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.
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.
Aljajores Artesanales | Dulce de Leche Sandwich Cookies
Article © 2008 Ana Schwartzman. Photo © 2008 Emily Sandor. All rights reserved.