Alfajor Heaven

30 01 2009

In honor of my ongoing nostalgia for last year’s adventures, another flashback. This one I actually found in my drafts: it was started but (for reasons now unknown) never finished, back in Argentina, on (I am guessing) January 14, 2008. My guess is that it was never finished because I was spending a good part of my Luján internet time frantically trying to figure out a way to replace my camera, which had just been stolen in Buenos Aires. At any rate, it finally goes live a year later…

Today, this, the first day of my career as a travel guidebook writer, I am in Luján, quite possibly the closest one gets to a one horse town. It’s quiet and tiny and full of small town charm, including the most beautiful confiteria (sweet shop) I have ever seen.

Villa de Luján is a tiny wood building that looks more like it belongs in Switzerland than in “gaucholand.” We were first attracted to the cartoonish gnomes gracing the outside, but then I saw the menu: dulce de leche galore. My new friend Liz (Note: Liz is now a dear friend and the one with whom I am soon to embark on a very exciting, as yet undisclosed venture) and I  have become, over the past week,  self-declared dulce de leche experts, specializing in the alfajor, a heavenly cookie sandwich filled with the sweet of sweets.

Naturally, Liz and I figured we must give it a try, us being travel writers and this being a a very important spot in the tine town. Entering the tiny cabin was like entering grandmother’s house, complete with flowery tablecloths, and, even better, sweets. The staff consisted of a cheerful older woman and her mother, who both chatted amiably before sitting us at a doily covered table and serving us orange juice in sugar-rimmed glasses, followed by a slice of spongy lemon cake. But the highlight, of course, was the king of alfajorés—a triple-layer cookie filled with one layer vanilla crème and one dulce de leche and surrounded by rich chocolate. Don’t think, full as we were, we didn’t leave without a few for the road.

Villa de Lujan, B Mitre 179, Lujan, Argentina, (02323) 429949





Paying it Forward (Part Dos)

31 07 2008

A few posts back I marveled at the rewards that come from that aspect of travel that has to do with passing it on, and the best part about it is when you know it’s made an impact. I knew this not only from the excitement that my brother’s girls had while looking at the photos, but from what came to pass after.

Alyssa, who had studied Peru in school and started this whole thing, told me about her project, and about how they had to make food when they presented. They were supposed to make “a…al…alfa-somethings” (she couldn’t remember). Of course I knew what they were supposed to make and didn’t. I knew firsthand. They were supposed to make alfajores. (Yes, that sounded right.) Well they didn’t make them after all, but she wanted to.

The next 20 minutes were spent trawling the internet for the alfajor site her group had found, and then we decided to give it a go ourselves. When I suggested this, Alyssa was thrilled, so off we went to the store, and we spent the afternoon (and the next morning) baking.

Having found several recipes, we wound up, for reasons I cannot now explain—nor can I now even find the recipe—using one that suggested making dulce de leche from evaporated milk. The recipes I found to this end (none of which I can recover currently) involved boiling the milk, in the can, for four hours. While this seems simple enough, it is actually a taxing project, since you have to continuously monitor the pots to ensure there is enough water that the cans don’t explode (we popped a hole in the top of the can, which helped, but then meant we had to take care that water didn’t hit the top).

My brother, who was visiting, got impatient and opened one can before it was quite time, meaning we had to pour the almost dulce de leche into a pan, then place that pan in a pan of water, and stick it in the oven for another hour (yet another recipe I can’t seem to find). All in all, the dulce de leche took nearly five hours to make. But in the end it was delicious.

The cookies, on the other hand, were a bit of a flop. I didn’t roll them thin enough, so making a sandwich was tough. We settled for slathering dulce de leche on individual cookies, which the kids loved, but it was incredibly messy. In all, though, Alyssa was happy, and I was happy, both because I had found another alfajor lover and because I had passed down yet another happy moment of traveling. As for the cookies, I’m still perfecting them.

We used this recipe for the cookies, and it was good, though a little on the dry side.





Ode to the Alfajor

11 03 2008

With Easter two weeks away and me still not eating sweets (ok, a few bites of cake to celebrate my friend Lauren’s birthday, but really we should have celebrated it in December so I’ll say I ate the cake then?), I find myself dreaming of alfajores…

I’m not actually going to write an ode as I’ve never been much of a poet. But if anyone out there has a deep inclination to pen some long-winded verse about what may be the most delicious cookie of all time, I would gladly read it, and post it to my blog, and proclaim it to all I meet. Ok, perhaps not that last, but I do feel very passionately about the alfajor, so anything is possible.

