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.

11 thoughts on “What makes alfajores different?”

  1. I totally hear you – and I agree that the corn starch has a terrific effect (like rice flour tends to in other baked goods) – but I still posit that this texture is most akin to shortbread. Not bad, stiff shortbread. But really yummy, soft and crumbly stuff. I first discovered alfajores 25 years ago and, since then, I’ve eaten these all over Europe and in Toronto – which is like a microcosm of the world, gastronomically speaking. I’ve NEVER seen them with nuts or chocolate (except nuts wrapped around the outside). Of course, I would never dispute the veracity of your knowledge – you’re like a fancy baking encyclopedia! But I don’t know how it is that I could have searched these out everywhere and never seen them like that.

    Of course, I have eaten other baked goods that fit the description you mention (like from middle eastern shops) and perhaps I didn’t realize that’s what they were?

    1. Hey K!

      You say tomato, I say tomAHto, I don’t know of a specific word for the dough, so we can each have it our own way I think.

      I myself have never seen archetypal Middle Eastern-style alfajores in the flesh. Evidently they’re mostly a Christmas delicacy in Spain, famously made in a town called Medina-Sidonia, which is fittingly in the far south of Spain, practically to Gibraltar. Go here and scroll down nearly to the bottom to get a sense for what these tube-shaped alfajores look like:


      The Arabs were probably making them there until the afternoon Isabella and Ferdinand finally pitched them out. No! Wait! Let us at least take our cookies!

      Seriously though, in the New World these treats are made all over Central and South America. There are many, many different versions. Single decker, double decker, glazed, iced, enrobed, dusted with sugar, rolled (usually edge on) in chopped nuts or coconut…some are even multi-colored like macarons. I’m told that in Peru alone there are several different styles. Do a google image search for alfajores and you’ll turn up all sorts of them. But be prepared to be hungry!

      Thanks for the great comment, K. And all the kind words. I appreciate it all!

      – Joe


      1. Oooh, fascinating photo. I have definitely never eaten alfajores of that description. In truth, the ones I come by most readily are the Central American variety. Or the ones from Argentina. Looking forward to reading more!

    1. HI Suzanne!

      Good question. Empolvados are from Chile and are very similar, the main difference is that the little disks are made from spongecake, so they’re extremely light and springy. They’re not as rich as alfajores in other words, though they are certainly delicious.

      – Joe

  2. My issue with alfajores is precisely the cornstarch. I can always taste the raw unappealing quality to it and it will ruin cookies like shortbread for me. So will confectioner’s sugar because it contains cornstarch. It’s fine in cakes probably due to the higher hydration, but in cookies it just doesn’t work for me. I’ve usually resorted to low protein flours and grinding my own powdered sugar to get a similar texture.

    1. Not to be confused with the Yoyo…which uses custard powder instead of cornflour.

      1. Oooh…next time I’m going to pull out a little leftover buttercream and go to town! Thanks, Annemarie!


        – Joe

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