Category Archives: Pastry

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.

As a young bassist in the 80′s I was scared to death by Jack Bruce, as his imagination and technique were so formidable. He seemed to play at both ends of the neck — and in the middle — at the same time. But for all that there was always a purpose and direction to his noodling, which made him probably the ultimate jam band bass player, right up there with John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin and John Wetton of Uriah Heep and King Crimson fame. Those three defined, at least for me, the busy, trippy 60′s (and 70′s) hard rock sound.

Because I couldn’t play like that I took the less-is more approach, drawing inspiration from bassists like Paul McCartney (needs no explanation), Tony Levin from Peter Gabriel’s band, and Colin Moulding of XTC. And while I loved to pontificate about how bass “was a rhythm, not lead instrument” I always secretly longed for those ferocious Jack Bruce chops. I never got them and to this day I always cringe a little inside when I hear a Cream track like Crossroads. Crap, that guy was just too good!

Mr. Bruce, you will be missed.

UPDATE: Reader Siggy wants to know if, as a former bassist, I have a favorite bass line. Indeed I do: on the song Philadelphia Freedom by Elton John. A flawless synthesis of driving rhythm and fluid, incidental melody. Dee Murray may have been rock’s most perfect bass player.

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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?


Start by assembling your ingredients. Sift together your flours, salt and leavening. Note you can use up 1 1/2 cups of cornstarch or yuca flour out of a total 2 cups.

Cream the sugar and butter together.

Add egg yolk, egg, lemon zest and cogac.

Beat that together then add the flour and stir…

…until a dough starts to come together.

Remove the dough to a lightly floured board and push it together. Wrap that in plastic and refrigerate it for 30 minutes to firm it.

Divide the dough in half (it’s easier to work with only half at a time) and roll it into a rough ball.

Roll the dough out to about 1/8 inch thick…thinner than you might think, but then there’s baking powder in the dough so you’ll get some expansion during baking.

Cut out your shapes, you can make them just about any size, from small to large. Here I’m using a roughly 2-inch cutter.

Lay them out on a sheet pan and let them rest for about 30 minutes to relax any gluten that may have developed during the rolling step. You don’t want them contracting into overly-thick little disks in the oven. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Bake them ten minutes until they’re heated through but not browned. The biscuit tops should be quite blonde in appearance. Some may be a little wobbly on the top…just use those for the bottoms! Allow these to cool completely before filling them since you don’t want any residual heat melting the dulce de leche.

Speaking of which, the best way to apply it, I think, is with a pastry bag. I like a nice thick layer of filling so I’m using just the collar. You can use any tip you like. Here I should add that if you really want to blow your audience away make a home-made dulce de leche with 50% goat’s milk. To thicken it, add a slurry of 1 tablespoon cornstarch and 1 1/2 tablespoons water once it’s reduced down to about three cups. Whisk it in quickly, let it boil thirty seconds and take it off the heat. If it isn’t the consistency of peanut butter when it cools, you can always re-heat it and add more cornstarch. Anyway…

…I pipe on a swirl…

…put on the top and squeeze gently…

…and do my best to resist popping it into my mouth right then and there. Have fun!

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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

Sift together the flour(s), leavening and salt. In a medium bowl or in a mixer with the paddle attachment, cream the powdered sugar and butter until it’s light in color. Add the egg, yolk, zest and brandy and beat until it’s all combined (it may be a little lumpy, which is OK). Stir in the flour-baking powder mixture and work the dough just until it comes together. Refrigerate the dough for half an hour.

Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 350 degrees. After the dough has rested, roll it out to about a 1/8 inch thickness and cut it into rounds with a cookie cutter. Place the rounds on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake them for 10 minutes until baked but still very blonde. Cool the cookies on a wire rack, then fill with dulce de leche.

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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.

Functionally, if they’re made right, butters with higher fat content are firmer than those made with less. That stands to reason since the remainder is water with a small amount of protein (about 1.5%) mixed in. More water = a softer consistency.

Firm butters are preferred in the world of pastry making, especially where laminated doughs like puff pastry, croissant dough and Danish dough are concerned. Firm butter not only makes the rolling and folding process easier, it helps the pastries rise higher in the oven because there’s less moisture to weigh down the delicate layers. Indeed some “dry butters” can have as little as 1% water.

But there’s no technical reason why a cultured butter has to be higher in fat. Hope that helps, Nate!

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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 that Spaniards could have been eating them in the New World sometime later in the Age of Exploration, the late 1500′s or 1600′s, say. Of course how and why they evolved from an elongated roll of sugar, spices and nuts into sandwich cookies with dulce de leche filling is anyone’s guess.

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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.

As I mentioned the re-conquest (“Reconquista” as it’s known in Spain) of Al-Andalus started almost immediately after the Arabs took the place, as many of the local peoples — especially those up in the northwest — chafed under Muslim rule. The movement began as early as 718 but really began to pick up steam starting in about 900 A.D.. By 1150 over half of the peninsula was reclaimed, and by 1249 the only remaining region still under Muslim control was a small state all the way south near Gibraltar called the Emirate of Granada. And in fact the only reason that region survived was because it was a convenient way for the reigning powers up in Castile to extract tribute from what was left of the old Caliphate.

By the time Ferdinand and Isabella — of Christopher Columbus fame — came along, Granada was on its last legs. Spanish forces crushed it militarily the same year that the Americas were discovered, in 1492. About 200,000 Muslims remained in Spain following this final coup-de-grace and were allowed to practice their religion until 1500. In what many historian consider to be a gratuitous injustice, even the descendants of those last remaining Muslims were booted out of the country in 1609.

I hope that answers your question, dahlink!

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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.

The question is: why? The answer is: gluten. Cornstarch has no gluten in it, and when it’s added to a dough in that kind of quantity it has the effect of undermining any gluten than happens to be present. The cooked egg yolks do much the same thing, the effect being extreme tenderness. This is the secret to good alfajores, which have a tooth that’s even softer than an American biscuit. Superior alfajores are so melt-in-mouth tender that they give you the impression that it’s the filling that’s holding the outsides together, not the reverse.

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