It’s a Bueno Thing, Martha!- Alfajores de Dulce de Leche- 69 eggs, 55 3/4 cups of sugar, 53 3/4 sticks of Butter, and 57 1/4 cups of flour used so far- 136 recipes to go!

June 30, 2010


Martha's Alfajores de Dulce de Leche

André's Alfajores de Dulce de Leche

Dulce de Leche is a wonderful ingredient that very few people in North America, outside of the Hispanic population ever use. It’s a shame, really. This is really good stuff. Dulce de Leche is best described as caramelized sweetened milk. Although a pre-made can version is readily available in stores that cater to the Latin community, Martha does include a recipe for making her own. Simply take a can of sweetened condensed milk and simmer it over low heat for EIGHT HOURS stirring every fifteen minutes. Is Martha out of her lavender-scented mind? I just don’t see anyone taking eight hours out of their day to make dulce de leche. I went with the store-brought solution.

Alfajores (pronounced Al-Fa-Yor-Aze) is a name given to just about any simple sandwich cookie across much of Latin America. The origin of the title actually comes from the middle eastern word for “Fancy.” I haven’t a clue as to how the term ended up being used among Spanish speaking nations. I bake cookies. I don’t run the linguistics department at Baylor.

The cookie is very simple and actually quite bland. It’s a simple buttery shortbread with a sprinkling of sanding sugar on top. The dough is rolled and cut out into bite-sized shapes. Once baked to a light golden color and allowed to cool thoroughly, dulce de leche is sandwiched between two of these sandy and crumbly cookies. Alfajores filling is not limited to dulce de leche. They can be filled with jams or jellies, creams, frostings, pastes, or whatever floats your boat. Just remember that the word, alfajores, means fancy, so be choosy with your filling selection.

How do they taste? I sent my partner, Dan to his workplace with three dozen of these treats in tow. Apparently his manager and many coworkers  thought they were amazing. My reaction was not as strong. I found them to be fairly blasé and wasn’t crazy about the sandy texture combined with the gooey caramel filling. I’m not saying they were bad. Far from it. They are attractive little cookies. There’s an expression in the culinary world that says we eat with our eyes first, so presentation is key, but ultimately I didn’t feel like they delivered on the taste and flavor these cookies visually promise.

I am ashamed to admit I know very little Spanish. I’ve lived in heavily hispanic neighborhoods in New York, Florida, and Texas but never had the initiative to learn very much. Most of my Spanish is simple and functional. I know how to order a chicken salad sandwich and how to cuss someone out while driving on the interstate.

My first deep exposure to the Hispanic culture came in 1994 when I moved to Dallas, TX to work as a director for the Dallas Children’s Theatre. It was a bold move, but I felt if I stayed in Baton Rouge for any extended length of time, my brain would start to fester. Well, that- and my boyfriend at the time was a raging alcoholic whom I just couldn’t seem to shake free from. It’s never a good idea to run away when there’s not much to run towards but I was young and stupid.

I had just enough money to rent a U-Haul and put the deposit and first month’s rent down on a small apartment near the theatre. I had called an apartment finder service in Dallas to locate a dwelling in that area and signed a lease on my new home sight unseen. Again, I was young and foolish.

When I finally showed up in Dallas in the wee hours of the morning, I couldn’t help but notice there were a lot of people milling about on the street. Men mostly. All wearing tank tops. Many were walking small dogs. My apartment was right in the middle of the largest gay neighborhood in Dallas!

I was now the resident of a community of Southern gay men. Truman Capote once said that Southern fags are meaner than rattlesnakes, and while I disapprove of his terminology, I can say from experience that his assessment was accurate. Everyone knew everyone. Everyone knew everyone’s private secrets. In my first week I learned the intimate details of just about everyone living in the building. Chuck was a coke-head. Frank beat his boyfriend. Marvin likes S&M, B&D and just lost his job at the A&P.

Most of this information came from my neighbor, Charlotte. She was a septuagenarian who occupied the corner flat of the complex. A petite woman, Charlotte stood crookedly just at five feet. Her pale and haggard face was framed by large, molded, blue-gray, Texan hair. She wore polyester pants with the waist pulled well above her distended abdomen. Her drooping breasts dangled free of support inside her sleeveless tops, each flopping over her waistband like fleshy suspenders. She had worked for years with the Dallas opera in administration and was enamored by all things musical. This was the topic that bonded Charlotte and me.

