One of the best ways I know to enjoy the butterscotch-y goodness of the caramelized milk jam dulce de leche is between a pair of buttery, citrus-scented cookies in the Latin American confection called alfajores de maicena. Named for the cornstarch (maicena) in the dough, the cookies are so delicate that they crumble as you eat them, their buttery flavor melding with the rich toffee notes of the dulce de leche. I fell hard for these treats when I first encountered them at Uruguayan American Valery Ketenjian’s bakery Alfa Alfajores in San Diego. Now I can’t get enough of them.
The name “alfajor” comes from a Hispano‑Arabic word for “stuffed” and is an umbrella term for a wide variety of sandwich cookies hugely popular across Latin America and particularly in Argentina, where a billion of these treats are consumed annually. Besides the iconic dulce de leche–filled version, store shelves in that country teem with other styles showcasing different cookie types, fillings, coatings, and flavorings.
“Typically, you pick the one that fits your personality, and you don’t veer,” said Argentine American cookbook author Josephine Caminos Oría, whose works include Dulce de Leche: Recipes, Stories, and Sweet Traditions (2017).
Whether stuffed with dulce de leche, fruit paste, or peanut butter; rimmed in coconut; or coated in chocolate or meringue, such is the pull of alfajores, said Caminos Oría, that even Argentines living abroad never lose their passion for these treats, always carting at least a few boxes of their favorites back home after visits.
“One of my major marital fights was when we bought three dozen boxes,” she said, “and my husband left the duty-free bag on the airplane.”
A Filling That Stays Put
Professional bakers fill alfajores with dulce de leche repostero, a thick confectionary version of the beloved milk jam. In my recipe, canned Nestlé La Lechera Dulce de Leche works equally well since it’s bolstered with agar-agar. But you can easily make your own filling from scratch with a couple cans of sweetened condensed milk and a multicooker. Heated under pressure in a water bath, the syrupy milk cooks at about 240 degrees, which causes its proteins to denature and gel into a mixture that’s much thicker than typical dulce de leche. See my recipe here.
I was set on making the classic cornstarch‑based treats and wanted my cookies to be just like Ketenjian’s: rich, buttery, and so tender that they’d practically dissolve when you took a bite. “When you’re eating it,” Ketenjian told me, “it has to all melt in your mouth.” Naturally, the filling should delight with luscious complexity, but it would also need to stay neatly in place.
Following the lead of most recipes, I began by creaming butter and sugar. Two sticks of butter for 24 cookies ensured tenderness and plenty of richness. But I kept the sugar in the dough at a modest ½ cup to contrast with the sweetness of the dulce de leche. Putting the flavorings on hold, I slipped in a few egg yolks, which recipes seemed to prefer not only because their fat contributes to a short texture but also because the proteins in the whites can strengthen the dough, making the cookies less delicate. The next step—incorporating the dry ingredients (cornstarch, flour, salt, and leavener)—was where things got a little trickier.
Cornstarch plays a key role in these cookies’ powdery-soft texture in a couple ways: It lacks the gluten-forming proteins in flour, and its starch also absorbs some of the moisture in the dough, limiting the flour’s ability to form gluten. But if you use too much, the cookies fall apart.
The Way the Cookie Crumbles? Cornstarch.
Melt-in-your-mouth tenderness is a hallmark of alfajores de maicena, and the key ingredient to their texture is spelled out in the cookies’ name. Maicena (cornstarch) lacks the gluten-forming proteins that wheat flour contains; it also absorbs liquid in the mixture that would encourage gluten development, so including plenty of it in the dough makes for a uniquely delicate and tender crumb. I include just enough flour for the cookies to stay intact as they enter your mouth—but not longer.
I began cautiously, adding half as much cornstarch as flour by volume to the mixer with the baking powder and salt, but my prudence didn’t pay: The cookies were cakey, not crumbly. Next, I switched from all-purpose flour to cake flour, thinking its lower protein content might provide less structure. Still the cookies didn’t have that meltingly tender quality of Ketenjian’s. Returning to regular flour, I flipped the proportions, this time using one and a half times as much cornstarch as flour. Now the cookies shattered in my fingers before I even got them into my mouth. After a few more tests, I nailed it: Using just a little more cornstarch than flour by volume produced alfajores that were pleasingly fragile but still relatively sturdy.
As for flavorings, aromatic enhancements such as lemon zest and vanilla are typical in alfajores de maicena, and so is a splash of a spirit. I went for all three, choosing brandy as the spirit. The salt brought their flavors into focus.
Typically the dough is chilled to firm it up before rolling, but I streamlined the process with a test kitchen technique: rolling it between two sheets of parchment and then freezing it for 30 minutes. I baked the alfajores in a 350-degree oven just until they were lightly browned on the bottoms but their tops were still elegantly pale.
The Gooey, Caramelized Glue
For the filling, cooks in Latin America often turn to a commercially made confectionary version called dulce de leche repostero that’s been shored up with thickeners. Luckily, in this country there’s an equally good option: Nestlé La Lechera Dulce de Leche, which is bolstered with agar-agar. And though the jam tasted rich and butterscotch-y straight from the can, stirring in a little vanilla and salt gave it even more complexity. To help it firm up even more, I chilled the mixture while I made the dough.
It was assembly time. I had two goals: to keep the cookies intact and to spread the filling just to—and not beyond—their edges, where it could easily capture the shredded coconut that I planned for embellishment. I found that it worked best to dollop the filling in the centers of half the cookies, pick them up one by one, place a second cookie on top, and gently press down with my fingers until the filling was flush with the rim.
Filled to the Rim
Pressing down gently on the top cookie ensures that the dulce de leche is flush with the rim of the cookies, where it can capture embellishments such as shredded coconut.
Buttery and crumbly, bristling with flecks of coconut, and gooey with dulce de leche, these cookies are a perfect accompaniment to coffee and special enough to serve for dessert. They hold well in the refrigerator for five days—if they ever last that long.