Juan Pablo's Chilean Alfajores

Cooking with friends is a monthly series in which my dearest friends are inviting me into their kitchens and teaching me their favorite recipes. These bonding experiences deepen our friendships, expand my palate, and enhance my culinary skills by sharing a timeless practice: cooking.

I miss travelling. I miss it a lot. I miss the excitement of being somewhere new. I miss the thrill of meeting new people: people I can relate to who have similar interests and values. People who are open to explore and discover.

Juan Pablo is one of those people: kind, humble, and genuinely curious about everything that surrounds him. In my previous blog post, I talked about the time I spent with him and his family in Vina del Mar. Feeling at home in another country on another continent is a once in a lifetime occurrence that many travelers never have the opportunity to experience, and I will never forget my time there.

Even though I met Juan Pablo for the first time during my trip in Chile, I felt as if I’d known him forever. His strong bond with his family was the first thing I noticed about him, perhaps because I could relate to that emotion. Although I live thousands of miles from my family, I still think often about our Sunday lunches, our weekend trips to our cabin at Mujdeni, our amazing holiday dinners, and the incredible spreads my mom and grandma put together every time we had guests. Whenever our family had visitors, we celebrated the special occasion just like Juan Pablo’s family did when I visited them. We celebrate friendship, and we do it by eating, drinking, sharing stories, and laughing.

Juan Pablo is the type of person everyone likes to be around: always happy, calm, and curious. His happiness and curiosity are especially genuine and contagious. While there, he asked me to sing him traditional songs from Romania and Hungary. I initially refused, as I am very aware of my horrible singing skills, but he wouldn’t give up until I sang him Romania’s national anthem. You know those awkward moments when they play the national anthem at major sport events (I’m thinking soccer here), and the cameras get too close to the players, and you hear them singing, and you cringe? Yeah.. that’s exactly how I felt. Fortunately, Juan Pablo enjoyed it, which made it less awkward.

We talked a lot about several topics. We discussed art, history, music, travels and, of course, food. As it turns out, Juan Pablo is a really good cook, and his cooking style is very similar to mine. Instead of following recipes, he prefers improvising and eye-balling. When I asked him to teach me to cook something that resonates with him and his culture, he replied alfajores without hesitation. These sandwich cookies are made all over South America and the South American people take a lot of pride in it. Although there are several variations to this dessert, the main ingredients are flour (or cornmeal), butter, sugar and dulce de leche.

Alfajores are his favorite type of dessert. Although he prefers them with fig jam filling, we agreed to stick to the traditional dulce de leche (manjar in Chile) version. Buen provecho!


Juan Pablo's Chilean Alfajores


Yields 12-15 sandwich cookies
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
 


Ingredients

  • 4 ½ oz. (130 g.) unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 4 ½ oz. (130 g.) vegetable shortening
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 5 ½ oz. (150 g.) sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 tsp. lemon zest (about half a lemon)
  • 7 oz. (200 g.) all-purpose flour
  • 10 ½ oz. (300 g.) corn starch
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 cup manjar (dulce de leche)
  • ½ Tbsp. milk
  • 1 cup grated coconu

Instructions

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 360F(180C) degrees.
  2. In a medium bowl, mix butter, shortening, yolks, sugar, vanilla extract, and lemon zest. Using a whisk or a hand mixer, beat until smooth.
  3. In a large bowl, sift together the flour and corn starch. Add the baking powder, and whisk until well combined.
  4. Add the egg mixture to the flour. Using your hand, gently knead the dough. Don’t overknead it- the dough has to be a bit crumbly.
  5. Sprinkle flour onto your work surface. Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough to 1/4-inch thick.
  6. Using a round cookie cutter (2 inches or less), cut out the cookies and transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet.
  7. Bake for 12-15 minutes. Make sure to remove from the oven as soon as the cookies start browning.
  8. Let the cookies cool. In the meantime, combine manjar (dulce de leche) and milk in a small bowl and whisk until well combined.
  9. Spread about 1 teaspoon of dulce de leche over one cookie and top with another one. Lightly press to spread more evenly.
  10. Roll alfajores in coconut. Serve at room temperature.

Notes

  • Sifting the flour will make the dough lighter and fluffier.

 

 

Maria's Snow Crescents (Hókifli)

Cooking with friends is a monthly series in which my dearest friends are inviting me into their kitchens and teaching me their favorite recipes. These bonding experiences deepen our friendships, expand my palate, and enhance my culinary skills by sharing a timeless practice: cooking.

