I was never of the caramel sort. Most likely due to my preference for all things pure chocolate. But once I started exploring Mexican cooking, well one thing led to another and now I’ve taken to getting a firm sticky handle on caramel. Discovering cajeta and dulce de leche will do that to a girl.
Webster’s defines caramel, as, a color; caramel, the flavor, mellow and complex. It’s also a close color of my hair. Carmel can be found in many candy bars and desserts. It seems to one of the most versatile in that you can stir toasted nuts into liquefied caramel and it becomes praline or cook it with butter and spread across a smooth marble slab for toffee. According to Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat’s History of Food it was an Arab invention used as a depilatory for harem ladies. (Sweet mother!)
Distinguishing between cajeta, dulce de leche, and for that matter fangullo, manjar blanco, and arequipe can be become strained. Goat’s milk is the primary ingredient in cajeta while cow’s milk is used in the creation of dulce de leche.
Dulce de leche has gained in popularity here in the U.S. enormously through the introduction of Haagen-Dazs’ dulce de leche ice cream in Miami it outsells vanilla 3 to 1. According to company press releases it’s the second best selling flavor after vanilla.
Although cajeta hasn’t yet caught on with the public on the scale of dulce de leche I find it to be a lot sexier. Traditionally the sauce is produced by the dulceros (sweet-makers) of Celaya in Central Mexico. The name cajeta comes from the name of the small balsa-wood box or case “cajita” especially made to store the product before refrigeration was widespread.
According to Rick Bayless, in, Mexico One Plate at a Time, the goat’s milk flavor brings a more intricate flavor as it is allowed to reduce in volume through slow simmering giving it a more depth in taste and color. It takes a lot of patience and time. Homemade Cajeta is infinitely superior to store bought, as according to Diana Kennedy, the Mexican cooking maven is often degraded with the addition of cane syrup.
Editor’s note: Photosource: http://www.mexicodesconocido.com; continues with recipe.
In fact cajeta is not true caramel because it does not contain caramelized sugar. The goat’s milk temperature never gets high enough to brown the sugar, instead the milk solids brown to form the caramel texture. Baking soda is added which neutralizes acidity and promotes the browning to be appealing to the eater.
Shortcuts include taking a can of sweetened condensed milk and submerging it in boiling water for a few hours. However, keep it covered with water as the danger of explosion is real enough that cans of Eagle Brand now carry a warning.
I’ve taken to making an occasional big batch and storing it in the fridge. It keeps for months and is ready to be used in the following crepe recipe, on top of fruit and in a pound cake recipe. It’s also excellent on a spoon standing in front of the fridge.
Crepas con Cajeta
Buttered Crepes with Caramel
From Art Culinaire, Summer 2001
For the crepes:
1 small cinnamon stick
1 cup whole milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
Vegetable oil as needed
For the goats’ milk caramel:
2 quarts goats’ milk
2 cups granulated sugar
2-inch cinnamon stick
1/2 teaspoon baking soda, dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
For the pecans:
1/4 pound unsalted butter
1 cup pecans, chopped
For the plantains:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 plantains, peeled and sliced
For the dish:
For the garnish: Mint sprigs
For the crepes, in a spice grinder, pulse the cinnamon stick and the cloves until finely ground. Transfer to a blender, add the milk, eggs, salt, sugar, vanilla, and flour and blend until smooth, about two minutes, scraping down the sides of the blender. With the motor running, add the butter and blend until the mixture has the consistency of heavy cream, about one minute. Transfer to a medium bowl and set aside for two hours.
For the goats’ milk caramel, in a large saucepan, bring the milk, sugar, and cinnamon stick to a simmer, stirring frequently.
Remove from the heat, add the baking soda, and stir to combine. When the bubbles disappear, return the pan to medium heat. Bring to a brisk simmer, stirring frequently, until the mixture begins to turn golden brown, about one hour. Continue to simmer until the mixture thickens to the consistency and color of maple syrup, about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat, strain through a fine mesh sieve, and set aside keeping warm.
For the pecans, in a medium saute pan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the pecans and saute until toasted and golden brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and using a slotted spoon, transfer the pecans to a medium bowl. Reserve the butter and pecans separately.
For the plantains, in a medium saute pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the plantains and sauce until golden brown, about five minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside keeping warm.
To finish the crepes, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Heat a seven-inch skillet over medium heat and brush lightly with the oil. Pour 1/4 cup of the crepe batter into the pan, swirl to coat, pouring out any excess. Cook until the edges begin to dry, about one minute. Using a thin spatula, flip the crepe and cook for one minute. Transfer the crepe to a parchment-lined sheet pan, keeping flat. Repeat with the remaining batter and set aside keeping warm. Brush the top of each crepe with browned butter and some goats’ milk caramel. Fold each in half and gently press down to spread the filling. Brush with butter and fold in half again. Arrange the crepes in an ovenproof dish. Cover with aluminum foil and place in the oven until warmed through, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside keeping warm.
To serve, place two crepes in the center of the plate and spoon some of the goats’ milk caramel on top. Arrange some plantains, papaya, blackberries, and raspberries on top, sprinkle pecans around the dish, and garnish with mint.