Alpha-what, now?! I speak 3 languages and consider myself pretty worldly, and I definitely make a point of investigating pastries any time I travel; and yet, I didn’t know what Alfajores were before embarking on this week’s Baked Sunday Mornings recipe. Pronounced ‘alfa-HOR-es’, these South American “caramel”-filled sandwich cookies are featured in the Caramel chapter of Baked Elements, and I’m really at a loss as to why they are just now entering my consciousness. There are many interpretations of alfajores throughout South and Latin America, and this version is most consistent with the Argentine kind. These little gems were quick to capture my heart; I’m a huge fan of sandwich cookies and I looooove me some dulce de leche, so they will surely join the ranks of my favorite and oft-baked cookies. They can be made for both casual and fancy occasions, dressed up nicely with a dusting of confectioners’ sugar.
Ever wondered what the difference is between caramel and dulce de leche? Proper “caramel” is made by melting granulated sugar into a dark syrup with some combination of water, cream, corn syrup, and/or butter. (Variations and quantities depend on the type and purpose of the caramel.) Dulce de leche, literally meaning “milk candy” in Spanish, actually starts out quite differently, though its caramelized flavor and color after cooking are probably responsible for the popular association with sugar-based caramel. Like the alfajores, there are many versions of dulce de leche, which vary in texture, type of milk used, and addition of other ingredients. This version, a thick caramel-like spread, seems to be the most prevalent kind in the United States, and it’s perfect for these cookies.
It is made by cooking 28 ounces of sweetened condensed milk with ½ teaspoon kosher salt in a heatproof bowl over a pot of boiling water until it becomes viscous and dark. Like the sugar in caramel, it thickens and takes on that gorgeous amber color as the milk sugars caramelize. The recipe says to cook it for 60-90 minutes (stovetop method), but mine took FOUR HOURS! I finally started to see some change in the color and thickness after 90 minutes or so, but it definitely took its sweet time. Now, the recipe does not specify whether or not one should stir the mixture occasionally, though I assumed that it would scorch and cook unevenly if I left it alone for so long. However, it’s possible that dulce de leche does want to be left the hell alone on the stove, and perhaps my stirring prevented it from caramelizing in the prescribed amount of time– who knows. Even after the four hours, it wasn’t as dark as I had expected, but I pulled it off the heat once I felt that the consistency was firm enough to hold as a cookie filling. Also, after it had cooled, it developed a slightly grainy texture, like very fine sugar granules, which might have been a result of over-agitating, and it lost its sheen on the second day. So, a little room for improvement, but still much deliciousness and gooey joy!
As for the cookie portion of these wonderful Latin treats, it was so hard not to nibble on them while waiting for the dulce de leche to cook down! (But I was a good little girl, thank you very much. *curtsy*) The dough came together very quickly and easily, though I was initially horrified at the full cup of cornstarch in the recipe. I did a little research to see if other Alfajores recipes contained cornstarch (or at least a comparable amount), and all of them did, in fact, contain it and had similar quantities.
The cornstarch apparently gives the dough its smooth, tender texture and results in a delicate cookie reminiscent of soft shortbread. The dough is made by adding the dry ingredients to a mixture of creamed butter and sugar with a few egg yolks, not totally unlike a traditional sugar cookie dough. It looked a little curdled and uncertain as I was adding the egg yolks one by one, but by the time all the wet ingredients were fully incorporated, the mixture had come together into a satiny, yellow base.
And then things get more interesting– it’s flavored with lemon zest, rum, and vanilla, which means… YUM. These additions create a beautifully balanced cookie with complexity and a little zing. The finished dough looks a bit shaggy at first, but it’s actually very smooth and a cinch to handle. I refrigerated the dough overnight, and because it was still somewhat soft when I was ready to roll it out, I expected it to be sticky; when cold and generously floured, the dough was very quick and easy to roll and cut. Once it softens after the first roll-out, it’s much harder to work with, so I re-wrapped the scraps and stuck the reconstituted dough ball in the freezer for about 30 minutes between batches. This was a little time-consuming, but well worth it, as my baked cookies had clean edges and didn’t spread. I also stuck each filled cookie sheet in the freezer for about 5 minutes before baking to firm up the dough.
I made some of the standard 2-inch alfajores and a bunch of wee cookie gems, for it is easier to foist bite-sized ones on people at work! 😉 The larger ones baked in exactly 8 minutes, and the smaller ones for a minute less. They are not supposed to brown, so you want to pull them out of the oven as soon as you see the slightest touch of golden color.
Once the interminable dulce de leche was ready and cooled, I transferred it to a pastry bag and piped a small amount onto half of the cookies, then topped each with another cookie and pressed them together so that the filling smooshed out to the edge.
Finally, to make the alfajores all pretty, I gave them a light dusting of confectioners’ sugar. And then the moment arrived: time to bite into one of these darling little sandwiches…
The cookies are very soft, and with the dulce de leche filling, they just melt in your mouth! I love the hint of lemon-vanilla-rum flavor, which works beautifully with the creamy “milk candy”. There are a number of flavors going on there, and I was initially concerned that they might compete or compromise each other; on the contrary, they work in harmony to create a treat that is greater than the sum of its parts. These cookies were a lovely surprise (like so many BAKED recipes that I’ve made for Baked Sunday Mornings), and I hope to try some variations in the future.
If you’ve read some of my other posts, you may know that I often can’t resist mixing things up a little by tweaking the recipe. I didn’t do that this time because these were completely new to me, so I wanted to make them as directed. However, they can be dipped in chocolate, or you can experiment with fillings, or roll the edges in shredded coconut… Good thing I have more dough in the freezer!
Oh, one last thing: my cookies started to dry out on the second day, so you will want to either gobble them up quickly or store them in an airtight container to keep them fresh.
If you, too, wish to make these wonderful Alfajores, you can find the recipe at Baked Sunday Mornings, and check out how my fellow bakers fared with the lovely Argentine cookies too!
Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there– someone should make these for you today! 🙂
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2013.