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Alfajores are sandwich cookies that are extremely popular throughout South America. The term actually covers a range of cookies made with a variety of fillings. The best-known version are alfajores de dulce de leche, which are gaining popularity in North America and it's easy to see why: two barely sweet melt-in-your-mouth shortbread cookies with creamy spread sandwiched between them.

Dulce de leche is a luscious topping made by slowly caramelizing sweetened milk. Many people make it by boiling a can of condensed milk unopened in a pot of simmering water for two to three hours. Although that method is popular, it holds the unpleasant possibility of the can exploding if the water level drops. Personally, I try to avoid kitchen explosions at all costs, so my preferred method is baking it in a pan placed in a water bath in the oven. It's almost like magic: Pale, thin condensed milk goes into the oven, thick and golden dulce de leche comes out.

Servings: 20 to 24 cookies

Ready time: 3 hours

shortbread cookies

2 cups flour minus 2 tablespoons

2 tablespoons corn starch

¼ teaspoon salt

1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature

½ cup icing sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla

Dulce de leche

1 can of sweetened condensed milk (300 ml)

Method

For the dough

Preheat oven to 350.

Whisk the flour, corn starch and salt in a bowl. Set aside.

In the bowl of a mixer, beat the butter until creamy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the icing sugar. Beat on low until incorporated. Scrape down the bowl and beat on medium-high until creamy and smooth. Add vanilla and beat until smooth.

Add the flour mixture and beat on low just until a soft but crumbly dough forms. Press the dough together into a ball, cover in plastic wrap and press into a disk. Put the dough in the fridge for 15 minutes to make it easier to roll out.

Roll out the dough to ½-cm thickness on a lightly floured surface. Cut out the cookies with a floured 2-inch round cookie cutter (or whatever shape you wish) and transfer to a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper using a spatula.

Pop the tray of cookies into the freezer for 5 to 10 minutes until firm, then bake in the oven for 7 to 11 minutes or until the cookies are just lightly browned on the edges. Transfer to a cooling rack.

For the dulce de leche

Note: This can be made a few days in advance and kept in the fridge. While the homemade version is a lot tastier, if you are pressed for time, dulce de leche can be found in most grocery stores.

Preheat oven to 450.

Pour the condensed milk into a 9-inch cake pan (a 9-inch glass pie plate works too with adjusted baking time). Cover tightly with tinfoil, making sure that the edges of the foil are not going to hang in the water to prevent steam or water from getting in.

Place the foil-covered pan in a larger dish, such as a casserole dish or roasting pan. Fill the larger dish with water until it reaches halfway up the pan with the condensed milk in it.

Bake in the oven for 85 minutes (if in a glass pie plate) or 90 minutes (if in a cake pan) until it’s a rich brown. Check the water level a few times and add more hot water (make sure not to add cold) as necessary. You’ll probably only have to add water once to bring it back to halfway up the pan after about 45 minutes of baking.

Remove from oven and carefully remove the foil. Use an oven mitt as there will be steam. The dulce de leche will look brown and a bit bubbly. To get a silky smooth consistency whisk thoroughly while still warm to remove any lumps. For any stubborn lumps use a stick/immersion blender when cool. Store any leftovers in the fridge.

To assemble

Spread a layer of the cooled dulce de leche on a cookie, top with another cookie and repeat with the rest of the batch. If your dulce de leche is a little runny then chill it beforehand until it is a more spreadable consistency. Don’t worry if your top cookies seem to be sliding around a bit, after a few hours the dulce de leche will set and they will stay put. Makes 20 to 24 sandwich cookies. Store leftovers in a Tupperware container.

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