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Well, hello there, strangers.  Long time no see!

While I was off in my start-of-the-year teaching crunch, which left me no evenings or weekends free to blog, I understand we had the 100th anniversary of America’s favorite sandwich cookie.  I can appreciate the basic charms of the Oreo as much as anybody, and when I was a teenager in Mexico I was obsessed with them, because this everyday All-American snack couldn’t be had by anyone not affiliated with the US Embassy and thus, they were the perfect symbol for my expatriate adolescent angst. I would insist on my father bringing as many packages as he could from his business trips back to the home office, just so I could feel “normal” for the few days they lasted.

But that phase is mercifully in my past now, and as a grown-up I can also look critically at the little hockey pucks and acknowledge the fact that they’re not really all they’re cracked up to be, which is why I’m going to make up for my latest intermittent silence with a recipe for what I think is the best sandwich cookie in the world.

Alfajores are to Argentina what the chocolate chip cookie is to the U.S.  They’re ubiquitous and can be found in iterations from the mass-produced, individually-wrapped Hostess-equivalent kinds purchasable at the convenience store to the high-end boutique variety in beribboned boxes. When I was growing up and into my adulthood, every relative who visited was expected to bring us at least one box of my personal favorite brand. (Are we sensing a theme about international cookie commissioning by me as a kid?  I was way ahead of the curve on free trade.)

So what are alfajores?  Well, besides being sadly unknown in this hemisphere, confusing to pronounce (all-fah-hor-es) and what I think should replace the macaron as the next fad, they’re shortbready disks faintly hinting at lemon pressed around a layer of dulce de leche, although you can also find fruit-filled ones.  The commercial kind are generally enrobed in either a crackly, powdery sugar glaze or a smooth semisweet chocolate one, which is wonderful but way too much bother for home baking.  Home bakers instead make an easier but no less delicious version in which the cookies, made with cornstarch (the maizena of the name below) for a perfectly delicate crumb, are filled and rolled in coconut to keep the dulce de leche from sticking to your fingers.

Like the Oreo, this is one of those things that sounds too basic to be all that great, but is actually dangerously addictive instead.  The cookies are buttery and tender and neither too oily nor too soft, the dulce de leche adds just the right amount of sweetness to the not-very-sweet cookies, the hint of citrus makes everything sparkle just the tiniest bit, and it all just really, really works.

If you absolutely insist on chocolate in your sandwich cookies, I still have you covered, because not having enough regular dulce de leche on hand, I made part of the batch with chocolate dulce de leche I picked up on sale at the local Whole Paycheck.  Personally, I remain unconvinced by the chocolate kind, which tastes generically fudgy to me and lacks the lovely milky, caramely flavor I think dulce de leche really ought to put front and center in order to live up to the name.  Man, did my coworkers disagree with me, though, because the chocolate ones were by far the favorites and were gone in a blink.

I also filled some with the hurricane plum jam I previously posted about, which worked so splendidly that I hoarded them at home and took none to work. If you use jam, be sure to use a very firm one so that the cookies don’t ooze apart.  You may need to cook it down a bit if what you have is too runny.

However you fill them, seriously, you have to try these.  The minute you do, I know you too will recognize their undeniable awesomeness.

Alfajores de Maizena
Makes about five dozen small cookies, or 2-3 dozen larger ones

For cookies:
1 ½ cups (200 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 ½ cups (300 grams) cornstarch
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon sea salt
14 tablespoons (200 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
3 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon brandy
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Zest of one medium lemon

For assembly:
One 16-ounce jar dulce de leche or very thick jam
1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut

Preheat oven to 350 F and line three baking sheets with parchment paper.

Sift the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, baking soda and salt through a fine sieve twice, the second time onto a large sheet of parchment or wax paper for easy transfer, and set aside.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar.  Add the yolks one at a time, scraping down between additions. Beat in the brandy, vanilla and lemon zest.

Add the dry ingredients in three batches at low speed, mixing until just combined.  Turn onto a Silpat or the reserved parchment sheet that held the dry ingredients, and gently roll to a thickness of about a quarter of an inch or half a centimeter for thinner cookies, and double that for slightly puffier ones.  (Dust the rolling pin with cornstarch if sticking starts to occur.)

Cut the dough with 1½ to 2-inch diameter round cutters, being as careful as you can to minimize the waste.  Use a bench scraper or spatula to transfer the cookies to the baking sheets, spacing about an inch apart.  Gently pull the scraps together and re-roll to use up all the dough.

Bake the cookies just until firm and barely gold on the bottom.  Do not allow to brown on the top or sides.  Remove to a cooling rack immediately and cool completely.

Once the cookies have cooled, form sandwiches by spreading a teaspoonful of dulce de leche or jam onto the bottom of one cookie, and covering with a second. Squeeze gently, just enough to push the filling out to the edges of the cookies.  Place the coconut in a small, shallow container and roll the edges of the cookies in the coconut to evenly coat the exposed filling.

Store the filled cookies in an airtight container, and consume within the next day or two.

Notes:

Because of the very high proportion of cornstarch to flour, the dough is much more resilient on re-rolling than standard dough, but it’s still a good idea to treat it gently to ensure tender cookies.

This is my mom’s recipe, by the way.  I just did the conversions from metric and put back the coconut, which she hates.  Thanks, Mom!

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