Wednesday, December 29, 2010

this year's Christmas treat: Alfajores

A couple of weeks ago, I had been overcome by a sudden craving for Alfajores. It happened just out of the blue, as most cravings do. But it must have been the longing I have for home, as my homesickness gets extra strong this time of year.

I had not eaten an alfajor in years. I have memories of having them back home, and I distinctly remember the last time I had it. It was the last Christmas I spent in the Philippines, before I left to come here. I was teaching at that time, and the mother of one of my students gave me a box for Christmas. That was probably the best I had.

You're probably asking - what are alfajores? It's yumminess in a neat little package.

 It's smooth, creamy, sweet dulce de leche sandwiched in between crumbly, light, buttery vanilla shortbread.

Isn't that enough to make you hooked?

So I was on the prowl (ok, so that's a little dramatic). I searched online for recipes, and one of the first few that came up was this recipe from the blog Matt Bites. Being an occasional reader of his blog, and admirer of his food photography, I went ahead and tried his recipe. It had been featured in Martha Stewart, after all.

Later, every empty surface in the kitchen was covered by either some ingredient or a cookie sheet or cookies on a cooling rack. Even the rack of the oven toaster (powered off, of course) was used for cooling cookies! But during all that kitchen mayhem, the apartment smelled like butter, sugar, and vanilla. And I waited in anticipation to try one alfajor.

So I spread some dulce de leche -- homemade* -- on a cookie to try.

Sadly, it was not how I remembered. The recipe produced a cookie that resembled something more like a sponge cookie, not the shortbread kind of texture I was looking for. Also, after the cookie baked, it was not flat -- it was shaped more like a mound, so when you turn it into a sandwich cookie, it does not sit level on a surface because of the rounded bottom. I must have done something wrong in the mixing, as something made the dough rise during baking, and my results did not match the picture on his blog. It's not that the cookie wasn't good -- with all due respect to Matt Bites -- but it just didn't match the idea of alfajores stored in that part of my brain devoted to my food memories (you do believe I truly have a strong food memory, right?).

Back to the drawing board.

So I searched for more recipes, and I finally came across this one, from the blog From Argentina With Love. Something in me made me trust the blog title. And, as I looked over the recipe, the ingredients and the proportions seemed to more closely resemble shortbread.

Back to the kitchen mayhem, with bowls, spatulas, jars of flour and sugar, cookie sheets being swapped in the oven, a sheet going in as one comes out. It's the chaos I love. There's a method to the madness here.

And finally... Eureka!!!

I even brought some with me on my trip to New Jersey last weekend to give as Christmas presents. Thankfully they survived the flight. I even crumpled some small pieces of baking parchment paper to fill the nooks and crannies of the containers, to make them travel-ready... then took the crumpled pieces of paper out right before gifting.

So I'm now on round 3 of my alfajores baking adventure. I'm still making them as post-Christmas presents, for those I have not given treats to yet. I'm trying to figure out how to make the dulce de leche not run out of the cookie. I want it to ooze out of the sides just a little, just perfectly so that people know what's inside, but not too much so that it drips out. I think I'm going to try freezing a couple of cookies after they are filled, to see what happens.

Meanwhile, I think that even if you get a box of alfajores with homemade caramel oozing and dripping out of the cookie, you wouldn't mind. I bet you would even lick the caramel off the container.

Alfajores (recipe courtesy of From Argentina With Love)

2 sticks (1 cup) of unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg plus one yolk (also at room temperature)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups flour
1 cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder
1-2 cups dulce de leche
powdered sugar (optional)

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and the sugar.  Add in the egg plus yolk and vanilla and beat over medium speed until incorporated.  In a separate bowl, mix the flour, cornstarch and baking powder together.  (My addition: I sifted the dry ingredients together to make sure there were no lumps.)

Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and continue mixing until it forms a consistent dough.

Remove the dough from the mixer and divide the dough into two balls.  Wrap the balls in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least  half an hour or overnight.

