Alfa-whatsits? …and a small Mom’s Day tribute

IMG_1097BSMbanner_baked-150If you’ve never heard of alfajores before, chances are, you’re definitely not alone.  They didn’t cross my radar until probably a couple of years ago when I started pursuing baking more fervently and began amassing so many baking books for my collection.  In a couple of these books, I began to notice recipes for alfajores popping up – and if you’re a fan of caramel like I am, they’re a pretty welcoming prospect.

This week’s Baked Sunday Mornings selection is, of course, Alfajores from Baked Elements. The alfajor is a cookie of Spanish and/or Latin American origin, according to Wikipedia, and is often made in many different forms, but originated as a cylindrical cookie combining flour, honey, almonds and a mix of spices, specifically cinnamon.  Baked’s version is a little more simple, pairing a light, shortbread-like cookie with a rich, creamy dulce de leche caramel filling.  Sounded tempting to me!

The dough for the cookies came together fairly simply and uses pretty traditional sugar cookie-like ingredients – nothing unique or outlandish here.  I was intrigued by the inclusion of an entire cup of cornstarch, which is quite a lot!  After baking off the cookies, I can only surmise that the cornstarch accounts for the light, crumbly, almost powdery crumb and texture of the resulting cookie.  Instead of spices for flavoring, Baked adds a splash of rum (the recipe calls for 2 tablespoons light rum; I had to use dark, which is all I had), vanilla, and the zest of one lemon.  Lemon and rum?  Hmmmm… seemed like an odd combination to me, despite the fact that citrus (lime) and rum are deliciously paired in one of my favorite cocktails: the mojito.

The dough is wrapped tightly with plastic wrap and chilled for about 1.5 hours, than taken out and rolled.  I’m always thrilled when a dough is neither too sticky or too dry and crumbly when pressed under a rolling pin, and happily, I found that this dough was wonderful to work with.  After cutting them out with a 2-inch round cutter, the cookie rounds are chilled or a few more minutes on parchment-lined cookie sheets before being popped in the oven and baked until set and barely beginning to turn golden.

Now – the dulce de leche.  This was truly the most arduous part… and you know me, I’m not about to use pre-made.  If the option is there to make my own, I seize the challenge.  I opted to make my own dulce de leche for the filling following Baked’s recipe, also provided in Baked Elements.

IMG_1092Let it here be said: I am NOT a patient baker by ANY stretch of the imagination, and this has proven to be my ultimate downfall on far too many sad occasions.  Baked recommends using one of three methods for making the dulce de leche: 1.) On the stovetop, cooking sweetened condensed milk slowly for several hours over simmering water (which I have done before), 2.) Heating up the sweetened condensed milk in the microwave, alternating heat levels and taking significantly less time (but still quite a bit, for microwave cooking – up to about 22 minutes), or 3) In the oven, baking the sweetened condensed milk in a pie plate immersed in a water bath at a high heat for a a long period of time (about an hour or a little more).  Impatient to get these delectable alfajores going – well, you can guess which method I chose: the microwave.

First of all, thank heavens I bought two extra cans of sweetened condensed milk.  Believing my old little microwave to be relatively low wattage, I stirred together the 2 cans of milk with the salt, tossed it all into the microwave and let it roll – walking away from it for a bit – at FULL power.  BIG mistake.  The recipe advises warming the milk first for about 4 minutes at 50% power, stirring it vigorously, then continuing to cook the mixture for about 12 to 18 minutes at 30%, taking it out and stirring it every 2 minutes until caramelized, thick, and golden.

I stepped back into my kitchen to check on the progress, only to find that the milk had bubbled up and over the sides of the glass batter bowl I was cooking it in, puddling up and over the rotating plate of the microwave as well.  What a sticky, crazy mess!  After I thoroughly cleaned the microwave up and dumped the mess down the drain, I grabbed my extra two cans of sweetened condensed milk and proceeded to follow Baked’s directions to a T.  I wanted to again attempt the microwave method as, despite the mess, I did note that the boiled-over milk had begun to thicken considerably – just what I wanted, so something was on its way to working.  “Low and slow” definitely seems to be the key mantra for making dulce de leche.