Charlotte loved her opera. Charlotte loved her wine. Charlotte loved her “Boys,” as she referred to all the men in the complex. And Charlotte loved to gossip. I made it a point to never reveal too much about myself to her lest it come back to haunt me a week later.

Maria Callas was Charlotte’s favorite singer and a prominent figure in her life. Among Charlotte’s duties at the Dallas Opera, Charlotte was responsible for drawing up contracts and acting as a personal assistant to the visiting celebrity performers. Maria Callas performed regularly at the Dallas Opera and Charlotte and she built quite a kinship. Charlotte’s withered face would light up as she spoke of Maria, ranting about her performances, the meals they had enjoyed together, and private, secret stories Maria shared with her. As the evening waned, Charlotte’s joy would slowly transition to wine-soaked tears.

Maria Callas died at the age of 53 in 1977. The latter part of Maria’s life was filled with scandal and speculation. Public adulterous affairs, courtroom battles, reports of tantrums and other abuses plagued Maria throughout her final decade. Charlotte hated those stories. “Lies! All lies! She was a lady. The last of her kind!” – Charlotte would fume pressing her empty wine glass to her lips.

I enjoyed my time with Charlotte. She was fundamentally like many of the elderly people I have known- lonely, scared, and deeply nostalgic. There was something so very melancholic about her, like she was slowly playing out the final act in her own tragic opera.

I try to make it a point to stay connected to the people who have shared their lives with me. During a business trip to Dallas, ten years ago, I took a detour through my old neighborhood. I stopped in front of her door. I was worried that if I knocked, the door would open to reveal a total stranger now living in the flat. I paused. From behind the door I heard a strain of classical strings swell as the diva, Maria Callas belted forth a pure and beautiful refrain. I knew Charlotte was still there- still here.

I knocked and she answered. She was so happy to see me, almost as much as I was to see her. We sat down for a glass of wine and listen to a little music.

Charlotte confided in me that she had not been well. She had developed colon cancer. Charlotte was in her eighties and had come to terms with the fact that she was not much longer for this world. “I’m ready. I’m looking forward to it.”- she chuckled. She paused and looked at me with sad, longing, icy-blue eyes. She whispered- “I’ll get to hear Maria perform again. It’s been too long.”

A month later, I received a phone call from her nephew. Charlotte had passed peacefully in her sleep.

I sent a bouquet to her funeral with the simple note-

“Ciao, Charlotte. Enjoy the opera.”

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5 Responses to “It’s a Bueno Thing, Martha!- Alfajores de Dulce de Leche- 69 eggs, 55 3/4 cups of sugar, 53 3/4 sticks of Butter, and 57 1/4 cups of flour used so far- 136 recipes to go!”

  1. Robert Says:

    André, yet another batch of wonderful cookies and another beautiful, well told story. You brought a tear to my eye at the end. Keep it up, my friend!

    Alfajores came from southern Spain. For about 700 years the Moors (Arabs)occupied most of the Iberian peninsula with a stronger hold in the south. al-Andalus it was called. It was one of the richest periods in the history of Spain. There are remnants of the Arabic influence all over in surviving architecture, recipes, and in the Spanish language itself. The words azúcar (sugar) and the term ojalá (I hope so – or God willing)are carry overs. I´m sure that´s how the term alfajor came into Spanish. It´s rare my Spanish major pays off. Thanks for the opportunity.

    I look forward to the day you stop by my door and we can sit and have a glass of wine! Please don´t wait until I´m in my 80s with colon cancer.

    Ciao, bello! Bacci!
    Roberto


    • Robert-

      I’m so glad you responded to this post and used your knowledge to fill in the gaps around terminology. I hope Dan and I can get out to MA at some point and spend a little time getting caught up. Ciao to you also, bello!

  2. Monica Says:

    I love Martha & I love your blog – two very good things! I started following when I read your elephant story on the peta2 website. You’re a wonderful storyteller – I’m definitely looking forward to future posts.
    Take Care & Happy Baking! :o)

  3. Juli Says:

    The “Mexican” Spanish term for the dulce de leche is cajeta- we buy it in jars here (I’ll bring some next time I’m up) and we eats it for breakfast on toast (lol!) or on warm corn tortillas. Yum.
    I will also have to tell you a funny story about Enrique’s visit to Argentina and the whole we call it dulce you call it cajeta thing that happened.
    Oh…and…LOVED this story- as always. RIP Charlotte.


  4. Alfajores (recipe included)…

    We found your entry interesting so have added a Trackback to it on the Inner West Live weblog :)…


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