There are many kinds of leche quemada, or "burnt milk." But in South Texas, the kind made of goat milk is king.
There are many kinds of leche quemada, or "burnt milk." But in South Texas, the kind made of goat milk is king. Melisa Goh/NPR
Stepping into a La Michoacana Meat Market in South Texas is a lot like crossing into Mexico — except you don't need a passport.
This grocery chain caters to the Mexican immigrant population, and it's filled with the sounds, ingredients, brands and products from south of the border.
We're taking a cross-country tour of candies from around the U.S., sampling hometown sweets that deliver a nostalgic sugar rush.
We rally around our regional candies, maybe because they take us back to a simpler, sweeter time.
The family-owned Russel Sifers Candy Company has been making Valomilks, and only Valomilks, for decades.
My wife, Yvette Benavides, and I head straight to the candy.
There are different kinds of leche quemada in Mexico, but in South Texas, one of the most popular forms is known as cajeta, and it's made from goat milk.
Tan-colored and thick, cajeta leche quemada is not a brand, but a flavor — like caramel.
"Oh, I love cajeta," says Iliana de la Vega, a Latin cuisine specialist and chef-instructor at the Culinary Institute of America.
"What can I say? From the lollipops to anything. Homemade is obviously much, much better," she adds, "but the lollipops are delicious."
De la Vega says cajeta can be added to dishes to give them extra flavor and depth.
"You can make anything with it," she says. "You can use it in a flan. You can make it in ice cream — or even just a drizzle in the ice cream."
There's even a cappuccino-made cajeta, de la Vega adds.
David Martin Davies/For NPR
The Texas-based La Michoacana Meat Market chain sells cajeta in a variety of forms, like pecan-studded pinwheels, spread in wafers, wrapped like taffy and in lollipop form. To make your own cajeta, try this recipe from Chef Rick Bayless.
The Texas-based La Michoacana Meat Market chain sells cajeta in a variety of forms, like pecan-studded pinwheels, spread in wafers, wrapped like taffy and in lollipop form. To make your own cajeta, try this recipe from Chef Rick Bayless. David Martin Davies/For NPR
You can pick up cajeta in almost any form. In addition to the lollipops, cajeta comes in jars, squeeze bottles, in little bricks, in pinwheels with pecans, smeared between wafers, and rolled up like taffy in plastic wrap.
All of the candies on offer at La Michoacana have a rustic, homemade look. We saw little point in picking up just one, so we bought a couple of everything for a taste test. You can taste bits of pecan in some of the treats, and the goat milk flavor really comes through in others.
I grew up in San Antonio, where leche quemada is part of the city's food culture. But for Yvette, who's from the border town of Laredo, cajeta is an even bigger deal. Our little taste test really took her back.
"My father really, really loved Mexican candy — in particular, leche quemada," Yvette says. "So he would, with a very large spoon, take the leche quemada from the jar. And he would put it on the tortilla and roll it up, and give it to one of us.
"We would roll up the end of the little tube of the tortilla, because it would drip everywhere — and we didn't want to lose a drop of it," Yvette reminisces.
Today, the taste for cajeta is spreading outside of South Texas and even beyond the Latino consumer. Maybe cajeta leche quemada is the next Mexican culinary export poised to enjoy the sweet taste of success.