I first visited Melbourne’s Argentinian restaurant, San Telmo, about a year ago. So, before I recently returned to celebrate a friend’s birthday, I reflected on my initial meal. Prominent my memory was the alfajor (alfa-hor) cookie which we divided into five sweet morsels and devoured after our meal between sips of strong espresso. It was the first moment of silence for the evening. It is perhaps unusual that this little biscuit’s finale stole the show, given that San Telmo is adorned by a hand-made 2.5m parilla charcoal-grill.
For these biscuits, a thick spread of silky dulce de leche* (‘dool-seh de letch-eh’) is sandwiched between two pieces of soft, crumbly shortbread. The shortbread is rich and speckled with coconut and hints of lemon zest. It is not too sweet, however, which allows the soft caramel to sing. And that is it. Two components on a little island of deliciousness. The sultry South American cousin of the humble elevenses shortbread.
I wonder why cupcakes and macarons have caused such a flux, whilst these delights, on offer by street vendors across South America, have escaped unnoticed?
They are simple to make. Do not be intimidated, and revert to your ol’ faithful flourless chocolate cake, if you struggle to even pronounce ‘dulce de leche’ or ‘alfajores’, (let’s be honest, the pronunciation is bound to be butchered by an Aussie accent). Rest assured that the method I use for making dulce de leche verges on embarrassingly simple. Essentially, a tray of sweetened condensed milk is placed in a larger tray of water, covered tightly with foil, left in the oven for about an hour, and then stirred it until the caramel is smooth.
Dulce de leche is used in a variety of desserts, and I am reasonably confident it could make cardboard palatable. Alternatively, you could team it with vanilla ice-cream and salted peanuts, a dark chocolate tart or fresh berries.
I had an Alfajore at San Telmo on my second visit, and I will not be waiting another year to have these beauties again.
* Dulce de leche is a sweet, silky milk caramel, which is used in a variety of desserts in South America. Made from scratch it involves reducing milk, sugar and vanilla. Different countries have their own take on it. For example, a Mexican version called cajeta is made from goat’s milk, and in Puerto Rico dulce de leche is sometimes made with unsweetened coconut milk.
For the dulce de leche you will need:
- 1 can sweetened condensed milk
- Pinch of sea-salt.
For the biscuits you will need:
- 1 cup corn flour
- 3/4 plain flour (and extra for dusting)
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup butter at room temperature
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup desiccated coconut (extra for dusting)
- 2 egg yolks
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
First get the dulce de leche going:
- Pour the sweetened condensed milk into a heat-proof tray with a pinch of sea salt and cover it tightly with foil.
- Place the tray into a larger tray and fill the larger tray with water. The water should reach half the height of the smaller tray (but not seep in)
- Place into the oven and bake for an hour and a half at 200 degrees Celsius. Check on it after an hour. Remove the tray when the milk has thickened and achieved a rich caramel colour.
Next, the biscuits (while the dulce de leche is baking):
- Add the butter and sugar in a mixing bowl and beat until fluffy. Mix in the egg yolks and vanilla.
- Next, carefully add the flour, corn flour, salt, baking powder and soda and mix until just incorporated.
- Turn the dough on to some plastic wrap, and place it into the freezer for about ten minutes, or until the dough is firm. (This makes it easier to work with).
- Remove the dough from the freezer, unwrap it, and place it on a lightly floured bench. Roll out the dough to half a centimetre in thickness.
- Cut out approximately 30 rounds with a round biscuit cutter until all of the dough is used. (Alternatively, you could of course make them bite-sized or big and bold dessert sized).
- Place the cookies on baking trays lined with baking paper. Bake them at 180 degrees for around 10 minutes (or until just starting to brown).
- Cool the biscuits completely. Once cooled, spread half of the biscuits with a tablespoon or two of the dulce de leche. Place a second cookie on top and gently press together. Repeat until you have used all of the biscuits. Dust with coconut and icing sugar.