Last Friday we had a fundraising morning tea in the office, supporting the National Hard Hat day campaign, which is organised by the Property Industry Foundation. The office manager asked who would be willing to help with the baking and, of course, I raised my electronic hand (ie, replied to her email).
When trying to decide what to bake, many things came to mind, but most of them were discarded for being too classic. I thought that other people would be baking stuff, too, so banana bread, carrot cake, choc chip muffins/cookies, brownies, etc., would all be covered. I also thought that probably all things would be sweet so it would be a good idea to bring something savoury, too.
My decision deadline was on Wednesday afternoon (I have to set deadlines because otherwise I keep checking recipes from different sources, planning, etc. and not working). I settled with a zucchini & cheddar muffin recipe I have had in my recipe file for a while and alfajores*. As I wrote in a previous post, alfajores are a typical Peruvian biscuit sandwich. The biscuits are made with cornflour, flour, butter and icing sugar and the filling is manjarblanco (aka dulce de leche or caramel).
We’re not the only South American country that makes alfajores, because of this and their name (words starting with “al” were usually imported from Arabic to Spanish) I suspect they are one of the many foods that the Spanish conquerors brought with them to America in the fifteenth century. Sure, they killed lots of aboriginal people, destroyed our cultures, imposed their religion and stole our gold, but their influence in our cuisines almost outweights all of that (of course it doesn’t, but I’m a bit obsessed with food as you can tell).
Argentina makes excellent alfajores too, the artisan ones are in my opinion the best (Vacanita used to be my favourite brand but I think it’s no longer around). The difference with Peruvian ones is that they have less cornflour and lots of egg yolks, resulting in a moister consistency. The biscuits and filling layer are thicker, too. On the other hand, commercial alfajores (Havanna is the biggest brand, they even have cafes in several countries) have a drier and tougher texture, which I don’t like at all. I know there are some places in Sydney where you can buy alfajores but haven’t tried them yet, I promise I will and post if there are any worth buying. Otherwise, I can make them on demand (Peruvian OR Argentinan style!).
Back to my baking task for the week, I decided to make my own manjarblanco as it tastes more like the real thing than store-bought caramel. Unfortunately, I overcooked it; I blame the combination of my hard-to-adjust electric stove and the new cast iron pot I bought recently. The result was good tasting but not smooth enough for spreading. I tossed it and on Thursday I decided to go the easy way and bought a can of caramel.
I started kneading the dough ingredients until well combined (I used all-purpose unbleached flour + 2 teaspoons of baking powder instead of self-raising flour). Then I put it in the fridge, while I prepared the zucchini & cheddar muffins. The muffin tin went into the oven and I had dinner (I was starving at this point because I did all this after going to the gym).
With a full belly and more relaxed, I took the dough off the fridge and started to flatten it in small batches with a rolling pin. I usually don’t do this on the floured bench, instead I use plastic wrap, which is much cleaner and doesn’t add unnecessary flour to the dough. I prefer to keep the biscuits thin, between 3 and 4 mm. Then I started shaping the biscuits with a 4 cm cookie cutter and placing them on wax paper over a baking tray.
I cooked one tray at a time to avoid getting crazy with two batches of biscuits cooking at different speeds (also, my oven cooks more on the back side, so I have to flip the trays in the middle of the process). I got the remaining dough pieces together and chilled them again for a while before repeating the process.
Biscuits for alfajores have to be watched closely because they cook very fast. As the recipe says, they should be golden, not brown. When they were ready, I put them to cool on a rack.
When I finished with all the batches I started assembling the alfajores, turning carefully one biscuit upside down, putting some caramel on it (I tried with a knife first but the biscuit collapsed, then I used a plastic bag as a pastry piping bag) and closing the sandwich with another biscuit.
The final touch is a generous dusting of icing sugar on top.
I ate the broken biscuits (I swear I didn’t break them on purpose) with leftover caramel and they were really yummy. It was the first time I used Sandra Plevisani’s recipe (she’s a Peruvian celebrity pastry chef) and I think I’ll stick to it in the future (the translated recipe is below).
I didn’t try any of the zucchini & cheddar muffins, so I grabbed one quickly in the morning tea before they were gone. It was really soft and tasty. I think the recipe could be easily adapted with other savoury ingredients. The alfajores were a big hit. Some people were reluctant to try them at first but after one person ate one and said it was really good, almost everybody else tried (and liked) them.
Alfajores de maicena (cornflour alfajores)
Yield: 40 units
From Sandra Plevisani’s Dulces Ideas, published by Nestlé Perú.
1 cup self-raising flour
1 cup cornflour
225 grams unsalted butter at room temperature
6 tablespoons icing sugar
1 can evaporated milk
1 can condensed milk
Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C).
Knead all the ingredients and chill dough for 30 minutes. Roll dough out on a floured countertop.
With a cookie cutter, cut circles and put them on a buttered and floured baking tray (or lined with a silicone baking mat).
Bake in the oven until golden (not brown).
Let cool down and store in a tin or airtight container until ready for use. Fill with manjarblanco and dust with icing sugar.
Mix the milks in a heavy-bottomed pot and cook in low heat for around one hour. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon until you can see the bottom of the pot. Let cool down before filling the alfajores.
* The explanation about alfajores can be found here.