“Cooking with friends” blog posts are quickly turning into one of my favorite activities.  It’s so refreshing and exciting for me to go into my friends’ kitchens and cook with them! Each experience is unique, and I’m able to discover a side of my friends that I wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to see. Some are strict recipe followers, and some are improvising adventurers. Seeing the way they work in the kitchen and learning from them while they tell me their stories always fills me with joy and gratitude. Add a drink into the mix and it feels like all your problems have melted away. Friends, food and drinks connect people from all backgrounds and walks of life, and through them, many of the world’s problems are solvable.

Maria is one of those friends who’s always been there for me. Whether she’s taking care of my dog, Popsi, while I’m away travelling, giving me advice during hard times, or just listening to me, she never disappoints. I’ve known Maria since I lived in Hungary but we became close friends once we each transferred to Austin with our jobs. Maria moved to Austin in 2010, and when I arrived in Austin in 2011, I appreciated having someone who spoke my native language to help me settle in. She understood and helped me through many of the struggles I encountered as a foreigner in a country with a culture that is so different than what I was accustomed to.

When I asked Maria about having a guest post on gourmetcubicle, her eyes lit up, but then she shyly said no. It took some convincing to get Maria to agree to cook with me. She initially felt that none of her recipes were special enough, which is hardly the truth. She’s an extraordinary cook. When Maria brings me her homemade Hungarian dishes, I always finish them in one sitting. Not only is her cooking phenomenal, but Maria always seems to know when I need some home cooking. I remember that when I got back from Cambodia last year, a bowl of stuffed cabbage rolls was waiting in the refrigerator with a note that said: “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Enjoy the cabbage rolls. The sour cream is on the top shelf.” Every year on the first of January, Maria invites me over to eat Hungarian lentil stew. It’s a tradition in Hungary to serve lentils at the beginning of the New Year as they symbolize prosperity and wealth.

Maria is creative and artistic both inside and outside the kitchen. Right now she’s organizing her wedding, and she does it with so much calmness and grace that I wonder why this isn’t her full-time job. She’s designing everything from the invitations and decorations to the flowers and gifts. Everything is handmade with a touch of her own good taste. She and my other good friend Monika are creating things that are worthy of an Etsy editor pick. I hope they’ll start their own business sometime soon because the world could benefit from their creative talent. 

But back to Maria’s cooking. She eventually agreed to share a recipe with me. She showed me how to make snow crescents, called hókifli in Hungarian. These tasty desserts were Maria’s grandmother’s specialty. Maria regaled me with stories of her grandma as we cooked together. She told me how her grandmother always made hókiflis, how they always turned out perfectly, and how they became her favorite childhood dessert. I hadn’t tried too many snow crescents during my childhood because my grandma made other desserts (like Zserbó Cake (Gerbaud Cake)), but once I tried them at Maria’s, I instantly fell in love with them. They are not too sweet and not too heavy on filling. They are a tasty treat on their own, but eating them with your coffee will make you think you’re in a nice little café somewhere in Europe. Enjoy!


Maria's Snow Crescents (Hókifli)


Yields 24 pieces
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Inactive time: 30 minutes


Ingredients

  • 14oz (400g) all-purpose flour (plus more for kneading and rolling)
  • 3.5oz (100g) white sugar
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 sticks (200g) unsalted butter (at room temperature) + 1 TBS for greasing the cookie sheets
  • 3.5oz (100ml) whole-milk (at room temperature)

Filling

  • 7oz (200g) ground walnuts (replace with pecans for a more mellow flavor)
  • 3.5oz (100g) powdered sugar
  • .5oz (30ml)  spiced rum
  • 3-4 tsp fresh lemon zest (about 1 medium-sized lemon)

Sugar Dip

  • 3.5oz (100g) powdered sugar
  • .32oz (9g) vanilla sugar (see notes for homemade vanilla sugar) 

