilla Extract (or 1 Vanilla Bean scraped if you are highfalutin)
1 t. Salt
1 t. Baking Soda dissolved in a bit of water
I started with a large heavy pot. I would use something with a heavy bottom, because I am told that pigs won’t even touch a bad batch of scorched cajeta. I used my enameled cast-iron dutch oven for this both times, and I think it is a good bet. Otherwise, I would use a heavy stainless stockpot. Start with everything but the baking soda in the pot. Bring it up to a simmer to let the sugars dissolve. Once you get to the light bubbling stage, either turn your heat off or put your pot in the sink. I did this before, so I was pretty confident about the next step and my clearance levels, so I left it on the stove top with the heat off when i poured in the baking soda. I am not sure exactly what purpose the baking soda serves, but it does make a change in the product. I think it might lighten the end product consistency-wise. Not sure though. When added, particularly with the goat’s milk, it foams up significantly. I had a moment where I thought it might overflow, because the change is almost instantaneous, but luckily, I had just enough room. Once the bubbling and puffing dies down, you want to return it to the heat and start reducing. The idea is to get it at a heat where it is simmering, but not boiling. Boiling runs the risk of scorching, and it is game over if that happens. So once you have reached a happy slight bubbling state, you need to find something to watch or read while you tend to your cajeta. At the beginning, you have a nice oatmeal colored product and as it reduces you get to a very rich dark peanut butter color. The idea is to caramelize the sugar and milk solids. At first, constant stirring isn’t absolutely necessary, but it should be stirred often. As the mass starts to darken and reduce though, you will want to pay particularly close attention to the bottom and sides of the pot, scraping them with your rubber spatula (you could use a spoon, but the spatula scrapes really nicely). This process is pretty slow going, so just be patient, and you will be happy you did in the end. Once it starts to thicken and darken significantly, you will probably want to reduce your heat ever so slightly so you don’t run the risk of ruining it. As you get in the caramel color stage, the bubbles will thicken and it may start to fluff up. The desired end result is at the “soft-ball” stage, where you can drop a bit of your cajeta into a glass of ice water and a small ball that you can pick up out of the bottom of the glass is formed. I just think about it this way, when it cools it is going to thicken significantly. You can also test it on a plate or something cool and just drop some on it. if it sets up and kind of holds its own on the plate, then you are good, but if it runs when you tilt the plate, then let it go for a bit longer. When it is done, you want to take it off the heat and let it cool significantly before you use it. In all, it took me about 3 3/4 hours from start to finish, so it takes time. Watch a movie or two while you stir. It is amazing in coffee, on bread with or without créma, on ice cream or if you are a fat kid at heart like me, by the spoonful. It keeps for a long time under refrigeration, since it is almost all sugar. I would store it in jars or something nice, and give it away to people you really like.