But First: Pan de Muerto

Bread of the dead. Reader Sunyana has been having trouble with hers, and seeing as how it’s just a couple of days until Día de Muertos, I’m going to take a quick detour to Mexico. Stand by!

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Next Up: Esterházy Torte

Reader Johan has an excellent idea here. This one has style, flavor AND history. Let’s do this thing!

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All things being equal, I’d rather be in Mexico.

Mrs. Pastry is living the good life down in Oaxaca this week, leaving me the sole ringmaster for the circus we have running here. It’s required my full attention the last few days, I haven’t even picked a new project yet. Any suggestions?

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White Room in the Sky

I noted with some sadness that legendary musician Jack Bruce died over the weekend at the age of 71. Bruce is best known as the lead singer and bassist for Cream, a psychedelic power trio whose songs you almost certainly know since they’ve been played pretty much continuously on the radio since the late 60′s. The other two members of Cream were guitarist Eric Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker, so you could say they were something of a super group. …

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Making Alfajores

My first alfajor was a powdery-caramelly masterpiece with a layer of dulce de leche that I swear was an inch thick. That could just be how I remember it of course. But I was overwhelmed. Where had these been all my life? Happily it was’t long before a kind Peruvian lady clued me in to what they were and taught me how to pronounce them. Alfa-whuh?

Yor-ess.

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Alfajores Recipe

How can you tell these are New World cookies? By all the cornstarch (corn flour) of course. Some readers have written in to tell me they don’t like the taste and/or texture of cornstarch even when it’s baked. If that’s the case no worries, you can still make these with cake flour. Yuca flour is another alternative that’s used quite a bit in alfajores, assuming you can find it. Note that the proportion of the different flours can be changed to suit your taste. Some like a firmer alfajor, in which case you can use 100% wheat flour, all-purpose if you like. For those who prefer theirs ultra-tender, you can use up to 65% non-wheat flour and they’ll still hold together. Here’s what I did. These aren’t very sweet because the filling is extremely so.

5 ounces (1 cup) all-purpose flour
4 ounces (1 cup) cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 ounces (1/2 cup) powdered (confectioner’s) sugar
4 ounces (1 stick) butter
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons pisco (Peruvian brandy) or cognac
1-2 cups thick dulce de leche or about 1 cup jam for filling


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What is it with Continentals and fat?

Reader Nate asks:

Why do sweet cream butter and cultured butter seem to have different fat content? Aren’t they’re using the same technique or is there some scientific explantion for this?

I like that question, Nate! The answer is that it’s mostly an aesthetic, but there are some functional reason for the difference, at least in the pastry world. In general European butters are about 2% higher in fat that American butters. The funny thing is that here in the states European “style” butters often have 7% or 8% more fat than typical American butters. Evidently they’re cashing in on the fact that most Americans think that Continentals are in love with fat. That’s not an entirely unfounded assumption. …

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So when did alfajores arrive in the New World?

We are making New World alfajores after all, at least for now! I’ve found no documentation whatsoever pertaining to that, only claims that they “came over with the conquistadors”. I find that a little hard to believe, personally. I don’t see those rough-and-ready characters taking the time to pack delicate boxes of sweets alongside their morions and lances. Watch it, Francisco! I paid twenty reales for those! However it’s not beyond the realm of possibility…

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How long did the Arabs occupy Spain?

I like that question reader Zsa Zsa, if indeed that is your real name! It’s popularly said that the Islamic occupation of the Iberian peninsula lasted for 800 years. While it may technically true in that there were Arabs on what is now Spanish soil all of that time, the Caliphate that was established there was always in flux. In fact you can make the case that Al Andalus started shrinking from virtually the moment it was established.

The invasion commenced in 711 A.D. when the first Arab conquerors crossed over at Gibraltar, having swept through all of the Middle East and North Africa over the previous 90 years. By 720 nearly the entire territory of what is now Spain and Portugal was united under a Caliphate. A capitol was set up in the southern city of Córdoba, which in relatively short order (150 years) became one of the dominant economic and cultural centers in all of Europe and the Middle East. This “golden age” didn’t last terribly long however, as infighting soon divided up the Caliphate into some 20 separate states, which fought with outsiders and one another until they eventually began to fall to Christian powers pressing in from the north. …

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What makes alfajores different?

Alfajores are widely thought to be little sandwiches made of shortbread. In fact that isn’t the case. The two little disks that contain the filling most closely resemble cakes. They contain flour, butter, leavening and eggs (cooked egg yolk). They also have one other rather unusual ingredient: cornstarch (cornflour) usually in abundance. Indeed it’s not unusual to find an alfajores recipe that contains as much cornstarch as wheat flour.


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