No trip to Argentina would be complete without sampling the delectable alfajor- a sweet snack made from a smear of dulce de leche sandwiched between two crumbly, buttery cookies. Argentineans eat them for breakfast, for dessert, as a snack, with tea or coffee in the afternoon…if you’re starting to see that there’s no inappropriate time to eat alfajores, you’re on the right track.
Like almost half of the Spanish language, the word alfajor has Arabic roots-a throwback of almost 500 years of Moorish occupation in Spain. It comes from the word “al-hasú,” meaning ‘stuffed’ or ‘filled’. The original alfajor made the journey from North Africa to Spain-its close cousin is the dessert Ma’amoul-two butter cookies filled with a spread made from dates and almonds, and topped with powdered sugar. What’s known as an alfajor in the Cadiz region of Spain is a cookie made of flour, almonds, honey and warm spices that’s served at Christmastime.
The little alfajor, then, like so many Spanish immigrants, made its way to South America. In the latter days of the conquest, around the time of the ‘invention’ of dulce de leche, the modern alfajor took its shape, made with the goods available. Those goods are the basic ingredients employed in so many Argentinean recipes-flour, eggs, butter, sugar-and of course, dulce de leche. Add in a good dose of ingenuity that Argentinean housewives have of making something out of nothing, and you’re almost there. (For more info on Argentine cuisine, check out the guidebook section.)
The version of the alfajor we enjoy today gained mass popularity in the mid 19th century. It’s a treat enjoyed in different countries and in various forms all throughout South America (though Argentineans like to claim it as their own!).
The classic alfajor is the one I already described-two butter cookies with rich dulce de leche sandwiched in between. Not to be content with just one version, though, the Argentineans infused the alfajor with a passion that would make those colonial Spanish señoritas blush–making triple-decker alfajores, dipping them in a dark or white chocolate coating, or rolling them in shredded sweetened coconut or bits of almonds so that the edges are wrapped up like a bow. They even come dusted in powdered sugar (like a fairy-tale dessert, these are called alfajores de nieve, orsnowy alfajores).
Over the years, companies like Havanna and La Cabaña (just to name a few) have made alfajores by the box load. Havanna alfajores, for example, come wrapped in individual foil wrappers-only adding to that anticipation of the first bite. And they are an especially nice thing to bring a taste of Argentina home-friends love to get a box of them as a gift! But (like most things) nothing beats the homemade version! If you can roll out Christmas cookies, you can make alfajores. You’ll be surprised at what a cinch they are to make. And then, of course, you’ll have a whole stack of alfajores of your very own to eat at breakfast, for dessert, as a snack, with tea or coffee in the afternoon . . .
Receta para Alfajores
Recipe for Alfajores (Carmel Sandwich Cookies)
This recipe for alfajores is adapted from the book, Argentina Cooks! by Shirley Lomax Brooks
1 3/4 cups flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 pound butter (1 stick) at room temperature
1 teaspoon lemon zest (optional)
4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 recipe for dulce de leche (or one jar of it)
1 cup grated and sweetened coconut (optional)
* Rebecca’s note: Using good quality butter in this recipe will make a big difference in the flavor of the cookie.
Combine flour, salt, sugar and baking soda in a bowl. Cut the butter in with two knives, and then mix by hand until well incorporated. Work in the lemon zest and then mix in the egg yolks and vanilla. Shape the dough into 2 balls and chill for 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. On a floured work surface, roll out each ball of dough to a thickness of 1/4 inch. Cut into 2-inch rounds and transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 15 minutes or until done. The cookies will be dry but not brown.
When the cookies are cool, spread a spoonful of dulce de leche in one cookie and top it with another. Press together gently.
For versions with coconut or nuts, roll the seam of the alfajor in shredded coconut of chopped nuts, almonds or peanuts.