Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Alfajores de Maizena

I once described alfajores to a friend as Argentinian moon pies. They're large (sometimes medium) sandwich cookies of shortbread filled with dulce de leche, sometimes enrobed in chocolate or meringue. 

If you go to Buenos Aires, all the tourist shops will be selling Alfajores Havanna, which are absolutely delicious. My favorite kind, though, is this variety, which is often homemade. The shortbread is heavy on cornstarch (Maizena in Spanish), making it crumbly and rich in flavor. There's another company now that makes this kind now, but I forget their name...apparently it was started by a member of the family that makes the Havannas. 

Once upon a time I asked someone there for a recipe, and instead of the directions I was sent home with a giant styrofoam container of the cookies and two big tubs of dulce de leche so I could assemble them once I got home to California. YUM! But that didn't help me make them at home. 

Enter my favorite used bookstores, Pegasus and Pendragon, which have immaculate used cookbooks for half price. Wandering through there one day, I found Nick Malgeri's A Baker's Tour, which quickly became one of my favorite baking books. It has recipes from all over the world, and not one of the ones I've tried has let me down. This is a slight adaptation of his beautiful recipe. 

So, like most cookie and cake recipes, it starts with mixing the dry ingredients together and then creaming the butter and sugar. Preheat the oven to 350 and line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.

In a medium bowl, mix 1 1/3 c all purpose flour, 1 1/2 c cornstarch, and 1 tsp baking powder. Set aside. 

I haven't tried whole wheat flour in this recipe...if I did, I might try whole grain pastry flour. 
Cream 10 Tbsp unsalted butter (1 stick plus 2 Tbsp) and 2/3 c sugar with a mixer on medium speed. Beat until it lightens in color and texture. Scrape down the sides and scrape up the bottom. Add 1 tsp grated lemon zest, 2 tsp vanilla and 1 tsp water. Beat for about 30 seconds and scrape down again before beating in, one at a time, 4 egg yolks. 

I happened to have these four left over after the Espresso Buttercream last weekend. They say you can freeze them, but I haven't had great luck with that, at least not with using them to make custard. Wah. 

Scrape down again and then add the dry ingredients. Only mix for a little bit until they mix together. Remember to start the mixer on LOW when you start mixing them could have a whole kitchen full of flour and cornstarch otherwise! Holding a dish towel loosely around the bowl also helps cut down on cleanup. Trust me, I've been there!
The dough will be pretty crumbly, and may still look like a big bowl of crumbs in the bowl. 

Turn it out onto a floured board and push it together as best you can, turning it over on itself a couple of times. 
Roll out 1/3 of the dough at a time with a rolling pin. Cut out circles 2-3 inches in diameter. If you don't have biscuit cutters, you can use a straight edged glass or a clean can. Whatever works!

Gather the scraps (the ones that don't make it into your mouth) and roll them out to cut more cookies. 

Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes (12 to 17 depending on your oven and the size of the cookies) until edges are just starting to turn golden brown. Remove to a rack to let cool completely before filling. 

I'm pretty bad at rolling things out evenly. If I see that one is a lot thicker than the others, I'll roll it a little more and use the cutter again to trim off the extra. It's not the end of the world, though. Rustic is in, no? 

Fill the cookies: spoon some dulce de leche between two cookies and stick them together. Try to find pairs that match well - despite using the same cutter for all of them, somehow they deform slightly in the baking process. Roll the edges of the cookies in sweetened shredded coconut and enjoy! 

About the dulce de leche: you can find it at Latin markets and upscale supermarkets these days, or you can follow this oven recipe or this pressure cooker recipe to make it from a can or two of sweetened condensed milk. 

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