Several months ago I read an article about mexican Cajeta while searching for a good carnitas recipe. I love all Mexican foods, and I know I have mentioned before that I am afflicted with a terrible sweet tooth, so upon discovering what exactly cajeta is I discovered a strong pining sensation radiating from me.
Have you ever had Dulce de Leche? Cajeta is like Ms. Dulce de Leche’s spiced, goatier cousin. It’s basically a caramel sauce made with goat’s milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and, if heat is desired, a habanero pepper (as per suggested in blogs by the Fabulous Beekman Boys). Of course at the time I didn’t expect to ever have access to fresh goat’s milk and so I wrote it off as something I’d never have the opportunity to taste, let alone make.
Months later I discovered Silver Moon farm and the wonderful goat shares that they offer. I now bring home a minimum of a gallon of goat milk a week, and sometimes it’s as much as two gallons, all thanks to the wonderful efforts of Gen-the-goat. I have used this milk for drinking, cooking and cheese making, but never for confections. It’s richer and has a deeper flavor than cow’s milk and I’ve really grown to love it. For some reason it didn’t occur to me immediately to make cajeta. I guess my subconcious knew I should just wait until strawberry season to give it a shot.
This past weekend I spent no less than six hours sitting by the stove with a good book and a large spoon, stirring and stirring and stirring. It’s hard to devote six hours of time to a project if you’re not even sure it’s going to turn out, but then again what is homesteading all about? We all rush around trying to create “good” food in such a hurry these days that a lot of dishes, cajeta included, are dismissed as not worth the time it takes to create them. Honestly, though. I can tell you that many of these time and labor intensive foods are absolutely worth it, having subtleties of flavor rarely glimpsed in modern cuisines.
After six long hours of stirring, and a few foam-overs of disastrous proportions, I dipped my spoon into the rich, sweet concoction, tasted, and found myself grinning. The sweet tooth was obviously quite satiated as this delicate caramel is incredibly sweet, but more than that, this caramel has a complex flavor that speaks to my very belief in local foods. You can taste the goat in it, and it’s not musky or bitter. It’s earthy and brown (yes, sometimes I describe tastes in colors…) and its texture is not quite smooth. To me it seems to have the complexity only a small-batch hand crafted and all natural confection could ever have. If you are a sweets-snob like I am, I seriously suggest you give it a shot.
Even more complex is the taste of cajeta on fresh, sun-warmed strawberries from the garden. They are both warm flavors that seriously compliment each other beyond compare.
This isn’t mere caramel, folks. This is cajeta.
(I found this recipe somewhere online, but basically it’s the same everywhere so I’m not sure whom to credit. Yes, whom.)
Cajeta with Vanilla and Cinnamon
2 quarts local goat’s milk (a unpasteurized as you can get it, folks!)
2 cups (organic) cane sugar
2-3 Mexican vanilla beans, or substitute 1 Tbsp vanilla extract.
1 tsp baking soda, dissolved in very little cool water
Optional: habanero pepper, cinnamon sticks, other peppers, etc… Be creative! (I’ve heard some people use coffee beans!)
Bring your milk slowly to a boil in a heavy pan. It’s helpful if your pan is only half full (or half empty?) when the milk is in it as it will foam and froth later on.
After your milk has boiled, reduce to a simmer and add your sugar and stir to dissolve.
While your sugary milk is simmering, prepare your vanilla and spices. If using a vanilla bean, be sure to split it before adding. If you’re using spices that you worry will be difficult to strain from caramel sauce at the end, try tying them in a ball of cheese cloth to make a sort of “spice tea bag” to steep in the cajeta. Plop your vanilla and spices (or spice ball) into the mixture and stir well.
Once the mixture has been stirred and is simmering again, add your baking soda. Now this is the part I didn’t understand. When you add the baking soda, a chemical reaction occurs causing the milk to form a rapidly expanding foam. You should do this over very low heat, and be prepared to stir like a crazy person. Some of my batches foamed more than others; I have no idea why they did. I just know there was a huge mess to clean up after my first batch boiled over and continued to expand across the stove like a creepy science fiction movie.
Here’s the fun part. (hashtag: sarcasm) Once the foam has been reduced and the milk is simmering controledly again, it’s time to wait, and stir… and wait, and stir, and wait. As the cajeta cooks down it will thicken, much like the way water is boiled off of maple sap to create maple syrup.
The milk will begin to darken until you get a viscous brown liquid. This took me literally 5-7 hours for each batch, though I was doing double-sized batches. Lucky for me I am pretty good at multi tasking so I had multiple batches going at once.
To tell when your cajeta is done, simply drop a teensy bit into a glass of cold water. If the droplet dissolves, it’s not finished yet. If the droplet keeps some semblance of its former drop-shaped self than it’s done! We’re looking for soft-ball stage, though I found using my candy thermometer that the actual temp for soft-ball stage made for a much thicker cajeta than I wanted. If your cajeta is too thick, just add a tiny bit of water and thin it out again.
I found myself sticking my fingers into spoonfuls of too-hot cajeta before I knew it. I couldn’t help it! The whole house smelled amazing, too. You can serve cajeta over strawberries like I did, or you can put it on icecream, stir it into frosting, use it in breads… or you can serve it my favorite way: On A Spoon.
I used a hot water bath for 20 minutes to can some of this in canning jars. I’ve been told it’s a stable suspension, no longer being a perishable dairy product, and is safe to can and eat later, but I urge you to use your own judgment when canning anything that contains dairy.
Do you have any favorite labor intensive foods?
Want to read more from Tanglewood Farm? Check out Emily’s blog over at A Pinch of Something Nice where she writes about her experiences with her gardens, her livestock and her leased historical home in SE Michigan.