Cajeta is a common and delicious Mexican sweet. Goat or cow's milk is cooked very slowly with sugar to create a beautifully complex, thick syrup, much like caramel. Flavorings, such as vanilla or liquor such as rum, are often added to add even more depth.
Cajeta can be used in many ways. You can spread it on a piece of toast or on crisp, simple cookies. If you allow it to get very thick, you can use it as a filling for sandwich-style cookies. You can serve it on crepes, it is also perfect over ice cream, as a topping for a simple pound cake, with fruits, over baked apples - in other words, wherever you would enjoy a toothsome caramel flavor.
The first recipe below is adapted from Rick Bayless' excellent book, Mexico One Plate at a Time. After that is a modern homemaker's version. It's not as good, but it's quick and easy.
2 quarts of goat's milk, cow's milk, or a mixture of the two
2 cups sugar
1 large, plump vanilla bean, preferably Mexican, split open (or substitute 1 tablespoon pure Mexican vanilla extract)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda, dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
In a large, heavy pot (not iron), combine the milk, sugar, and vanilla, and place over medium heat. Stir regularly until the milk comes to a simmer and sugar is dissolved. Remove the pot from the heat and add dissolved baking soda; it will bubble up at this point, especially with goat's milk. When the bubbles have subsided, return it to the heat.
Adjust heat so that the mixture is simmering briskly but not boiling. Cook, stirring regularly, until the mixture turns pale golden, about one hour.
You will now need to stir the milk more regularly as it begins to thicken and turns a caramel-brown color. Don't allow the milk to stick to the bottom of the pot. You can drop a few drops into a small glass of water. If a soft ball forms, the cajeta is ready.
If you take the pot off the heat and allow the cajeta to cool, it should be a medium-thick sauce. If it's too thick, add hot water, 1 tablespoon at a time until it is the proper consistency. If it is too thin, return to the heat until it thickens.
When the cajeta is cool, remove the vanilla bean. Strain the cajeta through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl or wide-mouthed jar, then scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the cajeta. Refrigerate until ready to use. Cajeta is best served warm.
This is the modern homemaker's version of cajeta. It's not as good as the traditional versiom above, but it is quick and easy.
Place a can of condensed milk in a large pot of water, and allow it to simmer just below the boiling point for at least one hour. Allow it to cool in the pot.
Open the can and pour the liquid into a bowl or wide-mouthed jar. Add 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla extract and stir well. Use as you would use the traditional cajeta.
A word about Cajeta and other milk sweets: Mexico has a surprising variety of boiled sweets made with milk. While European cultures also have boiled sweets often made with milk, what makes these recipes unique in Mexico is that until the time of the Conquest, there were no dairy animals in Latin America. Further, although milk is used to make butter, cheese and other dairy products in Mexico, they don't have a large milk industry. Most native Mexicans use little - if any - milk in their daily diet. That said, Mexico offers a vast array of these yummy sweets.
As milk in quantity isn't always available, canned products such as condensed and evaporated milk are commonly used. While it may seem odd for those of us accustomed to using fresh milk, you will find that the recipes are quite good.