When preparing to study abroad in Buenos Aires during my junior year of college, my Argentine friend told me that I was going to love the food down there, but I had to try one thing in particular during my stay: alfajores. In the moment, I had no idea what she was talking about. Little did I know, however, that before I left Buenos Aires I would become something of an alfajor connoisseur. After a thorough and rigorous taste test, I would finally understand the vast variety available and be able to name the best cookie.
Alfajores come in three varieties: chocolate-covered alfajores; alfajores blancas, which are covered in some sort of almond powder; and alfajores de maicena, the queen of all Argentine cookies. Alfajores de maicena were by far my favorite– they were the most crafted, the most genuine, and the best tasting of all the cookies. Made mostly with cornstarch (called “maicena” for a common brand) instead of flour, these cookies are crumbly and perfect and always sandwich the best-tasting dulce de leche. They are typically rolled in coconut flakes, which only adds to the experience.
Alfajores. Now when I think of the word, I imagine it dripping with dulce de leche and sticky sweet. At some point I left the world of connoisseur and became a full-on addict. The smell of the dulce de leche, the crinkle of the wrapper, the weight of the cookie in my hand– these signs teased and tantalized and prepared me for the first inevitable bite into the cookie. I did not devour. I savored. I lingered. I appreciated the flavors and textures on my tongue and I prayed to the alfajor gods to send more. And then, in the middle of December and at the height of my alfajor addiction, I left Argentina.
Barring the culture shock, my first weeks back home were not so bad. I had smuggled some boxes back in my luggage and so was able to continue feeding my addiction in secret, though I was constantly aware that my supply was limited. And then, about a month of stretching my supply, I finally ran out of alfajores. I begged and pleaded to the alfajor gods to send just one more cookie, but apparently pleas from the U.S. do not travel well to Argentina. I was finally out of alfajores. The withdrawal symptoms began, and the road to complete rehabilitation was a long and hard one. With much support, however, I was able to kick my alfajor habit. I thought I had conquered it for good.
This weekend, I tested my limits and came dangerously close to a relapse. One of my best friends also studied abroad in Argentina and had also fallen in love with alfajores– though not to the same dangerous extent that I had– and so to celebrate her birthday I did an Excellent Thing and baked for her a little memento of our second home. That’s right. After more than two full years of being clean, I tested my limits and made alfajores, determined to not let these cookies get the best of me. I am proud to say that my resolve has held, having only eaten two alfajores since assembling them this morning. Nice willpower for a recovering addict, I would say, and it was worth the potential relapse to see my friend’s face as she bit into the gooey crumbly mess.
With how easy it was to make these once I finally figured out what I was doing, I might be making some more quite soon. I had almost forgotten how perfectly the crumbly dough pairs with the sweet dulce de leche, how the cookie pieces get stuck in the gooey sweetness and both stick to your tongue… I am suddenly tempted to make moves on alfajor number three. Excuse me while I sneak to the kitchen. I’m sorry, I won’t be sharing these. I guess you’ll just have to make your own.
Alfajores de Maicena
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups corn starch (maicena)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
200 grams butter (about 14 tbsp or 1 3/4 sticks), cut into small chunks.
3/4 cup sugar
4 egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1-2 teaspoons lemon zest
Dulce de leche*
Shredded coconut, chopped
1 tsp whiskey or cognac (optional)
Up to 1/2 cup milk (8 tablespoons) (optional)
Mix the flour, cornstarch, baking power, and baking soda together and set aside. You can sift it if you choose, but I rarely find that it makes a difference and so don’t usually spend the time sifting.
In a separate bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the egg yolks, vanilla, and lemon zest and mix thoroughly. If using alcohol, add it now.
The next step is to combine the wet and dry ingredients– speaking with the voice of experience and a very cornstarch-covered kitchen, I would recommend combining the two by hand and not with an electric mixer. To combine, make a well in the middle of your dry ingredients and then carefully add the wet ingredients to this well. Mix the two elements together with a wooden spoon until the dough looks pebbly but cohesive. Form it into a ball or log by pressing it with your hands, then wrap in plastic wrap and chill it for one hour or overnight.
If your dough is too dry and will not form a ball, feel free to add a bit of milk to it, a tablespoon or two at a time. Mix well in between additions and stop as soon as your dough will form a ball. You want the dough to be a bit dry and crumbly, so be sure to not make it overly damp. It should stick to itself but not be sticky.
After chilling the dough, preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the wrapping and transfer the dough to a very lightly floured surface. Roll the dough out until it is about half a centimeter thick. Cut circles with a round cookie cutter or glass and place the cut cookies onto a baking sheet that has been lined with parchment paper or slightly greased. Join the scraps and repeat, making cookies until you have used all of the dough.
Bake the cookies for 15 – 20 minutes or until just set. You do not want them to brown! Once set, remove the cookies from the oven and quickly transfer to a cooling rack so the bottoms do not brown.
Once the cookies have cooled, spoon or pipe dulce de leche onto one cookie, spreading it to the edges, and place another cookie on top. Gently press the two cookies together.
Pulse the shredded coconut in a food processor to make smaller chunks. Roll the alfajores in the coconut (I didn’t for the pictures because I was lazy, but trust me– they are better with the coconut). I keep my finished alfajores in an air-tight container in the fridge, just because I like the cold dulce de leche. They should last for a little while, though to be honest I am not sure for how long since they never make it past a few days!
*Dulce de leche was surprisingly difficult for me to track down in NYC, but for all of you city dwellers I was finally able to find it at Whole Foods Union Square. You will almost certainly find it in a Latin supermarket near you or can order it online. If all else fails or you are feeling particularly ambitious, you can also make it yourself.