Homemade Caramel Sauce, Or: Icarus in the Kitchen

So that you may compare this short narrative against its stated aims, let me start it by sharing first those aims. One: explain how the “elemental deliciousness” of caramel sauce is one poor judgment call away from being burnt goat milk. Two: explore the feasibility of blaming young children for this unfortunate discovery.

Right then, off we go. Tomorrow is my daughter’s fourth birthday and I plan to put in front of her at some point some French toast. So far, so simple. Any old dolt can dip sliced bread (brioche, naturally) into lightly beaten egg, then fry this eggy bread in butter. It was my slightly more lofty goal to also pour over this French toast some homemade cajeta, which, as my Rick Bayless Mexican cookbook reliably informs me, is more widely known by the name it has in other Latin American countries: dulce de leche.

What, I figured, could possibly go wrong. The recipe has only four ingredients and a mere one extraordinary feature — the length of its cooking time. Milk. Sugar. Cinnamon. Baking soda (half a teaspoon dissolved in one tablespoon of water). You stir these four things together, then simmer, uncovered in a slow cooker, for a day. No really: an actual day — such that the milk slowly (coquettishly) reveals the “natural sweetness” of its sugars. Adds chef Bayless: “After 18 hours or so… begin keeping an eye on it.” (At the risk of doing something injurious to the space-time continuum, hindsight now compels me to call this foreshadowing.)


Providence gives with one hand and takes with the other. It turns out, I was to experience these two fates in order. Reading between the lines of my Bayless recipe, it was clear that he placed the “or” between “goat’s milk” and “cow’s milk” strategically, to separate life’s winners and losers. Sure you can settle for the quotidian cow… But why do so drab a thing if, instead, you can locate “the naturally more complex and tangy” goat?

Whole Foods came through for me and I purchased exactly half of its available goat milk: one carton for $7.49. (The other carton was Low Fat, which I presumed to be both less elemental and, therefore, less delicious.)

Back at home, the prep work was minimal. I combined my four ingredients (five, if you prefer to give that tablespoon of water its due), and turned the slow cooker on. Quickly, though, I discovered that the demands of making cajeta are more mental than physical. At least as far as culinary matters are concerned, the urge to do something rather than nothing is strong — even as a young boy, I refused to simply watch my mother cook; instead, I would stir whatever she was cooking, or put the lid on, or turn the heat down just a touch like it was the crucial intervention between so-so and divine. Cajeta has no use for such frivolous fussing. It demands only that you wait, go to bed, and then wait some more in the morning. Thus did my wooden spoon begin a resolute vigil, unmoved, and thus did I also stay mostly out the kitchen.

Roughly five hours into this endeavor, at bedtime, my wife’s muted fear that I might cause a fire overnight still seemed incongruous. The sight of cajeta at this stage is distinctly underwhelming: white, warm milk with a cinnamon stick floating on top — and scarcely a simmering bubble to pierce the placid surface. I went upstairs to sleep.

If I dreamed of cajeta, unfortunately I don’t recall the details. In any case, my younger daughter Isla was evidently keen to replace my morning reveries with her breakfast, waking us all up at 5.30 to press her case. With experience you learn not to fight these losing battles, so downstairs we went.

Enthusiasm is not a sensation I’ve ever experienced before 6 a.m., but, nonetheless, I was pleased to see in my slow cooker a liquid that was, unmistakably, a light shade of brown. It may have been just a fraction thicker, too, and — yes — bubbling a bit.

Already, the following five hours are hazy, as if a much more distant memory. Though the finer points elude me, however, I’m certain that: both my children asked me a great many questions (mostly involving the status of their next snack); both my children became incrementally more restless; and both my children expressed this gathering restlessness in a fashion liable to cause a headache. I remember, too, the cursory last look I took at my cajeta – before, at around 11, we all left for a long drive and a long lunch.

It was, in hindsight, very much cooked. Pleasingly thick. Pleasingly brown. And, no doubt, elementally delicious. The perfect moment, in other words, for me to cast myself as the tragic hero in a tragic tale of my own making. Enter hubris. “There’s no chance,” I said out loud, “that it will burn to the point of becoming inedible.”

Should you ever wonder, I can report that there are approximately 12 Donald Trump yard signs on the road between Princeton and Manville, NJ — a journey that takes about 40 minutes. And, perhaps to the consternation of these assorted Trump supporters, the Lone Star Tacos at Grub Hut, in Manville, are equal parts Tex and Mex, and all the better for it.

You’ll surely have noticed, though, that sharing these observations gives me little pleasure. All the while, back at home, my cajeta burned slowly — to the point of becoming inedible. Black instead of brown: waxy wings scorched by the heat of an indifferent sun.

Kids, eh?


Today’s post soundtracked by:


About newjonnytransit

Same as ever, only better.
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2 Responses to Homemade Caramel Sauce, Or: Icarus in the Kitchen

  1. Mary says:

    There are a few things in life that simple aren’t worth the bother, and I’m thinking culinary things right now. They are in order: a) homemade tomato ketchup. b) mayonnaise. c) double shelling broad beans and dulce de leche (Waitrose do a delicious job btw). If it makes you feel a little better I had a slightly similar experience myself on Sunday when I decided to make peanut butter fudge. It all sounded so simple. Water, sugar, vanilla essence and of course the peanut butter. I followed the recipe to the letter including using a sugar thermometer. When milk and sugar reached 180o I had to add the other two ingredients and beat like mad, relishing the sight of silken looking soft fudge, but within seconds it turned into grainy and dry looking gunge. Nevertheless I managed to scrap (not pour I should have) onto a tray and left it to cool. The result is squares of the sweetest sweet you can imagine. Really sickly but somehow irresistible ! So not a complete disaster.

    • Fudge, huh? That’s a sure-fire way of piling on the pounds! Agree it’s delicious, though – albeit I could live without the peanut butter.
      I actually did attempt homemade ketchup once – have you ever? It was definitely not worth the effort, and mess. Don’t remember the results much, either – so it can’t have been all that great.
      Call me crazy, but I’ll have another go at dulce de leche someday… apart from screwing it up so completely, it was really easy!

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