Dulce de leche has become such an established cross-over success – easily made at home or store-bought, found in big brand ice cream and even all-American girl scout cookies - that it’s hard to remember the excitement when it first hit markets. Until the early nineties, it was the once-in-a-while treat my uncle might bring from business trips to Chile or Peru (where it was introduced to us as manjar blanco) or that a Colombian friend shared from home (where it went by arequipe).
Alfajores – small sandwich cookies traditionally filled with dulce de leche then rolled in coconut or powdered sugar – came later. Popular throughout South America, they’re also shaped into large, multi-layered tarts topped with meringue or crushed almonds. A rustic version of the mille-feuille, these sky-high tarts alternately known as alfajor de mil capas or torta de mil hojas can be made from large crumbly crackers or delicate puff pastry.
Using a simple shortbread recipe, this alfajor tart sprinkled with toasted coconut falls somewhere in between. The dough is rolled out into thin, flat discs that, when baked, easily break apart against the dense, caramel filling. Prepared the day ahead, the layers melding together while maintaining crispy edges, it’s no less delicious for being perfectly familiar.
Alfajor de Coco
Yield: One 7-inch tart
The sandy, barely-held together texture of these cookie layers can make them tricky to shape. Rolling them between two sheets of parchment or wax paper so they be easily turned and rotated, then chilling them briefly before they’re transferred to baking sheets, solves this problem.
8 ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups dulce de leche, homemade or store bought (also known as manjarblanco, arequipe)
1/2 cup toasted, shredded coconut
In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the butter and sugar at medium-high speed until it is pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Stir in the vanilla extract.
Combine the flour and salt, add to the creamed butter at once, then stir with a wooden spoon or spatula for a couple of turns. Return to the stand and mix on low speed until the flour is incorporated, do not over mix. Divide the dough into 6 equal pieces, and cover each in plastic wrap. Refrigerate until very firm, at least 2 hours or overnight.
Place one portion of dough between 2 pieces of parchment or wax paper and roll out to a flat disc shape about 1/8-inch thick and 7 inches wide (see cook’s note). Return the rolled discs to the refrigerator between layers of parchment and chill until firm again, 15 to 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper or nonstick liner. Working in batches, place chilled discs on prepared baking sheets (2 per sheet) and set them in the upper and lower oven racks. Bake them for 12 to 14 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through so they color evenly, until lightly golden.
Cool on the baking sheets for 10 minutes before removing to a wire rack. The alfajores will firm up as they cool and should release easily from the liner before transferring.
Place one alfajor on a serving plate and spread evenly with 1/4 cup of dulce de leche. Top with the next alfajor and repeat with remaining layers. Cover top layer with toasted coconut. Serve with extra coconut on the side, whipped cream or ice cream.
Cook’s Note: For more evenly sized discs, draw a 7-inch circle on parchment or wax paper. Use this sheet as a guide when rolling out the discs. Trim the dough as needed and re-roll the scraps into the remaining dough to make more discs.
Ana Sofia Peláez covers the spectrum of Spanish and Latin American cuisine on her blog hungrysofia.com. From the rich smells and flavors of the Cuban food she grew up with to modern Peruvian causas, hearty Brazilian feijodas and delicate Mexican flor de calabaza soup, she’s always looking for her next great meal.