When we describe the cajeta as a Mexican type of dulce de leche, it may seem as if Mexico is passionate about the Argentinian specialty. In fact, Mexico may have started producing cajeta long before Argentina started producing its confectionery.
Popular legend claims that dulce de leche was created by accident in the 19th century when a distracted servant of General Juan Manuel de Rosas left a pot of boiling milk and sugar unattended. Everyone loved the resulting milk jam, including the general, who ultimately ruled Buenos Aires. Thus, dulce de leche became an essential part of Argentina’s culinary heritage, until the country tried to make it official before UNESCO and the World Trade Organization, and Uruguay protested. The two countries now share joint custody of dulce de leche as their thing.
“The old recipe from Indonesia migrated to the Philippine islands, then under Spanish rule. There it was called “dulce gatas”. The Dulce de leche culture spread to America when the Filipinos sailed the Pacific, especially in the Acapulco region. In Mexico, they used goat’s milk and, in particular, they incorporated an indigenous flavor, vanilla, ”Balmaceda wrote.
Dulce gatas combines the Spanish word for “sweet” with the Tagalog word for “milk” and is most often made with carabao milk (a type of water buffalo), muscovado sugar, and baking soda, and it has a slightly grainy texture.
So how did the dulce gatas find their way to Mexico? In the middle of the 16th century, Spain colonized the Philippines and appealed to Mexico, as viceroyalty of New Spain, to rule there. The Spanish opened the Manila-Acapulco Galleon trade route, which led to the importation of dulce gatas, and they brought goats to New Spain, developing the Criolla Negra breed for dairy production. From there, the recipe was probably adapted to use the extra milk.
But the history of cajeta, like its flavor, is more complex than that.
As early as 1000 BC, people in present-day China and India began cultivating sugar cane, having obtained it from Australian explorers. Jams soon followed, some made from water buffalo milk and others made from cow. To this day, rabri, an Indian candy, is made with caramelized milk, cardamom, and dried fruits and nuts, not to mention countless milk-based fondant candies. Through trade routes and migrations, Arabs, Greeks and Persians discovered, and then created, their own versions, such as mahalabiya milk pudding. In the 8th century, when the Moors conquered most of Spain, they brought caramelized milk candies to present-day Andalusia, where nuns and brothers have refined their own variations over the centuries.
When the Spaniards colonized Mexico, they established missions with their nuns and candy-making brothers. “17th century manuscripts from Mexican convents show the development of the cajeta recipe,” explains Maite Gomez-Rejón, art and cooking historian, educator and founder of ArtBites.
The first recipes in Spanish in Mexico were written by the poet, philosopher, composer and nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who was fascinated by food science, especially sugar. One of his writings is called “rules for all cajetas,” which means milk-based candies made in a convent and packaged in small wooden boxes. Caja means “box” in Spanish. “So that’s what cajeta… that little box means,” says Gomez-Rejón.
“The convents received the first dibs on everything that happened in the land of the galleons,” says Gomez-Rejón. “And they were really experimenting and inventing modern Mexican cuisine.” A manuscript from the Convent of Santa Monica in Puebla contains a recipe for cajetas corrientes (or common cajetas) that uses both cow’s milk and goat’s milk.
“So we see this spread from convent to convent before we get to Guanajuato, where it’s made exclusively from goat’s milk” thanks to the prolific production of this region, says Gomez-Rejón.
There, the cajeta industry flourishes, and today the town of Celaya in particular is known for its sweetness. Perhaps because Guanajuato is also known as the birthplace of Mexican independence, the cajeta was chosen as the official Mexican bicentennial dessert in 2010.
The brothers also participated in the development of cajeta. “First of all, the brothers were all making alcohol in the tub,” says Claudette Zepeda, food anthropologist and executive chef of the upcoming Alila Marea Beach Resort Encinitas. They brought their liquors to create what would become known as cajeta envinada. It translates to “with wine,” but all kinds of spirits, from rum to brandy, are used. Zepeda experimented with vinegars such as tepache (made from pineapple) in his cajetas.
Zepeda also notes another important historical convergence at El Bajío, where metals and minerals such as copper have been mined. “Copper is a metal that conducts a lot of heat, but it disperses it evenly throughout the mixture,” she explains, making it an excellent metal for anything that cooks over a long time over low heat. The brothers and nuns “saw an opportunity to cook sugars at a controlled temperature over an open fire, and that’s how it started.” Applying European cooking techniques with locally made copper pots, they resulted in the smooth, shiny caramel that defines the cajeta.
