For our first Ethnic Exploration of the year, we are waffling between two different countries. In fact, some of you may know Chrystal rang in 2012 in Barcelona. While I was home slumping on the couch, she was eating exotic dishes, checking out historic sites, and gallivanting around the city. From the snapshots she shared with me of her trip, it was clear she experienced plenty of incredible eats, even describing one tapas dish as “the best mussels she’s ever tasted in her entire life. Ever.” Wow! That was a pretty bold statement, I thought. With praises like that, we clearly had to explore a couple of elements of Spanish cuisine this month. There was really no other choice!
To be honest, this month’s Ethnic Exploration begins in Spain, but it could be argued that it ends in Argentina. Every dish is the summation of its parts, but most importantly, it owes everything to its roots. That’s the story of the alfajor. Let’s start at the beginning. The cuisine in Spain is as varied its culture–both past and present. The foods of Spain have ties to nearly every country in Europe, parts of Africa and throughout the Mediterranean. Ancient Roman rule and Moorish invasions in Andalusia would forever imprint their culinary traditions into the region, creating a lasting impression of North African influence. The proximity of Portugal and France lend themselves to the food along the border regions. Barcelona itself is entrenched with the history of its Catalan population, some of whom regard themselves as a completely distinct ethnic group within the country. There’s no doubt as well that the country’s geography adds a crucial contribution to the cuisine, for the country’s seaside surroundings provide abundant seafood available just off its shores. Mussels, like all seafood, are strongly flavored by their surrounding waters, which could explain why Chrystal’s Barcelona order of Mejillones a la Marinera were so memorable compared to previous experiences.
We both have an insatiable sweet tooth, so it should be no surprise we wanted to make a dessert this round. These sandwich cookies are called alfajores. Two sweet biscuit-like cookies with a dulce de leche filling is all that it takes to create an alfajor. These cookies traditionally are made with flour, honey, nuts, and a variety of spices such as cinnamon or anise. Alfajores have roots in the Arab world, and were first introduced to Spain during the Moorish occupation. Since then, this sweet ending has embedded itself into Spanish culture and undergone numerous incarnations. In Spain, this dessert is most popular during Christmas, although the Andalusia region sells them anytime. Alfajores even made its way across the Atlantic, spreading throughout parts of Latin America–Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Peru, for example–as a treat to be enjoyed year-round.
Believe it or not, the traditional Spanish alfajor was not quite what we tend to see in bakeries today. In the Moor capital of Andalusia, Medina-Sidonia, alfajores used to be a cylindrical shaped wafer dusted with powdered sugar and filled with a paste of nuts, honey, dried fruits and spices. The influence and spread of Spanish culture amongst other Central and South American countries is the reason why alfajores have seen a change. Here is where our Ethnic Exploration takes a few bumpy detours. Today, you’ll encounter countless versions of alfajores around the globe, with each country boasting its very own adaptation. In Arabic, the word ‘alfajor’ simply means stuffed, so it makes sense that other countries would have their own specialties. For example, it’s common to see a finished alfajor in Argentina dipped in chocolate or completely coated in powdered sugar. In Mexico, an alfajor there would most likely be multicolored with coconut used as the main ingredient. Though some places prefer a type of jam, alfajores are most commonly filled with a simple dulce de leche. Dulce de leche, literally translated to ‘sweet of milk’, is one of the top choices in Latin American countries, not so much in Spain. It’s important to note that the version of alfajores that we see so often in the States are very similar to those served in Argentina. If you make a trip to Buenos Aires or another Argentinian city, you will find varieties of alfajores almost anywhere. The fact that Argentina is a major producer of dulce de leche makes that option one of the most popular.
Making the cookie dough went off without a hitch. The dough and cooked cookies very much reminded me of a common shortbread. After some frustrating boil-overs and a complete mess of our preliminary homemade dulce de leche, we had to try a second method. Instead of milk and sugar simmering in a sauce pan, we just went with the condensed milk version. Once cooked down in a bain marie, it’s dulce de leche time with no fuss.
The cookies themselves are light and crisp, but not overwhelmingly sweet. The subtle sweetness was perfect, though, making way for the intensely sweet caramel filling. We rounded it off with a sprinkle of toasted coconut for the perfect complement. This story of the alfajor is so very layered, but it has a very special place in Spain’s history as one of its founding confections. Of course, it seems as though the cookie most of us know visually hails from Argentina. Either way, they both have important meanings for their respective cultures and to the historical bond the two countries share. You may have several other versions in your worldly travels. No matter where you hail from in the world, you’re sure to find something to love about these sweet little ones. We did add some dark rum into the mix because that was what we had in our liquor cabinet, but a cognac or brandy would work just the same. Or feel free to leave the booze out all together. Give ‘em a whirl!
Alfajores (Dulce de Leche Sandwich Cookies) - Approximately 1 dozen (Adapted from Recipe Girl)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
Zest of one lemon
4 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons dark rum
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
2-4 tablespoons whole milk
1 cup shredded sweetened coconut, toasted
Powdered sugar, sifted
14 ounces sweetened condensed milk
1. Whisk together flour, cornstarch, salt, baking soda and powder, and lemon zest in a medium mixing bowl. Set aside. In a small mixing bowl, lightly beat together egg yolks, vanilla extract and rum. Set aside.
2. Using a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar together on medium speed until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add in egg yolk mixture in two parts, continuing to mix until well combined.
3. Using your bare hands, add flour mixture to the butter mixture and knead until well combined and a soft dough is formed. If the dough is too flaky and dry, add in milk 2 tablespoons at a time. Divide dough in half and wrap each piece in plastic wrap or parchment paper. Refrigerate for 2 hours to 2 days. (Any unused dough freezes well. Simply double wrap the dough and keep up to 6 weeks. Let sit in the refrigerator for 24 hours to thaw.)
4. When ready to bake cookies, preheat oven to 325 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Let dough rest a room temperature for 5-10 minutes before rolling. On a well floured surface, roll one piece of dough out to a 1/4 in sheet. Using a cookie cutter or top of a shot glass, cut about 2 inch round cookies and transfer each one to the baking sheet. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the cookies are completely dry but not brown. Let cool on a wire rack. Repeat with remaining half of dough.
5. For the filling, pour the sweetened condensed milk into a 9″ x 9″ cake pan or a similar baking dish. Place the baking dish into a larger roasting pan, and fill the pan up halfway with water to create a bain marie. Cover only the pan with the sweetened condensed milk tightly with aluminum foil.
6. Slide the nested pans into an oven preheated to 425 degrees and cook for an hour, then remove from the oven and carefully stir the liquid. It should be a caramel brown and slightly thickened. If necessary, slide it back into the oven for another 15-30 minutes, checking halfway through the additional cooking time. Remove from the oven once the mixture has reached your preferred color and texture.
7. Assemble alfajores by dividing cooled cookies together into pairs. Spread desired amount of caramel filling on flat side of one cookie and top with its match, also on the flat side, forming a sandwich. Gently press the cookies together until the filling slightly peeks out the edges. Sprinkle with grated coconut and top with sifted powered sugar.
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