Manjar Fills Café Valparaiso Alfajores

Stop at Restaurant Valparaiso for alfajores, the sweet South American sandwich.


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The alfajores at Valparaiso are thin and crisp and filled not with dulce de leche, but with manjar.

Photo by Lori Eanes

 

In that vast, sticky-spooned march of time by which desserts occur, the evolution of the sandwich cookie was as natural, inevitable, and monumental as that of, say, Twinkies or pie. Chicken-or-eggwise, how did it begin? With the desire to bring a sumptuous viscous substance neatly to the mouth? Or the desire for a means to justify eating two wafers at once?

South America’s favorite sandwich cookies by far are alfajores. Deriving from a filled, rolled, and sliced—e.g., unsandwichy—pastry that eighth-century Arab soldiers brought to Spain, New World versions of this treat took a vast evolutionary leap, with each alfajor consisting of two cookies fastened by the aforementioned viscosity.

Regional variations abound: As prepared by Oakland’s Wooden Table Baking Company, Argentinean alfajores involve soft, porous wafers and dulce de leche.

Baked in-house and served at Albany’s family-owned Restaurant Valparaiso, Chile’s alfajores are especially distinctive, entailing not thick, crumbly cookies as is usual throughout Latin America, but lighter, thinner, crispier wafers that curl coquettishly at their edges, not unlike human ears—thanks mainly to cornstarch in the dough and to a delicate one-sided rolling technique.

Restaurant Valparaiso’s alfajores are filled not with the dulce de leche that’s ubiquitous elsewhere, but with a Chilean specialty, manjar. Translating to ambrosia, or delicacy, and traditionally made by cooking sugar, vanilla, and milk for up to two hours, it’s darker, thicker, and more custard-like than its common cousin.

Chile’s nearly 3,000-mile verticality—sweeping from the Atacama Desert to the wine-rich Mediterranean-style center to Antarctica and encompassing Easter Island—has yielded hyper-local alfajores such as fruit-jam-filled alfajores de Pica from the desert-oasis town of Pica, renowned for its mangoes, guavas, and a unique variety of tart, tiny lemon.

“It’s said that the recipe for alfajores de Pica was brought to that region by a Chinese man long ago and that it was a great secret,” said Juan López, North American market manager for Turismo Chile. “Over time, these alfajores very nearly disappeared forever, but in the last decade, they’ve really started coming back.”

 

Restaurant Valparaiso, 1403 Solano Ave., Albany, 510-841-3800, www.CafeValparaiso.com

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