A few years ago, Nico, a Peruvian friend of my daughter’s, stopped by the house at Christmas time with a gift of alfajores he had just baked. I was immediately swooning and asked for the recipe for these buttery cookies layered between caramel. Unfortunately, his mother wanted to keep the recipe within the family, so I was out of luck.
I never forgot how delicious they were, so on my recent trip to Peru, I hoped to find some alfajores as good as Nico’s. Typically covered in powdered sugar, the ones I tasted in Peru fell far short of the crumbly, delicate ones Nico made.
I returned to the states and decided I’d just have to find a recipe for them on my own.
That’s when I remembered the wonderful crust in the Lemon Ricotta crostata I made a while ago from a recipe by Domenica Marchetti. There was leftover dough from that crostata and I used it back then to make cookies stuffed with Nutella. Why not fill them with some homemade caramel instead? Bingo! Alfajores!
Alfajores are enjoyed as a special occasion treat not only in Peru, but in other South American countries as well. In Argentina, the caramel filling is called dulce de leche, but in Peru, it’s manjar blanco. Either way, it’s made the same way, a sweet reduction of milk and sugar.
You can make your own by submerging a can of sweetened condensed milk in simmering water for two to three hours.
After the caramel has cooled, spread a tablespoon or so between the cookies.
They’re sweet enough as is, so I omitted the traditional shower of powdered sugar.
Put out a platter of these and watch them disappear quicker than you can say “dulce de leche.”
Alfajores are only one of the specialty foods you’ll find in Peru. Lima is actually considered the gastronomic capital of South America and with good reason.
Here are a sampling of some of the foods we ate on our recent trip:
croquettes, ceviche, and probecitas (tender beef over rice and beans topped with a quail egg):
Pisco sours and roast pork sandwiches served with pickled red onion:
steak with blueberry sauce:
chicken smothered in a pepper and tomato sauce served with quinoa:
Gelato with flavors not typically found in the U.S. like maracuyà (passion fruit):
Peru is a fascinating country with a rich history and friendly people. From its cities to the ancient site of Machu Picchu to the salt flats of Salineras and the Sacred Valley, the sights, sounds and flavors of Peru left us with unforgettable memories and a strong desire to return and see more.
Hasta la vista.
1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 large whole egg
2 large egg yolks
Make the dough
Put the flour, sugar, salt, and lemon zest in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse briefly to combine. Distribute the butter around the bowl and pulse until the mixture is crumbly. Add the whole egg and egg yolks and process until the mixture just begins to clump together in the work bowl.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and briefly knead it together. Without overworking it, shape the dough into a disk, patting rather than kneading it. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or until well chilled. Cut into thirds, then roll out each third on a wooden or marble surface, dusting the rolling pin and board with flour. Use cookie cutters to cut out discs, then place on a cookie sheet and bake for about 10 minutes at 350 degrees, checking at about eight minutes to make sure they don’t burn.
For the filling:
1 can sweetened condensed milk
Remove label of milk. Submerge the can in water and simmer for two to three hours (depending on dark you like the dulce de leche. I kept it in three hours), making sure there is always at least one inch of water covering the can. Cool and spread between two pieces of baked cookies.
I’ve given you a hint in the title of this post, so you probably already know what you’re looking at in the photo above. They’re not terraces of snow or white marble — they’re thousands of individual pools of salt in Peru’s Urubamba River valley.
Years ago, I’d visited underground salt mines in Austria and felt claustrophobic riding down a wooden slide where the salt was mined. But that felt like child’s play compared to the descent to the salt pans of Salineras, Peru. It was a little too close to the edge for most of the harrowing ride down the valley, but our driver assured me he had done it many times before.
The 6,000 individual salt pans of Salineras de Maras have been mined since Incan times.
Individual salt pans form cascading terraces along a hillside.
They are all family-owned and passed down through generations.
The pools are filled with heavily salted water from a natural spring. The water is diverted into the pans through a series of channels, which can be blocked off, controlling where the water flows.
Once the pan is filled with water, the sun does its job and helps evaporate the water in a few weeks, leaving layers of salt about one meter deep (about 40 inches).
The top layer is used in the leather industry; the middle layer is used for animals and the very bottom, and finest salt layer, is for human consumption. I’m sure many of you have purchased fleur de sel from France for your cooking. In Spanish it’s called “flor de sal” or “flower of salt.”
At Salineras, they sell lots of different kinds of salts, including some flavored with herbs and spices.
I bought several bags, including one type of salt that’s used for medicinal purposes — very useful after my ankle injury on this trip.
I was sidelined at the edge, due to my injury, but my daughter explored, walking carefully along the paths between the salt pans.
When it’s time to harvest the salt, families arrive with shovels and start filling bags with the salt.
Salineras is in a beautiful area of Peru called the “Sacred Valley” — an area of rolling fields and fertile farmland between Cusco and Machu Picchu.
It’s also an area of many ancient Incan sites, all crowned by the magnificent backdrop of the Andes mountains.
One of the most unusual places we visited was Moray. These concentric circles are thought to have been a center for Incan agricultural research, where crops were grown at different levels, and where temperatures changed precipitously from the lowest to the highest terrace.
We also stopped at Chinchero, where there are more Incan ruins and where we got a demonstration on natural dying and weaving from two Quechua women who were spinning baby llama wool.
Most of the colors came from plant material, such as this purple corn:
But one of the colors came from a small beetle that lives on cacti, called the cochineal beetle. It appears to be white, but once it’s scraped off the protective white covering on the cactus and crushed between the fingers, it turns as red as bright lipstick.
The beetles are dried,
Then crushed into powder before mixing with water.
Artists and textile experts have long used the natural dye in their work, and it’s also been used in food coloring for centuries as well as in cosmetics. It fell out of favor for a while, but after some synthetic red food colorings were found to be carcinogenic, the natural cochineal red is making a comeback.
Similarly, Italians produce a liqueur called alkermes, whose intense red color also comes from an insect. The liquid, infused with flavorings like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, is widely used there in baking and as a digestivo.
There are so many more Incan sites to visit in the “Sacred Valley” and we barely scratched the surface.
The people we met were so friendly and warm, we were sorry we couldn’t spend more time there. I hope you get a chance to visit too.
Hasta la vista.