You know it's been a long, a very long week when you experience tightness in your chest. That sounds kind of dangerous, I thought to myself the other day. And if you know me even a little bit you probably know I don't like to complain about miniscule things. I really try to stay away from doing so as much as possible--unless I'm experiencing a surge of extremely dry heat that is--because then you'll probably hear me go on and on about how my hair is turning into a dry haystack or anything obnoxiously repetitive like that. So I'll spare you the details for now. Just know that a certain two year old makes all the difference at times, and things around the house and the neighborhood haven't seen much of anything peaceful. At least nothing evident to our knowledge. Still, I'm learning ever so slowly that gratitude isn't a circumstance but a state of mind. There are so many lovely things in life that much sooner than I can complain about my inadequacy as a mother, I am reminded that my glass--or my soul if you will--is constantly half full whether I feel it or not.
Still, now that I get to sit down and actually take a breath as I type this up, I can subtly see that my extrovertedness is very, very well complemented by some introverted tendencies. Now more than ever, I'm ready to coop myself up in a rustic, private garden somewhere in Austria singing "The Hills are Alive", only not really because I need human interaction at least once a day, so more realistically, I think I'm ready to get back into the kitchen in the fiercest way I can. Ready to tackle non-existent recipes that I've been craving like nobody's business, then host a delightfully solitary merienda with no agenda to follow. Just me, my yerba mate, a good devotional read, and these cornstarch alfajores (ahl-fah-ho-rez).
Okay so, I tend to exercise my stress away and bake for the sake of my own sanity as ironic as it sounds. And these alfajores have already been made a few times in the past few weeks. Something about dulce de leche is intriguingly medicinal to me. Perhaps it has everything to do with good childhood memories and little to do with the velvety texture I get after smearing it on hot-out-of-the-oven cookies, or vice versa. Because let's be honest. Who has the patience to wait 15 minutes for the cookies to cool down? Exactly my point.
Argentinean alfajores come in a wide variety of styles and flavors; some are more akin to a combination of crumbly biscuit and cake, with two slices conjoined by a thick jam or quince paste commonly known as dulce de membrillo (so good!!!). They can be bathed in a thin layer of milk chocolate (I dipped some in Valrhona dark chocolate), but oftentimes you will see them naked like this. Pure and simple. Sought after by many Americans, and made by only a select few. Alfajores de Maizena are pretty much shortbread cookies sandwiching dulce de leche, coated in a fearless layer of powdered sugar. Shredded coconut also takes this to a whole new level so feel free to roll the edges on coconut flakes of your choice.
As you may have noticed from my gratifyingly obscene combinations in the past, I love distinct and daring flavors. One of my favorite seeds to use in cooking and baking is Star Anise (Anis estrellado) because it gives such a unique character to any dish, making it stand out among others. Think of it as upgrading from a kit dslr lens to a 35mm f/2 wide angle. You can immediately tell something is different even though you can't put your finger on it. :) Keep in mind that a little bit goes a long way, and although the slight licorice taste will undoubtedly make itself known to your taste buds, it won't be overpowering so long as you use only 6-8 crushed seeds. I hope you give these a try and enjoy! How has your week been, by the way?
Alfajores de Maizena with Star Anise
Makes approximately 8 alfajores
Time: About 30 minutes including baking time
Equipment: Rolling pin, parchment paper, cookie cutter (circular object)
1/2 cup cornstarch
1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour (or other fine/rough variety)
1/2 tsp salt
6-8 star anise seeds, crushed
12 tbsp very cold unsalted butter
1/2 cup white sugar (or 1/3 if preferred)
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp milk
dulce de leche for filling
confectioner sugar for dusting
Preheat the oven to 375 F (191 celsius). Stir the cornstarch, wheat pastry flour, star anise seeds, and salt in a large mixing bowl. As for the seeds, I simply like to peel them off the whole star anise and crush them with my fingers. It's very easy to do and unevenly sized pieces shouldn't cause a problem. Grate the cold butter through the medium holes into the dry ingredients for best results. You can cube them but grating them makes the process much easier, swifter, and creates a tender cookie. Add sugar, vanilla, milk, and gently knead the dough with your hands, folding ingredients and incorporating without over kneading the dough. Form a ball or oval, seal with plastic wrap, and place in freezer for about 10-15 minutes.
Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper. Lightly flour a flat surface and roll the dough out with a rolling pin or something like it. Spread to all sides from the center towards the outside, making the dough about 1/4 inch in thickness. Cut out circles of about 3-4 inches and you should end up with 14-16 circles.
Carefully place on lined cookie sheet and bake for about 10-12 minutes, or until the tops are not-yet-golden (but almost), and shortbread cookies are firm but tender to the touch, and not crisp. Let them cool, fill with dulce de leche, and dust the tops with confectioner sugar is desired. Optional to roll the edges in coconut flakes, or to dip them in melted chocolate.
***I melted Valrhona dark chocolate in the microwave for 30-40 seconds in 3 or 4 increments. Any kind of dulce de leche may be used. Although my favorite brand is San Ignacio, you might find it easier to buy the Nestle cans at your nearest chain grocery store.***
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Have you tried alfajores? Which is your favorite variety?
What would you cook using star anise seeds?