AlfajoresPosted: July 17, 2012
Today, in the last post before a short summer break, I thought I’d post about an old recipe *everyone faints with ‘no surprise there’* – but also how I go about researching and then scaling down the usually huge original quantities to a deliciously manageable size. I get really excited to taste something made from a recipe hundreds of years old – it’s like tasting an antique (but with less dust and fewer cracks)! I’ve always liked history, and at times I’ve envied historians who can read hieroglyphs or Latin, and can thus have a direct link with the past. Being able to prepare and taste the food of times gone by is just my own way of connecting with the cooks of long ago, as well as recognising and celebrating the skill of the cooks of the past.
Since the original recipe for these tasty morsels was also in Spanish, which I don’t speak, let’s just say that it added to the fun and games. If you came here hoping it was going to be the South American, dulche de leche sandwich biscuits, then you’re going to be disappointed. But since you’re here anyways, why not pull up a chair and see if I can’t tempt your tastebuds?
So without further ado – Adelante!
I can’t remember exactly how I stumbled onto the Alfajores of Medina Sidonia, but I’m pretty sure it was while I was looking at the origins of gingerbread a couple of years ago, and how it used to be made by mixing breadcrumbs and spices and binding it into a paste with honey. The original gingerbreads weren’t baked, merely moulded and dried, and so it is with this recipe for Alfajores, but with some added toasted seeds and nuts to give some crunchy texture.
In 1888, the Spanish bibliophile, academic, philatelist and gourmet Don Mariano Pardo de Figueroa – who wrote under the pen-name of Doctor Thebussem – revealed a recipe for a local delicacy that he discovered in a small, anonymous pamphlet entitled “Recetario Práctico De Guisados Y Dulces. Medina Sidonia” dated 1786. The recipe gave the ingredients and instructions for Alfajores of the very best quality:
“Una azumbre de miel blanca. Tres medios de avellanas y una libra de almendras, todo ello tostado y tronzado. Onza y media de canela en polvo. Dos onzas de matalahuva, cuatro adarmes de clavo y cuatro de cilantro, todo ello tostado y molido. Una libra de ajonjolí tostado. Ocho libras de polvo de moler, sacado de rosquillos de pan sin sal ni levaduras, muy cocidos en el horno.Con media libra de azúcar harás almíbar, luego agregarás la miel, y cuando esté subida de punto, le echas los avíos, tres puñados de harina cernida y polvo de moler. Muélelo para que todo quede bien mezclado. Háganse los bollos en caliente, báñense en almíbar, cúbranse de azúcar fina con alguna canela y empapélense. En cada libra de bollos deben entrar de ocho a doce, para que sean lúcidos. La dificultad y el secreto del alfajor está en el punto de miel: para cocerlo dan las recetas muchas reglas, pero como ninguna es cierta, no las apunto, y digan que la práctica es aquí la maestra, como en todo. “
I found several recipes out there on the web, each claiming to be based on this recipe, but each of them with differing proportions of both the spices and the other ingredients. Since I was curious to find out what was so special about these biscuits, I decided to go back to the original recipe to try and work out the correct balance.
With a set of the (usually) trusty Google tools at my disposal, here’s what I came up with:
- Una azumbre de miel blanca. azumbra = A Spanish word derived from the Arabic “al-thumn,” meaning “an eighth part.” Usually an eighth of a cántara. Cántara = a unit of liquid measurement equivalent to 16.133 liters, therefore an azumbra = 2.0166 liters (of white honey).
- Tres medios de avellanas y una libra de almendras, todo ello tostado y tronzado.: Three half pounds of hazlenuts (690g) and one pound of almonds (460g) toasted and chopped.
- Onza y media de canela en polvo. An ounce and a half of cinnamon powder.
- Dos onzas de matalahuva: two ounces of aniseed
- Cuatro adarmes de clavo y cuatro de cilantro, todo ello tostado y molido. Adarmes = unit of weight equivalent to 1/16 ounce (1.8g). 4 adarmes of cloves (7.2g), 4 adarmes of coriander (7.2g) toasted and chopped (ground).
- Una libra de ajonjolí tostado: One pound (460g) toasted sesame seeds.
- Ocho libras de polvo de moler, sacado de rosquillos de pan sin sal ni levaduras, muy cocidos en el horno: Eight pounds (3.68kg) of breadcrumbs, without salt or leavening, well dried in the oven.”rosquillos de pan” literally means ‘bread doughnuts’, which I have taken to mean bagels.
