Cajeta may be the most delicious caramel you’ve never tasted.
Unlike a basic caramel which is made from sugar, cajeta, like it’s cousin dulce de leche, is a milk-based caramel. While sugar caramels are tasty, I think milk caramels have a more complex and interesting flavor. This version is adapted from a recipe by one of my favorite TV chefs, Rick Bayless.
I use a mixture of cow’s milk and goat’s milk for this confection. The cow’s milk brings a nice sweetness and the goat’s milk brings a deep and earthly flavor that is absolutely addictive. You can use all cow or goat milk if you prefer, but I think you get the best of both by using a combination of the two.
The most difficult part of making this caramel comes at the very beginning. The recipe includes a little baking soda to reduce the overall acidity (milk is slightly acidic). Acidic foods don’t caramelize as well as non-acidic foods, and since caramelization equals flavor, we want to encourage more browning for more flavor.
When the baking soda comes into contact with the acidic milk, carbon dioxide is released. Of course we use this reaction to help baked goods rise. This same reaction in the cajeta will cause the milk to foam up, just like the baking soda volcano you made in grade school. The foam will eventually subside, so just keep a careful eye to avoid sticky boil-overs. I use the biggest Dutch oven I own so that the milk only fills the pot 1/2 way. This leaves plenty of space for the foaming milk to rise without boiling over.
Once the foam settles it’s simply a matter of occasionally stirring the caramel and watching for the desired the color and thickness. For my purposes I usually cook it to a nicely browned but still pourable, sauce-like texture. If you leave the cajeta fairly loose you can always put it back on the stove later and cook it down further for a more candy-like consistency. The total cooking time will vary based on how big of a batch you make, your stove, and the the pot you’re using.
You can see the entire (sped up) cooking process in this video. The total cooking time for the batch in the video was about 2 1/4 hours.
Some of my favorite uses for cajeta are as a sauce for ice cream, as a dip for apples and poured over pound cake. I also mix it into buttercream for a yummy cake filling and of course it’s perfect drizzled over an apple or pear tart.
Cajeta will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator but will eventually begin to crystallize. It will also keep for several months in the freezer.