Alfajores: The Family Cookie

Alfajores

I grew up in Fullerton, California, a continent away from Buenos Aires, Argentina, the city my mother’s side of the family calls home, and where she spent her first 30 years. This meant that while I was being weaned on foods like mac ‘n cheese out of a box, iceberg lettuce, and other specialties endemic to my father’s Midwestern Jewish-American family, I was also being unwittingly biased against the flavors and textures my mother had grown up with and that my Argentine grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins enjoyed.

In her defense, my mother did add dishes from her Buenos Aires upbringing to her dinner repertoire. There was matambre — beef pounded paper-thin and rolled around a stuffing of hard-boiled eggs, olives, potatoes, carrots, and spices — and perfectly crimped sweet-corn empanadas, but the versions of these foods that she turned out in our suburban, Southern Californian kitchen weren’t made with the meat, spices, water, or butter that defined the genuine articles. “The beef here tastes like glue,” she’d announce to the butcher at the meat counter at Ralph’s, our local supermarket. And I couldn’t register the connection between these foods and my Argentine heritage, especially at a table devoid of a large, loud Spanish-speaking family.

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Enter the alfajor, the one delicacy that was finally able to bridge the gap between my lackluster gastronomic existence and my mother’s culinary heritage. My love affair with this cookie — a marriage of two delicate shortbread biscuits with a core of amber dulce de leche, preferably finished off with a coat of dark chocolate — began on New Year’s Eve, the year I turned nine. It wasn’t a smooth introduction. On a sweltering Buenos Aires evening, I sat with my cousins and brother in front of an industrial fan in my Aunt Berta’s cramped living room. This was only my third visit to Argentina, the last two trips taken before I was five. As the adults clinked champagne glasses, we reached for the plate piled high with alfajores artesanales from the local confitería. Each palm-sized cookie was wrapped individually in thick wax paper, making a guessing game out of whether we would find an alfajor de chocolate or an alfajor de nieve, which has a “snow” coating of sweet, crunchy meringue.

My restraint met its match in the soft layers, and I ended up eating four or five of these rich treats, only to be punished with stomach cramps that haven’t been matched in the 25 years since. The adults laughed, put wet towels on my forehead, and let the butter, sugar, milk, and chocolate run its course. “Requisimo, ¿no?” my aunt asked as she stroked my moist forehead. Yes, delicious, indeed.

I wasn’t deterred by my overindulgence. In fact, I became obsessed with this refined sandwich cookie for the rest of our visit, noticing its many variations in the pastry cases at cafés and in the windows of the confiterías on every street corner. Porteños— natives of Buenos Aires — loaded uncoated, miniature versions of the cookie onto paper trays that were then weighed and taken home for Sunday lunch. Children playing in the public parks ate prepackaged milk chocolate alfajores like I ate Twix bars, straight from the wrapper. Thin, beautiful women sat smoking cigarettes on restaurant terraces, drinking café and nibbling jam-filled alfajores sprinkled with coconut or dusted with powdered sugar. And my cousins Julio and Ana, only a few years older than me, spent several afternoons during their New Year’s vacation from school baking their own imperfect versions.

Over the next several years, when my mother would travel to Argentina on her own, she’d bring back Alfajores Havanna, a brand that hails from the seaside town of Mar del Plata, due south of Buenos Aires. At least since my mother was a child, Alfajores Havanna have come enveloped in silver foil (for meringue-covered) and gold foil (for chocolate), both etched with regal writing and packed six to a yellow-and-red cardboard box. Of course, at home in our California living room, my breaking into the first of the Havannas inevitably led my parents or brother to bring up “The Night Ana Took On a Plate of Alfajores.” But that New Year’s Eve had taught me that the cookie I loved so much had a prohibitive quality — I knew a few bites went a long way.

