Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Before you know it

Buenos Aires is one of those places that you mention and people automatically envision an exotic, far-flung location, a Belle Epoque Paris in the southern hemisphere, but, you know, in Spanish, and with melodramatic tango music in the background, which only adds to the intrigue. Buenos Aires is many things, and it´s many things to me, positive, negative, and uncategorizable. Living for awhile in any place will always complicate it for you, I think.

Socio-cultural-economic discussions aside (like how on earth Argentines can afford to frequent them as much as they do), Buenos Aires has unequivocally beautiful cafes, remnants from another century, all mirrors and polished wood and formal service. My favorite was Las Violetas, which was only a couple of blocks away from our apartment, though it was definitely an only-on-special-occasions place for us. Though pricey, Las Violetas invariably had a long line of elegantly-dressed people waiting for a table come merienda (tea time). The best thing to order at Las Violetas is the Maria Callas, a silver platter filled to an inch of its life with house-made cakes and tea sandwiches. It will be the undoing 4 people, and it will drive 2 into a sugar coma (don´t ask me why I know this). Then, assuming you don´t live within walking distance, you can go back home on the A line of the subway, the only line that still uses the old wooden trolleys, complete with doors that you yank open while the train is still pulling into the station so you can hop out while it´s still moving.

On a more daily basis, there are cafes on almost every corner, complete with waiters and wooden tables and people drinking demitasses of coffee, gesticulating wildly with their hands while bitching about the government or the last soccer match. Buenos Aires is a place where people take time to have coffee with their friends or children or just with the newspaper. You can stay at your table as long as you like, just don´t expect the waiter to be on call for your every need-- you´re going to have to flag him over, something I hate, hate doing, but it´s often the only way to get their attention away from the newspaper they´re reading at the cafe bar.

When you order your coffee, you´ll be brought your demitasse along with a small tumbler of sparkling water and a few tiny cookies. If you´re lucky, they´ll have brought you alfajores de maizena, or cornstarch alfajores. Alfajores de maizena are the most common kind of alfajores, sold in all bakeries in both jumbo size and bite-size versions. Though I was initially more drawn to the buttery chocolate-dipped manifestation, the alfajores de maizena drew me in slowly, subtely. Crumbly and melt-in-your-mouth delicate, they sneak up on you and are consequently gone before you know it-- and if you´re not careful, so is your afternoon, although sometimes that is exactly the point. 

Alfajores de Maizena

2 1/3 c. (10.5 oz. or 300 g.) cornstarch
scant 1 2/3 c. (7 oz. or 200 g.) all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 sticks + 2 Tbsp. (9 oz. or 250 g.) butter, room temperature
2/3 c. (5.3 oz. or 150 g.) white sugar
3 large egg yolks
1 1/2 Tbsp. cognac or rum
zest of a small lemon
dulce de leche*, homemade or store-bought

Beat the butter with the sugar until smooth. Add the yolks one at a time, beating well in between each addition, then add in the cognac and lemon zest, beating to incorporate them in. 
Sift the cornstarch and flour together, then add the mix to the butter-sugar mixture, stirring just until you can push together a crumbly ball with your hands. Don´t over mix and don´t knead. Wrap with plastic and let rest for 30 min. in the fridge.
Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Flour the counter, then roll out the dough to 1/4 in. Cut 1-in. circles out of the dough, then place them on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone baking liner. Pull the scraps together into a ball and refrigerate them while you make off the first round of cookies. Bake for around 10 min. or less, depending on your oven. Do NOT let them brown on the bottom, don´t even let them turn golden. You want pale, pale cookies. You do need them to be cooked through though, so as soon as they set up in the oven, get them out of there. Repeat with the rest of the dough.
When the cookies have cooled, use a pastry bag or a knife to add dulce de leche to the flat undersides of half of the cookies, then make sandwiches by placing a plain cookie on top, flat underside touching the dulce de leche. These cookies are delicate so store them in neat rows, oreo-style. They will last several days and may get even better after the first day, once the cookies and dulce de leche have had a bit more time to get to know each other. Serve with good, strong coffee.

*In Argentina they sell dulce de leche repostero, meaning dulce de leche for pastries, which is thicker and made either by cooking down the dulce de leche or by adding thickening ingredients such as pureed white beans (!). Dulce de leche repostero allows you to fill pastries/cookies/cakes with an ungodly amount of dulce de leche without it seeping out; I used regular dulce de leche here and was perfectly happy with the amount of dulce de leche in the alfajores.

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