What Are Alfajores? Your Guide to the South American Treat
We all love a good cookie, and if you’re like us, you’re constantly looking for new treats to try. What if we told you there’s a pastry that has creamy dulce de leche sandwiched between melt-in-your-mouth crumbly cookies? And what if we said this cookie has also been an important part of South American culture for centuries?
Alfajores are more than just a delicious treat – they’re also packed with a rich cultural heritage. Read on to learn more about these cookies, the varieties they come in, and how you can make them at home.
What Are Alfajores?
Alfajores are a wonderful South American dessert that features two melt-in-your-mouth cookies with dulce de leche sandwiched in between them. They are, according to the Huffington Post, “the best cookie you’ve never heard of” and they are enormously popular around the world. There are restaurant chains whose only product is these cookies, and they have recently begun to find a foothold in the rest of the world.
Alfajores have a long history starting in the East before making their way west to Spain and then to South America. There are different variations from different cultural regions and tons of stuffing options. And if you don’t have an alfajores restaurant nearby, you can make these delicious recipes at home!
The word “alfajores” may sound Spanish, but it actually has its origins in Arabic. The name may be derived from an old Arabic word, al-fakhor, which means luxurious or excellent. Many sources believe it may have come from al-hasu, meaning “filled” or alfahua, meaning “honeycomb.”
No matter what the origin, the cookies came to be known as “alaju” by the time the Moors made their way to Spain. The word got transliterated to “alfajor” there. By the time the Spanish began exploring South America, we had the treat “alfajores” that we know and love today.
The History of Alfajores
As the etymology suggests, alfajores originated in Spain during the Moorish Invasion, a time in the 700s when nomadic tribes from North Africa brought Islamic religion and culture to the West. They may have started as long, thin cylinders of ground almonds with larger almond pieces rolled into it. They may also have started as flat pie-like pastries with thin sheets of dough on the top and bottom and filled with the same almond mixture.
Alfajores, or the ancestors of them, started showing up in Spanish cuisine in the 1600s. This was at the height of the Spanish colonization, so it wasn’t long before the cookies made their way to the Americas. Historians believe a Spanish friar brought the dish with him to Peru in 1668.
Once they got a foothold in the West, alfajores began to spread and change. They became the sandwich cookies we know today, and bakers across South America began to experiment with different fillings. Today, the cookies have found home primarily in Argentina.
Where Alfajores Are Eaten
Alfajores can be found all over the world, from Spain, where they still resemble the flat pie-like pastries of the 17th century, to much of South America. Argentina forms the largest center of alfajores consumption today, where you can find them at every kiosko (kiosk) and panaderia (bakery).
The Argentinians eat alfajores at any time of the day, whether that be as a breakfast pastry, a snack with coffee or an evening treat. Different regions offer different specialties, which we’ll delve into more later. Buenos Ares alfajores tend to focus more on the dulce de leche fillings, while Cordoba features more fruit.
Other than the dulce de leche, a sweet milk-based caramel sauce, the thing that defines alfajores is the corn starch. The cookie dough contains almost equal parts corn starch, butter, and flour. This leaves an almost shortbread-like dough that melts in your mouth when you bite into it.
Some varieties of alfajores will also come rolled in coconut, which is a wonderful addition. This adds a little crunch and cuts the overwhelming sweetness of the cookie and the rich dulce de leche. Many bakers will also use egg yolks rather than whole eggs to make their cookies even more tender.
If you’re making alfajores, there are a few tips you should keep in mind. When you’re mixing up the dough, try to only mix it for long enough to get the dough to stick together; any longer and the cookies will get tough. It’s also very important to chill the dough to get the cookies to the right consistency.
How to Make Them
When you’re making alfajores, you’re going to start by mixing together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and baking soda. From there, in a stand mixer, combine butter, sugar, and lemon zest until they’re light and fluffy. Add your eggs and vanilla extract for just long enough to get them mixed in.
Once you’ve got all the wet ingredients combined, it’s time for the delicate part. Add in the flour mixture, but be careful not to overwork the dough. Mix it in just long enough to make one cohesive dough that will stick together.
Roll the dough into a ball, squish it a little to form a disk, wrap it in plastic wrap, and put it in the fridge. You need to leave it there for at least an hour or two to chill, so maybe get a cup of tea while you wait. You can also refrigerate it for up to three days if you like or freeze it for up to a month.
Once the dough is chilled, let it soften on the counter for a few minutes and then roll it out to about a quarter of an inch thick. Use a round cookie cutter or a small glass to cut two-inch rounds out of the dough. Reroll the scraps until you’ve used all the dough, putting it back in the fridge to chill as needed.
After you’ve cut all the cookies, let them chill in the fridge for at least fifteen minutes. Bake them at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about ten minutes, or until they appear golden brown at the edges. Then let them cool completely on a wire rack.
Once the cookies have cooled, spread the bottom half of the cookies with about a teaspoon of dulce de leche. Sandwich the cookies together with the dulce de leche in the middle, and roll the edges in shredded coconut. You can store the cookies at room temperature for about a week or in the freezer for up to two months.
Alfajores Filling Options
Depending on the region you’re in, alfajores can come with a variety of different fillings. In addition to dulce de leche, you may find alfajores stuffed with dulce de camote, a sweet potato-based caramel. You might also see marmalade or honey used as the filling for these.
In Cordoba, bakers will put a fruit mixture in between layers of dulce de leche to brighten up the rich heaviness of the caramel. Some bakers in other areas will do a triple-stack option where they add a third sandwich cookie in the middle of layers of dulce de leche or pineapple jam. Other bakers stuff their alfajores with chocolate mousse or cream.
Different Types of Alfajores
In addition to different fillings, you may find a wide variety of alfajores in different regions of South America. Alfajores blancos y negros are dipped in dark chocolate on one side and white chocolate in the other and are popular in Argentina and Uruguay. Alfajores de miel are Peruvian variation filled with a sticky, anise-flavored syrup.
You may see different sized alfajores, ranging from little thumbprint cookies to as big as your hand. They may be topped with a meringue coating or a sugar glaze. You can even find them beautifully decorated in certain areas.
Popular Alfajores Brands
Alfajores brands are as huge a deal in South America as snack brands in the U.S. The Jorgito brand is one of the most popular and is the brand most Argentinians grew up eating. Havanna is another popular brand that makes for a great souvenir for tourists.
Chacafaz is considered the premium brand these days and is also one of the most expensive. Milka Mousse offers a triple-decker option with mousse filling and a chocolate coating. And Terrabusi Glaseado offers the only white sugar glaze option for commercial alfajores.
Discover More Delicious Treats
Alfajores are a South American treat with a long history and a rich culture. Besides the fact that they’re downright delicious, they have been a part of South American culture since the height of the Spanish Colonization. Try one of the popular alfajores brands or make your own at home today!
If you’d like to discover more delicious South American treats, check out the rest of our website at Matero. We offer yerba mate, a drink that has been a part of South American culture for as long as alfajores. Check out our yerba mate offerings today to steep yourself in the rich culture and delicious drink.