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FOOD : Up in Flames : A Sweet Mexican Dessert Is Wrapped, Sauced and Ignited

November 29, 1987|BARBARA HANSEN | Barbara Hansen is a Times staff writer and author of "Mexican Cookery" (HPBooks)

THE CITY OF Celaya in central Mexico is linked with a luscious, sticky candy that is called cajeta , a word that means box in Spanish. The name evolved because genuine Celaya cajeta was always packed in wooden containers. Today this soft, "spoonable" candy also comes in jars, thanks to modern commercial production, and may come from cities other than Celaya. But it still goes by the old name.

In Mexico, cajeta has found its way into a number of contemporary desserts, including sophisticated crepes that are served at Las Espuelas, a restaurant in Tijuana. There, the sauce for the crepes is prepared in a chafing dish at the table, an appetizing show that can be adapted to parties at home. To guarantee a spectacular performance, the liqueur added to the cajeta sauce is ignited. And when the dish is completed, flaming cognac is spooned over each serving.

At Las Espuelas, the composition of the sauce varies as if each server were an artist, selecting from a palette of ingredients to produce a new dish according to the day's inspiration. There is one point of consistency, however. The cajeta sauce is always so good that one wants to spoon up every drop.

The version that was witnessed and copied for the recipe given here contained cajeta , orange juice, Grand Marnier and butter plus the final dash of cognac. Another time, Kahlua and cream went into the mixture. Sometimes the crepes are simply coated with the sauce; other times, a touch of cajeta is folded inside.

The sauce is easy to make at home provided that cajeta is available. (Fortunately, jars of the mixture are stocked at many Mexican markets in Southern California, among them the Grand Central Public Market in downtown Los Angeles, and Tianguis in Montebello.) Or the cajeta , too, can be made at home, if you are willing to watch the pot and stir for an hour or more while the milk and sugar slowly boil and thicken.

In Mexico, cajeta is traditionally cooked in an unlined copper pot, called a cazo . Mexican cooks consider these hand-hammered pots essential when one is cooking rich Mexican sweets, just as French chefs rely on unlined copper bowls to give greater volume when beating egg whites.

Often, the cajeta is made with goat's milk or a combination of goat's and cow's milk. Sometimes a fig leaf is boiled with the mixture. The candy is seasoned in different ways: If the jar or box is labeled envinada , wine has been added; quemada means burned, but in a pleasant way, as in American burnt- sugar cake, which features the addition of caramelized sugar; another version is labeled vainilla (vanilla), and that is the one used at Las Espuelas.

The preparation of the dessert can be altered to make it as practical as it is spectacular. The crepes can be made a day or more in advance and refrigerated. The sauce also can be mixed in advance, then reheated in the chafing dish. If flaming cognac is poured over, as suggested here, it is important to use a ladle with a long handle as a precaution against burns.

LAS ESPUELAS' CREPAS DE CAJETA

2 tablespoons butter

2 1/2 tablespoons orange juice, about

4 Crepes

cup Grand Marnier

cup bottled vanilla-flavored cajeta

2 tablespoons cognac

In blazer pan of chafing dish, melt butter. Stir in 1 1/2 tablespoons orange juice. Place each crepe flat in pan, to coat with butter and orange juice, then fold into quarters. Add Grand Marnier and ignite. Add cajeta and stir until blended. Sauce will be quite thick. Stir in about 1 tablespoon orange juice to thin slightly. Place 2 crepes on each plate and spoon sauce over. Heat ladle; add cognac and heat. Ignite cognac and pour over crepes while it is flaming. Makes 2 servings.

Crepes

1 egg

1 cup milk

1 tablespoon butter, melted

1 cup sifted flour

1 tablespoon sugar

Butter

Beat egg. Add milk, butter, flour and sugar and beat until smooth. Let stand 1 hour. Lightly grease a 6-inch skillet with butter. Spoon 2 to 2 1/2 tablespoons batter into pan. Swirl to coat bottom. Cook crepe until it is golden brown on bottom. Turn it and brown other side lightly. Add more butter to skillet as needed. Remove and stack on plate. Makes about 12 crepes.

CAJETA DE VAINILLA (Vanilla-Flavored Cajeta)

1 quart milk

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/8 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

In a 3-quart saucepan, combine 2 cups milk and sugar. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until mixture is golden. Stir soda into remaining milk and bring to a boil. Add to sugar mixture very gradually, stirring constantly. Boil, stirring often, until mixture thickens and bottom of the pan can be seen when the spoon is drawn across it. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Turn into a heat-proof container and cool to room temperature. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

Styled by Norman Stewart / Plate and cutlery courtesy the Brass Tree, Beverly Hills / Table courtesy Umbrello

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