Zepeda also suspects that brothers and nuns used cajeta and other sweet confections to lure Native children to missions to learn more about Christianity. During her travels around the world, Zepeda says she noticed that “children usually don’t speak English, but they know sweets.”
These days, you can buy a jar of cajeta, probably sold in a squeeze bottle of Coronado rather than a small box, at any supermarket that serves a Mexican-American community. But it’s pretty straightforward to make at home, and goat’s milk is surprisingly easy to find in most dairy sections. You also don’t need a copper pot. Channel the nuns of colonial Mexico and whip up your own delicate and tacky creation.
Cajeta, a caramel sauce traditionally made with goat’s milk, can be drizzled with ice cream or pancakes, spread on thin cookies, and used to bake a luscious cake or to dip fruit. It is, best of all, eaten straight out of the pot with a spoon.
The sauce is incredibly forgiving due to the amino acids in goat’s milk, which make it more stable, so it doesn’t burn as quickly as cow’s milk. For best results, simmer; if it starts to boil, just lower the temperature, stirring every few minutes, and you should be fine. The baking soda neutralizes the pH levels of the milk and makes the cajeta smooth. It also helps with the Maillard reaction, the browning of amino acids with sugars to create caramel.
Get Ahead: Cajeta should be prepared at least 2 hours before serving, to allow sufficient cooling.
Storage Notes: The cajeta can be refrigerated for up to 1 month; after that it begins to crystallize. It is thicker when it is cold; heat at 50% power in 30 second bursts to achieve desired consistency. You can freeze cajeta for up to 1 year. Be sure to cover the surface with plastic wrap and leave a small space at the top of the container for expansion.
Or buy: Goat’s milk can be purchased at supermarkets and well-stocked health food stores.
- 4 cups (960 milliliters) goat’s milk (see NOTES)
- 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda
- 2/3 cup (140 grams) packed dark brown sugar (see NOTES)
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
Pour the milk into a 4-6 liter heavy-bottomed saucepan and set over medium-high heat. Sprinkle the baking soda over the milk, then whisk to combine. Stir in the sugar to combine, then use a silicone spatula and bring the mixture to a boil – the milk will foam and rise. Remove the pan from the heat just before the foam reaches the top.
Reduce the heat to a minimum. When the foam wears off, return the pot to the heat and bring to a boil, gradually increasing the heat to medium. Simmer lively and cook until the mixture reduces and turns golden brown, stirring every 2 to 5 minutes to avoid scorching on the sides and bottom, about 1 hour.
Stir in the salt, increase the heat to medium-high and, stirring constantly, bring the cajeta to a low boil, until you begin to see the bottom of the pot, about 15 minutes. You can stop here for a pourable, gravy-like consistency. Or, for a thicker, more pudding consistency, continue cooking for an additional 5-10 minutes. Keep in mind that the cajeta will continue to thicken as it cools.
Remove from the heat and continue stirring until the cajeta stops simmering. Stir in the vanilla, if using, and scrape the cajeta into a 2-cup (480 milliliter) glass jar with a lid. Press a piece of plastic wrap against the top of the cajeta; this prevents the formation of a skin. Let cool completely, then cover with a lid. If you are not using it immediately, refrigerate until needed.
You can use white sugar or light brown sugar instead of dark brown sugar, depending on your taste. White sugar will give a slightly sweeter and lighter cajeta.
You can use cow’s milk for this recipe, but it will require constant stirring and a more watchful eye.
If you want to add alcohol, such as rum or flavoring, do so during the last 10 minutes of cooking. To make a cinnamon cajeta, for example, start with 2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon.
If the cajeta turns out to be thicker than you want, add lukewarm water, milk or rum, little by little, until you achieve the desired consistency.
Calories: 45; Total fat: 2 g; Saturated fat: 1 g; Cholesterol: 4 mg; Sodium: 58 mg; Carbohydrates: 8 g; Dietary fiber: 0 g; Sugar: 8 g; Protein: 1 g.
Recipe by culinary writer Adriana Velez.
Cajeta can be used in many recipes that require dulce de leche. Here are some ideas from Voraciously: