I discovered alfajores when I was in Buenos Aires a few years ago. Since then, they have become somewhat of a representative dessert for me, mixing the beauty and familiarity that I associate with Latin America and the aspiration I have toward the French mastery of culinary arts, especially pastries. They sit firmly at the locus of the concentric circles where comfort, refinement and aspiration meet, which is why I think I’ve waited so long to attempt them myself. I’m still evolving. We all arrive at that point, often without realizing it, just to have it shift on us again in an ancient dance as old as time.
Alfajores are a combination of patience and ease. They are soft, delicate cookies from South America, known mostly as Argentinean. They’re made with cornstarch, which gives the dough a smooth, satiny texture that makes it a dream to work with and produces a tender, crumbly cookie that comes together so easily with minimal bake time. Creamy dulce de Leche, which only yields its alluring, rich flavor after a long, long simmer, holds the cookies together. Alfajores embody all of the characteristics, paradoxically delicate with a complex, enduring center, that reflect the rich and intricate history of Buenos Aires.
In attempting these cookies I found myself wondering why it takes so long to make a good deep, rich, gooey dulce de leche and how it differs from caramel. The answer is in its rich alchemy. Caramelizing sugar is one thing, but caramelizing something else, be it milk, meat or bread, is another game entirely. Water can’t get hotter than 100°C/212°F. Most sugars (with the exception of fructose) only start caramelizing at a temperature of 160°C/320°F. This means that when you’re cooking sweetened, condensed milk in a water bath, the sugar in the sweetened, condensed milk doesn’t actually get hot enough to caramelize, as when you’re making a dry or wet caramel.
There has to be another magical browning process involved in the making of dulce de leche. The Maillard reaction. It occurs when sugars and proteins are heated together. As the sugars react with the proteins, a complex mixture of different molecules responsible for a range of flavors and odors is formed. We like this almost instinctively. Browning. Bread crust, seared meat, roasted coffee, dark thickened onions, rich ripe cheeses. The luxuries of life. The more alkaline the food (a higher PH and the ability to neutralize acid) the more it browns. This is why we add baking soda to flour to aid in the browning of the cookies. And this is why it takes so ridiculously long to make dulce de leche.
It is not the sugar in the milk that caramelizes, it is the sugar and the proteins in the milk that react together to create delicious molecules. We crave this. Humans have cultivated it in the culinary arts long before we could ever name it. It’s a fundamental desire, like seeking out beauty and our natural pull toward water. It is why Argentinians will almost always brown their meat on the parilla. It’s why they wait the three hours to build deep flavor and complexity in these alfajores when a simple caramel will do just fine. It makes their cookies robust and it will make yours that way too.
There are a few ways to make dulce de leche and most Latin Americans I know just take a can of sweetened condensed milk and simmer it in a pot of boiling water for a few hours. If you live in a small apartment like mine you will create a sauna/steam room. If you’re not into that, you can also open the can and bake it in the oven in a water bath for the same amount of time. Either method allows the process to take place.
You don’t have to be the “type of person” who stays home to make cookies to make these. I found the different parts of the process and the individual attention you give to each one a way to take a time out and put my effort toward one thing in a world where I’m usually multitasking. I also did something atypical and went to a store to get labels and bags and stickers to box these puppies up and give them away as timely gifts. Check out my bounty below. I hope you all have a wonderful week. Class dismissed!
- 1 cup cornstarch
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon fine salt
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick), at room temperature
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar
- 2 large egg yolks
- 1 tablespoon pisco or brandy
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup Dulce de Leche, at room temperature (see recipe below)
- Powdered sugar, for dusting
- desiccated coconut for rolling
For the Dulce De Leche
- 1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
For the dulce de leche
If you’re using the sweetened condensed milk in a can method you can make this up to 3 weeks beforehand if stored in the fridge tightly covered. I’m starting with this instruction because you basically just have to boil the can for 3 hours.
Bring a large pan of water to a rolling boil. Make sure that you put enough water in the pan to completely cover the can you’re about to cook.
Remove the label from the can of sweetened, condensed milk and carefully submerge it into the boiling water using a pair of tongs or a slotted spoon. Make sure you place the can on its side, so it can roll around. If you place the can bottom or top-side down, the boiling water can cause it to bounce up and down..annoying.
Cook the can for 3 hours, making sure the can is covered with water at all times. Add more boiling water if necessary.
Using a pair of thongs, a fork or a slotted spoon, take the can out of the pan and place it onto a heatproof surface to cool. Make sure it has cooled to room temperature before you open the can, otherwise the dulce de leche will squirt out like a fountain. Once cooled, stir until smooth.
for the cookies
Place the cornstarch, measured flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl and whisk briefly to combine; set aside.
Place the butter and sugar in a bowl and mix until the mixture is light in color and fluffy. Add the egg yolks, pisco or brandy, and vanilla and mix until incorporated. Gradually add the reserved flour mixture and mix until just incorporated with no visible white pockets.
Turn the dough out onto a piece of plastic wrap, shape it into a smooth disk, and wrap it tightly. Place in the refrigerator until firm, at least 1 hour.
Meanwhile, heat the oven to 350°F and arrange a rack in the middle. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator, unwrap it, and place it on a lightly floured work surface. Lightly flour the top of the dough. Roll to 1/4-inch thickness (the dough will crack but can be easily patched back together). Stamp out 24 rounds using a plain or fluted 2-inch round cutter, rerolling the dough as necessary until all of it is gone.
Place the cookies on the prepared baking sheets, 12 per sheet and at least 1/2 inch apart. Bake 1 sheet at a time until the cookies are firm and pale golden on the bottom, about 12 to 14 minutes. (The cookies will remain pale on top.) Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
Flip half of the cookies upside down and gently spread about 2 teaspoons of the dulce de leche on each. Place a second cookie on top and gently press to create a sandwich. Dust generously with powdered sugar before serving. Roll sides through desiccated coconut. Cookies will keep for a week in an airtight container and freeze for up to 3 months.