If you like dulce de leche, you’ll love cajeta. Cajeta is a goat milk caramel sauce that is just as thick, sweet and rich as dulce de leche, but with a slightly more complex flavor. There are many ways to enjoy both of these caramel sauces and these Cajeta Shortbread Crumb Bars are one particularly delicious option.
The recipe starts with a very buttery shortbread mixture that forms both the base and crumb topping of these bars. The shortbread dough should be mixed until it is crumbly, not until it forms one solid mass of dough, to make it easier to work with. A portion of the dough is pressed into a baking pan to form the crust, the topped with a layer of cajeta while the shortbread is still warm. The caramel sauce will soften and can be spread to the sides of the pan if you carefully work with a small spatula. The remaining shortbread mixture is sprinkled on top to form the crumb topping. After a second trip in the oven, the bars will be set and ready to enjoy.
Cajeta can be found in the Latin/Mexican food section of many markets – typically alongside dulce de leche – and, of course, at Latin/Mexican markets. It is sometimes packaged in a squeeze bottle, which makes it very easy to pour onto the shortbread base in this particular recipe, but it may come in a jar, as well. If your sauce is jarred and too thick to spoon onto the shortbread easily, simply warm it up in the microwave for a few seconds. And if you can’t find cajeta at all, you can substitute dulce de leche in its place.
The caramel sauce thickens while it is in the oven, so while it may seem like a very “wet” toppping to add to these bars, I can assure you that it will slice neatly once they have finished baking. It is difficult to check for doneness, but (fortunately) it is also difficult to overbake shortbread. You should look for the base to have a hint of gold around the edges before adding your filling and for the crumb topping to have a hint of color when you pull it out of the oven. The caramel should be bubbling up through the crumbs. The bars will set firmly as they cool, and can be sliced into either small or large pieces to serve.
Cajeta Shortbread Crumb Bars
1 cup butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups all purpose flour
approx 1 cup cajeta
Preheat oven to 350F. Line an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment or aluminum foil.
In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar. Beat in salt and vanilla extract, then gradually incorporate the flour until the mixture is crumbly and resembles wet sand, but no streaks of dry ingredients remain.
Pour two thirds of the crumb mixture into prepared pan and press into an even layer.
Bake for 20 minutes, or until base has a hint of gold at the outer edges.
Spoon (or pour) cajeta over the top of the warm shortbread base, trying to cover as much of the base as possible. As the caramel warms, use a small offset spatula to fill any gaps and push it towards the outer edge of the pan.
Sprinkle crumb topping over caramel filling.
Bake for an additional 22-25 minutes, until the filling is bubbling and the bars are a light golden brown.