What exactly is an alfajor? Well, it is the reason, for one, that I had to give up sweets for Lent in the first place (Lent conveniently starting for me exactly one week after Ash Wednesday, otherwise known as the day I left Argentina, land of the alfajor). More importantly, however, it is a cookie, made up of layered cookies with a dulce de leche filling. For more on dulce de leche or where to buy it, see my earlier post on it.

In Northern Argentina, the cookies are often of a harder or flakier nature and usually topped with powdered sugar. In Buenos Aires and surrounding areas it is more often a biscuit, sometimes surrounded by a meringue coating, though I prefer those that are dipped in white or dark chocolate. Then of course there is the triple layer alfajores, with dulce de leche as one layer and vanilla or chocolate cream as the other. Needless to say, I tended to eat at least one alfajor a day (hence my subsequent Lenten sacrifice). The real miracle is that even after stuffing myself with alfajores for a month, I’m still dreaming of them. But it’s not so miraculous when you consider that eating one is an experience that might be tantamount to heaven.

And in writing this post I discovered I’m not the only one addicted to the alfajor. A list of some of the alfajor love I found simply by googling the word:

  • An Alfajor blog post on mattbites, by a fellow travel writer and gifted photographer. Matt shares my obsession with alfajores, and he even gives a recipe and some gorgeous photos of the cookies.
  • An entire conversation on yahoo answers centered around one of life’s biggest questions: “What is your favorite alfajor?”
  • And just this morning I found an actual Ode to an Alfajor (though she used the name without writing an ode either; at least great minds think alike).

All this alfajor love aside, though, the supply of alfajores in Argentina is endless, so choosing the right one requires much experimentation or a little bit of knowledge. Luckily, I am now a self-proclaimed alfajor expert, willing pass my knowledge along with a few tips for alfajor tasting:

  1. You can rarely go wrong with the homemade alfajores of a sweet shop or market. They are fresh and almost always have a little too much (which is precisely the right amount) dulce de leche.
  2. When the alfajor emergency arises, head to the nearest kiosko (which is bound to be less than a block away) where the shelves overflow with various prepackaged alfajores. Beware, however, not all brands make a good one. I recommend Milka or Aguila.
  3. Then of course there is Havanna, which is an experience that will one of these days warrant a post all its own. For now, suffice to say that the beloved coffee shops are all over Buenos Aires and in many other cities, and their alfajores may just change your life.
  4. Finally, if your mouth is watering but you’re not going to Argentina any time soon, there is always the option of ordering online (something I’m contemplating once Lent is over).




Sweet of…Sweets

25 02 2008

Dulce de leche. The literal translation is “sweet of milk.” It is exactly that in Guys and Dolls, when gambler Sky (Marlon Brando) convinces the cold “missionary doll” to join him for dinner in Havana, Cuba and tricks her into a drinking a cocktail  (or several) by that name by saying it’s a milkshake with a little rum. (Okay, so I have a small addiction to old musicals.) It is also, I learned today, a somewhat bizarre Florida-based men’s clothing line.

But, more importantly, in Argentina, it is a caramel concoction so delicious it has its own legend. Today dulce de leche is an Argentine staple, used in everything from pastries to ice cream (and we’re not talking the Häagen-Dazs version folks). It is even a breakfast food, to be spread on bread as the Italians do with Nutella.

What makes this caramel so special? The answer is unclear, save that there is something about the golden, sweet stuff that makes it nothing short of addictive. Something about its chemical balance is such that it required this particular writer to eat her weight in it while traveling, enough to make her give up sweets for Lent (Lent conveniently starting exactly one week after Ash Wednesday, when she was safe at home, out of DDL territory). It is, in short, a little bit of heaven on earth.

Lessons learned:
1) While traveling in Argentina, scope out the corner pastry shop and visit it (and any others you happen to see) often. This is especially key when entering a new unexplored province where the regional DDL treats will be change.

2) If having DDL withdrawals at home (and if it isn’t Lent, or you haven’t given up sweets), try making it yourself.

3) If you can’t cook, or you’re too lazy to cook, put down the Häagen-Dazs and stock up on the real thing online.