Dessert was comprised of two Latin American classics: alfajores, a symbol of Argentina, and tres leches cake, which is enjoyed throughout Latin America. This week, we start with the alfajor.
This story is excerpted from an article Linda published on Salon.com in 2010. For the full article and an additional recipe using dulce de leche ice cream, see the post on SpiceboxTravels.com.
Before I met José, I had never heard of alfajores. José, whose parents hail from Cordoba, Argentina, may have been raised in Connecticut, but he has an Argentine soul. He can even do the tango.
He excitedly shared some alfajores after a trip back to visit family. He enthused, “The combination of the unctuous, sweet, toasty middle set off by the crumbly, citrusy cookie, is like Proust’s madeleine for the Argentine set.”
Argentines are known for their passionate opinions, and José is no exception, so I wasn’t sure if I would necessarily be as overwhelmed by this cookie. After my first bite of this confection, though, I understood that this was no hyperbole. That first bite triggered a sort of madeleine moment for me as well: I realized that I actually had seen, but not tasted, alfajores before. They’re sold without fanfare in bodegas around San Francisco, and in certain cafés which otherwise have no trace of Latin American ties. They’re usually kept in a glass jar or Lucite display case near the cash register and, to be honest, don’t look all that appealing to an alfajores novice. They look like a dry cookie mounded with too much confectioners sugar. But as I found out, the homemade version is in a different category.
For alfajores innocents, as I was before José’s initiation, let me give you some more details. The alfajor (singular for alfajores) is a lemony, buttery sandwich cookie containing dulce de leche, the beloved caramel sauce of Latin America. It’s often dusted in fluffy white confectioners sugar, or alternatively, dipped in chocolate or a sugar glaze. Some versions also use flaked coconut. Its exotic-sounding name traces its ancestry to the Moors who ruled for over 800 years in the South of Spain in Andalusia, or Al-Andalus, as this region was called in Arabic. Andalusia retains much of its Moorish character: there’s lacy architecture and buildings adorned with intricate tiles featuring geometric and floral designs. The name “alfajor” itself has Arabic roots, translating as “fancy” or “great” sweets.
When the Spanish conquistadors set up shop in Latin America, they brought over alfajores, hence the popularity of these treats in Argentina and other parts of Latin America, including Uruguay, Ecuador, Paraguay, Chile and parts of Brazil. Each country has a variation on alfajores, and each claims its own as the authentic version.
Seeing as I was enthusiastic about his alfajores, before his next trip home José asked if I would like some of his mother’s homemade dulce de leche. Of course! I was excited. I imagined his mother performing alchemy, stirring a pot of butter, milk and sugar over the stove for hours until it was transformed into the thick caramel sauce. You could do that. But I found out that the way dulce de leche is most often made in Latin America, including by José’s mother, is by warming an unopened can of sweetened condensed milk for hours in a slowly simmering hot water bath. José’s mom also adds cocoa powder to thicken the dulce de leche, if needed, when she makes alfajores.
Most alfajores lovers from Latin America, José included, insist that homemade alfajores are the best. But not everyone has the time to simmer condensed milk for hours over a stove to make the dulce de leche filling, or to make the corn starch-based butter cookies, called maicenitas, that form the sandwich. Commercial brands of dulce de leche are available. And there are mass-market brands of alfajores, too, with Havanna being the most popular. But José does not find these worth eating. He’ll hold out for homemade. Second best are those baked by an old bakery in Cordoba called La Costanera. He and his family make a pilgrimage to La Costanera whenever they visit Argentina:
“Whenever we go to (or relatives come from) Argentina (Cordoba specifically), we bring back a box of La Costanera alfajores for each of the rest of the family. They sell different shapes and sizes of alfajores, usually with a lightly sweet sugar glazing. At La Costanera bakery (which my Dad remembers from when he was a kid in the 1940s, and which up until the 1990s still had an old woman working there who he remembered from childhood), they also have alfajores with jams (apricot, quince, etc.) as the filling — but these are clearly inferior, not anything to waste your time upon.”
José’s favorite variety from La Costanera is called a Colacion: ”It has only one cookie, kind of concave, with a thick layer of dulce de leche… I quickly discovered during childhood that this has the maximum dulce de leche-to-cookie ratio, they key measure of worth of an alfajor, of course.” See what I was saying about passionate opinions? And long ago memories, triggered by a cookie. Now I understand that his reference to Proust’s madeleines was heartfelt.
Makes 1 dozen.
2 dozen maicenitas (lemony butter cookies, recipe below)
1 can of dulce de leche
grated coconut, toasted if desired
1. For each sandwich, you’ll need two cookies. Place a tablespoon or two of dulce de leche on the bottom of one cookie and smooth it out with the spoon. Top it with the bottom of the second cookie. Press down gently so that some of the dulce de leche squeezes out on the sides.
2. Roll the sides (the dulce de leche) in coconut, and then dust the top and bottom in confectioners sugar.
Maicenitas (butter cookies for alfajores)
Makes 2 dozen cookies.
1 1/2 sticks of unsalted butter (12 tablespoons)
1 cup granulated sugar
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons rum
2 1/2 cups cornstarch
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Zest of 1 lemon
1. Cream the butter and sugar together.
2. Mix in the remaining ingredients.
3. Knead on a floured work surface until the dough is smooth.
4. Chill for 2 hours, then roll out into 1/4 inch thickness.
5. Cut dough into 2 dozen 2″ rounds.
6. Place on a greased cookie sheet and bake in a preheated 300°F oven for 15-20 minutes, until just slightly golden.
7. Allow to cool completely on a rack before assembling into alfajores.
Dulce de Leche
Yield: about 3 cups (enough for a dozen alfajores, with another extra cup to spread on bread or to save for another batch).
2 14 oz cans sweetened condensed milk
1. Place unopened cans of sweetened condensed milk in a pot with enough water to cover the cans.
2. Bring the water slowly to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer and let cook, covered, for 3-4 hours.
3. Check occasionally to make sure the cans remain covered with water. Top off with more water as needed.
4. Cool the cans before opening.
Note: Be careful! Make sure the cans are always covered with water, and that the hot water bath is simmering slowly to avoid the risk of the cans exploding.
This post is part of the second Spicebox Supperclub, the Comida Porteño con Sabor Latino, celebrating the food and drink of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Come back next time for the second dessert– Tres Leches Cake.