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400F (200C) degrees.
  2. In a medium bowl combine flour, sugar and baking soda. Using a whisk mix until well combined.
  3. Using your hands, crumble the butter into the flour. Make sure there aren't any large chunks of butter in the mixture. Slowly add milk and start kneading. Knead for about 5 minutes, sprinkling the dough with flour if it's too wet. Knead until the dough doesn't stick to the walls of the bowl. 
  4. When done, cut the dough in half and shape each half into a softball-sized sphere. Sprinkle with flour, cover with plastic wrap and let them rest in the refrigerator for 15-30 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile in a medium sized bowl whisk walnuts, sugar, lemon zest and rum together until they reach the consistency of thick paste. Don't be shy; add more rum until the filling holds together.
  6. Sprinkle flour on a flat surface and lay a dough ball in the middle. Using your hands, flatten  the dough ball into a disk shape. Use a rolling to pin roll it until it's about 1/5 inches thick.
  7. Using a pizza cutter or a sharp knife, slice the rolled dough into 12 slices. Repeat for the other dough ball.
  8. Add a teaspoon of filling to the wide end of each slice. Roll the slices from the outside towards the inside (from the wide end towards the narrow end). They should look like mini-croissants or crescents.
  9. Repeat steps 6-8 for the other dough ball.
  10. Grease a cookie sheet with butter and place crescents on it. Put them in the oven and bake for 17 minutes. Remove from oven when they start browning at the edges (the rest should be white).
  11. Set snow crescents aside and let them cool for one minute. Roll each snow crescent in the powdered sugar mix (they should still be hot when you do this). They break easily, so handle them gently. Serve alone or with coffee.

Notes

  • To make homemade vanilla sugar, fill a  mason jar with sugar, about 3/4 full. Cut a vanilla bean pod in half lengthwise and place both halves in the jar. Close the lid and shake vigorously. Let it rest for a bit et voilà, you've got yourself vanilla sugar! The longer you you rest the mixture the more intense the vanilla flavor will be. Refill the jar with fresh sugar every time you're running low. 
  • If you overcook the crescents a bit, don't worry. They will still be pretty good, but more crumbly. I personally prefer them moist, but if you want them crumbly, cook for 20 minutes instead of 17.
  • Keep leftover crescents in a sealed Ziploc bag. This will keep them from drying out. 

Chocolate and Biscuit Dessert Salami

This blog post is dedicated to the most amazing grandparents that a child can ask for, Bunu and Buna. 

The 9th of July is a special day for me- it's my favorite grandpa's birthday. Bunu was one of the most special people in my life and he would've turned 83 today had the Alzheimer’s not taken him away from us last year. Chocolate and Biscuit Dessert Salami, or Salam de biscuiti as we call it in Romania, was his favorite dessert. On my latest trip to Romania, I wanted to prepare this recipe with my grandma, Buna, to honor Bunu. This recipe belongs to my grandmother, who's been using it for years and years, making generations of kids happy. 

Even though it was great  seeing Buna and cooking together, the trip to Romania wasn’t as happy and positive as my time in Hungary, mostly because it was very hard for me emotionally to visit my grandparents’ house and to deal the fact that my Bunu was gone. The house that I grew up in was missing its liveliest element- the man who loved me like no one else, my role model, Bunu. His fun and happy stories, some of them real, some of them fiction, were noticeably missing.

One story in particular is very special to me. I must’ve heard it hundreds of times- the story of the time I cut the roots of Bunu's kohlrabi seedlings as a token of revenge for a small argument that we had. It was the only time we actually ever had one. 

This story was Bunu’s favorite way of bringing joy to the table during our Sunday lunches. Everyone in our family knew it inside out. There were times when some would leave the room to get away from THE story. I never missed one. I loved to hear it, not only because my grandpa was such a gifted storyteller that he always made me feel like it was the first time I heard it, but also because I knew that he found extreme passion and joy in telling it. It was his favorite and it always made him and everyone around him happy.

The story itself is silly, yet still manages to bring a smile (and now a tear) to my face. I hope I can do it justice by retelling it here, but I know nothing can compare to the way he narrated it.

It goes a little something like this: like every summer, I was spending my break at my grandparents’ place. I loved it there- they had a big yard where I played all day, a beautiful garden, two big cherry trees that I climbed, and a chicken coup with dozens of chicken and roosters. Buna would cook whatever I craved, so for this little fatso it was heaven on earth.

One Saturday, Bunu and I were riding Bunu's bike back home from our usual Saturday trip to his river house. As we were riding we ran into one of Bunu's best friends, Lajos, who he loved showing off to about gardening. The two old men were always competing. They were like Jack Lemon and Water Matthau in "Grumpy Old Men". I remember Bunu going on and on about his kohlrabi seedlings and Lajos promised to come by later to see them in person. 

