A trip to Patagonia provided plenty of thrills, and a recipe for alfajores.
THE HIGHLIGHTS OF my trip to the awe-inspiring, windswept Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia: soaring granite peaks, creeping ice-blue glaciers, enormous turquoise lakes and the freshly baked alfajores that our guides offered us just about every hour. I never, ever refused an alfajor. My appetite for them did not go unnoticed — at the end of our stay, when I asked the kitchen for the recipe, it had already been written out for me.
Alfajores de Maizena are a type of tea cookie filled with dulce de leche (a rich, thick milk caramel), much loved in Latin America. They look quite unassuming, but everything about the way they taste is remarkable: The cookie is melt-in-your-mouth tender because it’s made with such a high proportion of cornstarch, and the generous layer of dulce de leche in the middle gives it substance and chew.
They’re a popular snack for children (all children should be so lucky!). Industrial producers such as Havanna and Cachafaz dip them in chocolate and wrap them individually for sale. Their stores are as ubiquitous in Buenos Aires as Starbucks in Seattle.
The dough is easy to make and very easy to roll. Really, the only trick is to use a thick dulce de leche to fill the cookies. I’ve had good results with the Colombina brand, San Ignacio and La Salamandra. El Mercado Latino in Pike Place Market carries multiple brands.
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It’s more common to roll the sides of the finished cookies in finely shredded, unsweetened coconut, but I love the convenience of using cookie crumbs, the way our hotel in Chile did, and I like the way the cookie dissolves as you eat it, without even one crunchy bit to interfere.
Remota Patagonia Lodge, Puerto Natales, Chile
Makes about 30 sandwich cookies
1 cup cornstarch
½ cup plus 5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
7 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup sugar
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons cognac
About 16 ounces dulce de leche or manjar
1. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Sift together the cornstarch, flour, baking powder and baking soda. Set aside.
2. Cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the yolks, and mix well to blend. Slowly add the cognac, a tablespoon at a time, mixing well after each addition.
3. Add the sifted dry ingredients, and gently mix to blend. Do not overwork the dough.
4. Divide the dough into two pieces. Lightly dust a clean work surface with flour. Roll out one of the pieces of dough to ¼ centimeter thick. Use a cookie cutter to cut out circles (I like them 4 centimeters in diameter), and place them about 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheets. When you have filled a baking sheet, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F, and place the baking sheet in the refrigerator to chill. Continue rolling and cutting out the dough (the scraps as well), and chill the baking sheets as you fill them.
5. Bake the cookies, one sheet at a time, for 12 to 14 minutes, rotating the pan after six minutes, until the cookies feel firm to the touch but have not taken on any color.
6. Let the cookies cool completely, then put the dulce de leche in a piping bag fitted with a plain tip. Finely crush four of the cookies, and put the crumbs in a small bowl. Turn half of the remaining cookies upside-down, and pipe on a generous “kiss” of dulce de leche. Top with another cookie, and very gently squeeze until the filling is even. Very gently press the sides of each filled cookie into the crumbs.
Note: These are even more melt-in-your mouth after a day or two (well-wrapped).