Position the baking rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Unwrap the dough and roll it out (it will be cold and stiff at first) onto a floured surface. 

(My addition: I let the dough sit at room temperature for about a half hour. I rolled the dough in between the 2 sheets of plastic wrap which I used for wrapping the dough to cool in the refrigerator. It made the rolling much easier! No worries about rolling it into a perfect circle like you would with pie crust - as you will be cutting the dough anyway.)

Roll the dough out to about 1/4 inch thickness, then cut with a small round cutter (or a juice glass).  Repeat the rolling and cutting until you have used all the dough.

(My addition: I rotated the dough a quarter turn every so often when rolling -- again, this is easy when the dough is in between the 2 sheets of plastic wrap! Rotating the dough helps ensure that you roll it out evenly, so that one side is not thicker than the other. I floured the rim of my glass before cutting the dough, so that the dough doesn't stick to the glass. As you roll and re-roll the dough scraps, the dough becomes warmer, so you will have to use a lighter hand with the rolling pin. If it gets too soft and you are no longer making clean cuts with your cookie cutter, you can refrigerate the dough again for 20 minutes or so.)

Place the cookies on a parchment-paper lined cookie sheet, and bake for 15 minutes, just until the edges start to brown.

(My addition: I baked them for 6 minutes first, then rotated the cookie sheet 180 degrees-- just to make sure it bakes evenly -- then baked them for another 6 minutes. I only bake one sheet of cookies at a time for even baking.)

Let the cookies cool completely, and then place a generous dollop of dulce de leche on one cookie, topping with another cookie to make a sandwich.  Press gently together.  Cover in sifted powdered sugar, if desired.

This recipe makes about 30 alfajores. Enjoy with coffee, hot chocolate, or tea!

(The mug above with the word "cocoa" was a present from my nephews! They know how much I love big mugs. Sweet kids :) )

* I used Alton Brown's dulce de leche recipe. Click here. I added a teaspoon of Himalayan pink salt to the recipe to balance the sweetness somewhat, and also to bring out all the flavors. I found that making the dulce de leche a day or so in advance helps, so that it has time to thicken in the refrigerator. You can buy store-bought caramel, but the homemade version is SO WORTH IT. (Was that enough emphasis?). With homemade dulce de leche, you really taste the complexity of the butter and vanilla and cream. It's just amazing. Make sure you use good unsalted butter and really good vanilla extract (not imitation vanilla, which is a sin in my world). I use the Nielsen-Massey brand of Madagascar vanilla. I store the dulce de leche in a glass jar, tightly covered, in the refrigerator. Based on my online reading, it can keep well for a month or so. Not that I would need it for that long ;-)

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Anne said...

i had no idea there were alfajores in the philippines! first time i tried was in argentina and more like this:

i am thinking to try my hand at baking ... this'll be on the list! thanks for sharing!

Matt Nielsen said...

Hello Mia! Just a quick note to thank you for mentioning us as your Pure Vanilla of choice. We really appreciate your support of quality ingredients. This cookie recipe sounds fantastic! Thank you again and happy new year!

Best Regards,
Matt Nielsen
Nielsen-Massey Vanillas

Mia said...

Anne, I think there are different versions of the alfajor. Different kinds of cookies, different fillings... I saw a recipe with a chocolate filling, then the cookie was rolled in coconut... or you could use fruit preserves/jam as the filling... I guess the possibilities are endless!

Mia said...

PS: Anne, I also read that the versions of the alfajor also vary based on where it's from! (i.e., from Spain/Argentina/other South American countries/Philippines)

Mia said...

Thank you, Matt!

Jen said...

Oh my goodness, Mia ... why don't you live in Cincinnati any more ?! I just blogged about the fact that I don't have a great food memory in 2010 because you're not here :)

Mia said...

Not to worry, Jen... there's a possibility that your food memory will be refreshed soon... ;-)

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