Before I get further into the story, let me stop here for a moment to say that Bunu was the kind of guy who loved bragging about everything. Just to give you an idea- when I got my first promotion at work, he told everyone on his street that I was promoted to director level although I was just promoted from an intern to a full time entry level engineer. Just like any of his stories, his bragging was a bit inflated.

When we got home, Bunu and I had had an argument over him wanting to take a nap and me wanting to sing him a song- "Lipe its lipe”, better known as "Life is life” to y’all English speakers. I was being an obnoxious little punk and Bunu raised his voice and told me to go play outside until after he napped. I didn’t take to that order well, but complied. 

While I was dismissed out in the yard, I found a bland rusty knife next to the chicken coop where Bunu kept his gardening tools.  Now what does a 4 years old do when he finds himself with a knife in the garden while angry at grandpa? Cut the roots of his seedings, of course. Not all of them, just the kohlrabi he had just been bragging about to his friend earlier that day. I took the knife, whacked the roots, hid them, and put the seedling back in the ground as if nothing happened.

After supper, Bunu had the habit of spending hours in his garden. First he would water each and every plant with rain water he collected and then he would just sit and admire his gorgeous plants from his bench. He would even play classical music on his old radio sometimes, so that the eggplant, tomatoes and their other vegetable friends would grow faster. 

As he was sitting there that evening waiting for his buddy to arrive, he saw that the kohlrabi seedlings started wilting. He got up, watered them again and waited a bit longer to see if they would perk up. It didn't help. So he pulled one of the seedlings out of the ground. When he saw that the roots were missing he thought that he either overwatered them and the roots had rotted, or that moles attacked his garden. Then he took a better look and realized that the roots were neither rotten, nor chewed by moles, but carefully cut. Then he saw the knife close to the crime scene. 

My grandma, Buna,  proudly  posing  with my grandpa's favorite dessert- Chocolate and Biscuit Salami that we made together

My grandma, Buna,  proudly posing with my grandpa's favorite dessert- Chocolate and Biscuit Salami that we made together

I saw all of this while hiding in the cherry tree. I watched and savored my sweet revenge. Bunu spotted me and chased me around the backyard and house. I ran to Buna who protected me, although I know Bunu would have not done anything to harm me. If anything, he would have made wash his bike or help him pull weeds out of his garden.

And this is the story he found extreme joy telling. He said it was the best prank anyone has ever pulled on him.

This is the story that Bunu told me last time we talked. It was over Skype a couple of days before he passed away. He had Alzheimer’s and even though he barely remembered the people around him or the house he lived in, he recognized me and told me OUR favorite story all over again. La multi ani, Bunutule! Te iubesc, mosule!


Chocolate and Biscuit Dessert Salami


Serves 6-8
Prep time: 25 minutes
Cook time: 5 minutes
Inactive time: 1 hour


Ingredients

  • 1 lb tea biscuits, roughly chopped 
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 4 TBS cocoa, unsweetened
  • 7 oz sugar
  • 1 TBS rum extract
  • 7 oz butter, unsalted
  • 4 oz walnuts, roasted and roughly chopped
  • 1 cup sour cherries, roughly chopped (or regular cherries, apricots or Turkish Delight)

Instructions

  1. Place biscuits in a food processor and pulse a few times until the biscuits are crumbled. Don't overdo it, as you don't want to turn them into biscuit powder.
  2. In a medium sauce pan mix water, cocoa, sugar and rum. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Stir well to combine and cook for 3-4 minutes. Make sure there are no lumps in your chocolate mixture. Remove from the heat and set aside.
  3. Add butter to the pan and stir until it melts. Slowly add biscuits, walnuts and cherries and still until combined. Make sure everything is evenly coated in chocolate. 
  4. Lay a long sheet of thick plastic wrap on you work station. Place the biscuit mixture in the center. Mold the mixture into a 4 inch wide and 12-15 inch long log. Wrap it tightly in plastic wrap, roll it a few times to give it a salami shape and then twist the ends of the wrap to seal. Place it in the fridge for at least one hour.
  5. Before serving remove the plastic wrap and let it sit at room temperature for about 5 minutes. You can even roll the chocolate salami in coconut or almond flakes. Cut into 1/2 inch thick slices and serve.