Just folding back the foil corners of an Alfajor Havanna triggered a ceremonious response. I’d first admire the sheen of the dark chocolate, and then pick up the pleasingly heavy cookie from around its soft middle, where the creamy, vanilla-scented dulce de leche sat trapped between a crumbly top and bottom. My fingers would instantly melt through the chocolate, into the gooey center. My first bite was a ratio evenly calculated by tongue and teeth of two parts cookie to one part dulce de leche. Maybe it was just a sugar rush and a chocolate buzz, but that bite brought back reminders of the sweet warmth and chaos always present the times I’d visited my Argentine family. There was something balanced yet very complex about the bittersweetness of the chocolate, the piercing sweetness of the filling, and the crumbly texture of the butter cookies.

My high-school friend Alison once called the alfajor I packed in my lunch “a skinny Mallomar.” I defended my cookie, explaining to her that dulce de leche was an Argentine tradition and that to compare a slow-cooked milk caramel to a machine-made marshmallow was nothing less than sacrilege.

As I got older, and eventually made my own trips to Argentina, I ventured further from the safety of family in Buenos Aires to places like Patagonia, where at the end of an arduous trek on the Perito Moreno Glacier, the guides rewarded us with fudge-dipped alfajores and whiskey. Indeed, no matter where I traveled in Argentina, I was never far from the layered cookie that served as a direct line to my matrilineal heritage.

A box of Havannas I bought with the last of my pesos on my most recent visit to Buenos Aires is sitting in my fridge right now. They’re past their prime by several months. The truth is, I can get alfajores—Havannas, as well as those baked fresh — in a few of the Latin American supermarkets and bodegas in San Francisco’s Mission District. The Peruvian alfajores laced with lemon are my current favorite. I have, on occasion, even made my own. But I take great comfort in knowing that if I need them, there are alfajores sitting on the bottom shelf of my refrigerator, ready to remind me of my more than 20 relatives a continent away.

Recipe
Aljajores Artesanales | Dulce de Leche Sandwich Cookies

Article © 2008 Ana Schwartzman. Photo © 2008 Emily Sandor. All rights reserved.

About Ana Schwartzman

Ana Schwartzman is a freelance writer who contributes features, essays, and profiles to food, travel, and literary publications. Some of her best stories and recipes have come from accosting strangers at the market, pointing in their baskets and asking, "How're you going to prepare that?" Ana is the first recipient of the Leite's Culinaria Scholarship for Narrative Food Writing to the Symposium for Professional Food Writers at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, WV.

Comments
Comments
  1. Cris says:

    Oh, I just had some Havanna alfajores this weekend. They sell them here at the mall; I live in Brazil.

  2. Mercedes says:

    Hello Ana, I am a porteña. I live in Buenos Aires and, of course, I love alfajores. Havannas are the alfajores I used to eat in my childhood, but I have to tell you that they don’t taste the same. I think the main problem is the chocolate, which, like in most candies, isn’t real chocolate anymore. So the next time you mother comes to Buenos Aires, tell her to buy alfajores El Cachafaz, which taste quite the same the Havannas did 25 years ago.

  3. Angela J. says:

    What a lovely story—now I must try these! Funny how candies or cookies from childhood never leave one’s imagination.

  4. Val says:

    Hi! Could you please PLEASE tell me where i can buy alfajores and other Argentinian “stuff” in San Francisco? The only place i found was a mexican market and they ONLY had dulce de leche….i’m craving alfajores milka, jorgito, havanna, ANY BRAND! But alfajores nonetheless……I hope someday i can pass on my “Argentinity” to my children and that they will embrace it like you seem to have done! God bless! And thank you in advance! =)

  5. Christine, LC Recipe Tester says:

    Val: Not sure about a market, but Cactus Taqueria (on College in Oakland or Solano in Berkeley) sells delicious freshly made ones. They could probably tell you where they get them. Incidentally, Cactus also sells Pie in the Sky Besos (little triple chocolate treats) from Puerto Vallarta/Bucerias. I had seen them at the resto for years, but only realized where they were coming from on a recent trip to Sayulita, Mexico.

  6. Emiko, LC Recipe Tester says:

    Hi Val, I personally, don’t know any, but I found a couple of forum where people talk about the best alfajores in San Francisco.

    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/421444
    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/44117

    Hope this helps.

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