For years, I’ve managed to turn every Mexican vacation into a working trip. As soon as I touch Mexican soil, I set up interviews, plan research tours, library searches, cooking adventures, all the while trying to tweet and Instagram. And Facebook, Pinterest and blog too… My appetite expands outrageously as if giving me a chance to try all that my eyes can see and my mind can gather. Even with the best of intentions to relax and disconnect, they only last so long.
My family had been enthusiastic about it until recently: my husband announced last summer he’s had it. He won’t travel with me to Mexico when he wants us to vacation, together.
So when I suggested we go visit for the December holidays, he said “no, no, no Pati, you can’t control yourself there.” I kept pursuing Mexico because I missed it so bad, seeking out a place where I wouldn’t be tempted to work. San Miguel de Allende sounded like just the spot.
San Miguel is a beautiful colonial town in the state of Guanajuato in central Mexico. It’s artsy, has a ton of history, gorgeous views of the mountains, quaint hotels and shops. There are a bunch of activities to do with the boys. But mostly, to my knowledge, it doesn’t have any regional food specialities to invite me to work. With this, I convinced him it was the perfect place to relax and, when it came to food, just enjoy it for once.
San Miguel is only a few hours by car from Mexico City, where we’d be picking up my mom who’d be joining us for a few days. It was in looking at the map to plan our drive that I noticed the city of Celeya is only a stone’s throw from San Miguel.
Celeya is the birthplace of cajeta: one of the most irresistible Mexican sweets. I have wanted to go since I was like five years old.
I tried to contain my very desperate need to go to Celaya the first day we were in San Miguel. As I got out of bed on the second day, the escapade to Celaya was already in the works.
Cajeta is a caramel-like concoction, yet more milky and silky, and with a deep, rustic and almost nutty flavor. It’s Mexico’s version of dulce de leche, yet we pride ourselves in that cajeta came to be long before dulce de leche and we tend to make ours with goat’s milk (or a combination of goat and cow’s milk) rather than only cow’s milk and ours has a much more intricate and richer taste.
Thankfully, the dynamic woman in charge of San Miguel tourism office has friends and family in Celaya. She knew who to ask and helped organise exactly where to go: La Tradicional de Salgado.
The storefront has sweets made with or combined with cajeta along with other traditional sweets. The side of the store is reserved for Cajeta.
At La Tradicional, Cajeta continues to be made the way they started making it in 1860, which happens to be the most traditional way. They make a small quantity, which is sold immediately after, and sometimes even before, it is bottled.
They have cajeta de vainilla (vanilla flavored and the lightest in color), cajeta quemada (translates to burnt and it is the darkest in color and flavor), and cajeta envinada (translates to flavored with wine but rather than wine it is flavored with rum).
As the manager Andrés López explained, all cajetas at La Tradicional begin the same, yet they don’t end the same.
They all start with 40 litres of fresh goat milk poured into a gigantic copper pot and mixed with brown sugar. It is then brought to a steady simmer at 120 degrees C (about 48 degrees Celcius) for most of the cooking time. If it will be vanilla flavored, then vanilla extract gets added. If it will be envinada, then a generous splash of rum goes in. If it will be burnt, it is just like the vanilla one, yet it is cooked double the time (about nine hours instead of four or five), to achieve a much more concentrated flavor and thicker consistency: to the point where if it was left to simmer for a minute longer, it would practically burn.
They always use those copper pots that get cleaned after each use and gigantic wooden spatulas. No metal spoons or utensils are used to stir the milk, as copper is a very reactive material and cajeta a sensitive product.
Those wooden spatulas are used to stir the milk regularly as it cooks down. The heat is left at a steady temperature to have a consistent medium simmer, adjusting the temperature as the cajeta reduces.
They know cajeta is ready firstly by judging for the design it leaves on the wooden tool. They have to show up after you stir and raise the spatula. Also, the mixture has to be thicker, like caramel! Lastly, as you stir the pot with the wooden spatula, there has to be a delayed trail behind the spatula, that allows you to see the bottom of the pot if only for an instant.
The cajeta is left to gently cool. The glass jars are filled up, immediately closed and turned upside down. This creates a vacuum seal.
We tasted all the cajeta and so many sweets. We stirred the pots, with our heads covered in protective nets and talked to everyone in the store. We all came out with our very favorite one and my son Juju managed to eat an entire small jar of the vanilla kind, by the spoonful.
As we walked outside, we found a city brimming with food wonders. We ate some of the best empanadas we have ever tried in a place that had, oh, about, 100 people waiting in line: there were about 30 different kinds! Half a block ahead we ate some outrageous gorditas, thin and large, they were stuffed with either spicy queso fresco or Almidón (which I had never tried: the inner part of the Chicharrón). Our Celaya hosts brought duraznos Prensados (sweet pressed apricots) for us to try as well as pastes (gummy-jelly soft squares) with such exotic flavors as guava and rompope.
At a stand, a woman was selling Celaya-made copper pots, each one more beautiful than the other. After much chatting and measuring the different sizes, I bought my very own, which I carried all the way back to DC, to start making this cajeta below, so that you can also make your very own (get the recipe here).
Here we go!
There’s my big copper pot, but you can use any wide-bottomed and tall pot. Goat’s milk (you can choose to combine it with or use all cow’s milk, but goat’s milk gives it that delicious musky flavor…), dark brown sugar (or shredded piloncillo) and Mexican vanilla.
Also, add baking soda: it helps the final sweet to not have any lumps and it enhances the brown color. This coloring effect is called a Maillard reaction, as described by Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is “a nonenzymatic reaction between sugars and proteins that occurs upon heating and that produces browning of some foods”.
Bring it all to a medium simmer, over a steady medium heat. Use a wooden spoon to stir occasionally.
After hours you can see how much the mixture has reduced and the more it reduces the more the simmer will increase even if you maintain it in the same level of heat, so you have to moderate and reduce the heat.
You know when to stop when the cajeta has thickened like caramel, its drops take their time to let go of the wooden spoon once it is raised, once you see a delayed trail in the bottom of the pot as you gently move the spoon across the pot and you can see the bottom if only for a second, and the cajeta leaves wavy marks on the spoon.
Also, your house must be smelling like heaven by now.
Let it cool, and take note that it will thicken as it cools.
Pour it all in a large jar that will hold at least three cups.
Cajeta is not only decadent, luxurious, with a perfectly balanced sweetness and a silky texture, it is also ideal for using with… everything! Cheesecake, crepes, chocoflan, to smear on pound cake, to dip fruit such as strawberries or bananas in. Wait! There’s more! You can make cute little cookie sandwiches, you can make smoothies and milkshakes, ice creams and glazes. The best way of all: just dip a big tablespoon and lick it off.
And now that I remember, our friends in Celaya told us about some cookies made with cajeta called dulce anhelo (translates to sweet yearning). And since I didn’t get to try them, what a sweet yearning it has become. Celaya: wait for me, I will be back for more.
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Cajeta, one of the most irresistible of Mexican sweets, is a caramel-like concoction, yet more milky and silky, and with a deep, rustic and almost nutty flavor. It’s Mexico’s version of dulce de leche - although we tend to make ours with goat's milk and ours has a richer taste.