We first met in a Buenos Aires coffee shop: a local Havanna chain on the corner of Santa Fe and Thames. He dressed for the occasion—swallowed up in metallic gold—and bore a distinguished 15-pesos price tag (steep for a little guy). My Argentine roommate gave me no other choice. How had I already stayed here a week without going in for a bite?
Dulce de leche sandwiched between two semi-soft, plain cookies and coated in chocolate: the ultimate sweet tooth fix, and my new obsession, the alfajor.
If Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America, then the alfajor is the Southern Hemisphere’s macaron. Contrasting the French delicacy’s rainbow colors and European prices, Argentine alfajores range from eight pesos (less than a buck) to 30 for an artisanal treat the size of your face. They vary as much as a chocolate chip cookie does in the States. From a stale Chips Ahoy! pack sitting on the gas station shelf to your grandmother’s crispy-on-the-outside-soft-on-the-inside, holy creation neatly layered in a holiday tin, there’s also a certain alfajor appropriate for any day of the year. Walk through any Buenos Aires barrio—upscale Belgrano, too-hip Palermo, or antique San Telmo—and discover alfajores coated in milk or white chocolate, sometimes left naked, rolled around in coconut flakes, fruit-flavored or double-decked like a Big Mac. Across the board, the center almost always remains the same: soft, sticky, and oh-so-sweet dulce de leche.
Busied by a new city, I’d been walking blindly through the Latin American world of snacks. But alfajores aren’t exactly an under-the-radar delicacy. The word alfajor comes from Arabic, while the first cookie sandwich of its kind was born of Moorish influence in 18th century Spain. (Basically, the beautiful result of cross-cultural gastronomy.) By the next century, its popularity spread to South America. Now, they’re a chore to avoid.
Alfajores are dense, so you don’t have to worry about devouring a dozen in one sitting. In typical Argentine style, meriendas come in moderation, so one’s enough to hold you over for the next big meal (with a café con leche, at least). But even if you’re not particularly in the mood for the sticks-to-your-throat kind of cookie, the stockpiles are unavoidable; in cafés, they arrive complimentary with coffee-pastry promotions, tower across the counters in metallic foils, and top frozen, whipped cream-layered coffee drinks in crumbles and broken pieces.
Since my initiation, panaderías have become my greatest weakness. Bakers stock fist-sized alfajores in street-side glass encasements. Right when I think I’m in a rush to catch a colectivo, I’ve already stepped inside and ordered the largest one in sight, para llevar. Wrapped only in a waxy white napkin, this alfajor doesn’t expect to make it on the bus—not the way I’m looking at it. Try to spot a Porteño commuter with a to-go coffee mug in hand, and you’ll busy yourself for weeks. But scarfing down an alfajor in public? No shame.
I’ve chowed down on the mini variety that’s packed into airplane snack boxes; I tasted one, coconut-sprinkled, on a riverboat in Tigre accompanied by black coffee practically roasted in sugar; I savored a chocolate almond-crusted alfajor delivered to me on a plate with a six-inch candle stuck down the center for my birthday; I nearly swallowed one whole on the steep steps of a Valparaíso shortcut, where a man runs a two-fold business from his own front door: artisanal alfajores and empanadas; I munched on one while on a bus ride through the Andes, unfortunately out of water to wash it down; I’m guilty of purchasing one, once or twice, as an excuse to use a café’s restroom; another somehow got devoured atop a glacier in El Calafate, Patagonia (accompanied by a glass of whiskey with glacier ice, naturally); and I may have succumbed to the lesser-respected of alfajores at 5 a.m. inside a kiosko convenience store, where the quadruple-decker Oreo brand option practically screams try to resist.
At first, coming across so many alfajores in daily life felt like a coincidence: How funny! We can’t seem to stop running into each other! But now I know better than to feel too special. Alfajores aim to please just about anyone in the mood for something sweet.
Caroline Cassard writes, cooks, and eats while she pursues a career in teaching English as a foreign language. She catalogs her thoughts on food in her blog, Caro Crunch.
Photo: JamieAnne, CC-BY-ND