As it turned out, because I do have a somewhat lower-wattage microwave oven, it took almost 30-35 minutes for my dulce de leche to thicken up and caramelize.  I diligently removed the bowl from the microwave every two minutes and whisked it down (you may want to have a book or your smartphone nearby to keep you occupied!).  Keep an eye on it throughout the cooking process – it does bubble up and threaten to overflow; plus, the bowl gets super-hot.  The color of my dulce de leche was a medium caramel brown and not as golden brown as Baked’s in the photo of their alfajores in the book, but it tasted right and I figured it had cooked enough.

IMG_1106Sadly, these cookies fell flat, overall.  I found the cookie rather dry and dull, and the competing flavors from the rum and lemon zest just didn’t jive for me.  The dulce de leche I had labored so intensively over with my darn microwave needed to be worked with quickly, as the more it cooled, the faster it turned into hard, chewy caramel.  Harsh, cruel fact – I had overcooked it.  This made the cookies difficult to assemble, as the (very hot) caramel stuck to the knife and refused to smear onto the cookie halves.  I ended up plopping small balls of the sticky caramel onto the cookies, sandwiching the cookie halves together, gently smearing and pressing the caramel out between them while hoping and praying the pressure from my fingertips wouldn’t crack the already crumbly, delicate cookies.  Finally, once I tasted them, I thought, “meh”.  In other words, a lot of work and fuss for a rather boring result.  Disappointing.

The flavor did vastly improve when accompanied by a strong cup of black coffee, as IMG_1104recommended to me by a high school Spanish teacher/friend of mine when I mentioned my alfajor debacle and disappointment on Facebook (thank you, Laurie Clarcq)!  Please notice that I couldn’t resist snapping a photo of my alfajor next to my coffee mug from one of the coolest bakeries I know!  As I’ve mentioned in blogs before, sometimes coffee truly heightens and expands the flavors of certain baked goods, and I definitely found that to be the case with these.  I find myself still, overall, displeased with the crumbly, dry consistency of the cookie – I prefer cookies dense, soft, and/or chewy.  In this case, the only chewy texture came from the caramel center; indeed, I hesitate to refer to it anymore as dulce de leche filling!

Were I to make Baked’s alfajores again, I think I would eliminate the rum (maybe substitute a small bit of milk to keep the consistency right), and use a good jarred or canned, pre-made dulce de leche I am familiar with and trust will work more efficiently and smoothly, instead of attempting my own and risking the frustration.  I have access here, in the Milwaukee area, to several excellent Mexican groceries where I am sure I could locate a quality, authentic dulce de leche, and I wish I had the foresight to look into this when I made these.  As for this first go-round, I believe my efforts – as a baker – were valiant, but sometimes, you just gotta surrender!  If you would like to attempt making the alfajores yourself, here is the link:

Alfajores

…and I would strongly suggest you look for a good, pre-made, creamy-smooth, spreadable dulce de leche (preferably all-natural) and skip the hassle of making your own.  If you’re daring and wish to try Baked’s recipe for homemade dulce de leche, let me know in the comments below or by shooting me an email at neufangleddesserts@gmail.com, and I will either email you back with the recipe and instructions or – if I get enough requests – post it in the comments below or in a future blog.

Alfajor disaster aside, new baking adventures await.  Onwards and upwards!

And finally, a very HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY today to my fellow bakers who are moms… and to my readers out there who are mothers as well!  I hope you enjoy a wonderful, relaxing day.  I would like to pay special tribute to my own mother, who I love with all of my heart… and to my dear, late grandmothers, who ignited the spark for the love of baking in me and continue to be my inspirations in the kitchen today. I miss them every single day.  I hope they’re looking down and smiling at me as I putter away with pies, cookies, and cakes in my own kitchen.   It’s all about carrying on that vital tradition for me – and how blessed I am to have been raised by such incredible women.  Thank you and much love, Mom, Gram P. and Gram N.  This blog is always an ongoing dedication and homage to you all.

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