- Con media libra de azúcar harás almíbar: With half a pound of sugar syrup. This is rather ambiguous – do they mean half a pound (230g) of sugar made into syrup? If so, how strong should it be? Or a total of 230g/ml of sugar and water combined?
- Tres puñados de harina cernida y polvo de moler: Three handfuls of fine flour, ground and sifted.
With the original recipe established, all that was required was for it to be scaled to a manageable size. I chose to scale the breadcrumbs to 250g (no particular reason, other than it seemed a manageable amount), and then scale everything else down by the same factor (just under 7%). This can get tricky when dealing with the spices – even my digital scales can’t measure less than 1g. My solution is to weigh out 1g and then half it or quarter it.
When experimenting with a recipe, I feel obliged to make it according to the original directions specified at least once, if only to see if they make a logical set of instructions. After this initial version, I may choose to tweak it by varying the method, or sometimes the ingredients if they aren’t to my tastes. But every old recipe gets at least one shot at impressing me enough in its original form for me to want to persevere and try to resurrect it for use today. And the Alfajores de Medina Sidonia did just that. Quite apart from their age, and the lack of baking required, the spice mix is wonderfully aromatic, and quite different to anything I’ve tasted before. The original recipe calls for everything to be pulverised to a paste, and initially that’s what I tried, but I thought that the one, homogenous blob of paste didn’t really showcase the ingredients very well. Hunting around on the internet, I discovered photographs of Alfajores where the individual ingredients were visible. So for the next version I tried to keep the breadcrumbs roughly the same size as the nuts and seeds. This certainly had more texture, but needed a great deal of syrup added in order to get it to stick together, making it very sweet, and even then, it crumbled very easily. So the final attempt was to pulverise the breadcrumbs but keep the nuts and seeds slightly larger, and this worked best of all. Just in my opinion, of course. Feel free to try what works for you.
These sweetmeats have been made in Medina Sidonia for generations, and may well date back over 1400 years to the invasion of the Moors. Since 2004, the Alfajor de Medina Sidonia has enjoyed protected geographical indication, alongside Melton Mowbray pork pies and Cornish pasties. Specifications dictate that an Alfajor de Medina Sidonia should be cylindrical in shape, with a minimum weight of 30 grams each (although the original recipe indicated the weight should be closer to 50g), and with a minimum size of about 18 cm in length and a diameter of 1.5 cm. Each of them should be protected with a wrapping paper, and the ends made an ornament in a spiral shape with a ribbon out of the same paper. Once individually wrapped, they may be packaged in wood or cardboard boxes, but never in plastic.
Now I tried to make them into the elegant, cigar-shaped confections they are famed for – but got in a horribly sticky mess, so I decided that my versions would differ in both size and shape. In any case, 50g of biscuit dough is rather a lot to get through, even if you really, REALLY like them. I made mine into miniature, two-bite morsels by using just 1 tablespoon of mixture in each hole of my mini muffin pan, tamped down with my wooden Bodger™ – a fab present from the equally fab Yasmin Limbert.
Have a great summer, and I’ll be back soon with more baking adventures!
Alfajores de Medina Sidonia
50g chopped, toasted hazelnuts
30g chopped almonds
35g sesame seeds
6 cloves 
1tsp coriander seeds
5 bagels – to make 250g dried breadcrumbs
Icing sugar to finish
- Preheat the oven to 150°C, 130°C Fan.
- Tear the bagels into small pieces and blitz to rough crumbs in a food processor.
- Spread the breadcrumbs on a baking sheet lined with parchment and dry in the oven for 10 minutes.
- Stir the crumbs around and return to the oven for another 5 minutes until thoroughly dry and crisp.
- Allow the crumbs to cool, then blitz in a food processor or spice grinder to a fine powder and tip into a bowl.
- Blitz the spices in a spice grinder (easy) or pestle and mortar (harder). Sift and add to the breadcrumbs.
- Lay the sesame seeds and chopped almonds on the parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes until lightly toasted.
- Put the sugar and water in a saucepan and heat gently until the sugar is dissolved. This will make much more syrup than is needed to bind the ingredients together – the rest can be used to brush over the finished biscuits before dusting with icing sugar.
- Add the nuts and seeds to the spices and breadcrumbs.
- Warm the honey and pour into the rest of the ingredients and stir to combine.
- Keep stirring the mixture ( a stand mixer is ideal) and add the syrup one spoonful at a time until the mixture will stick together when pressed.
- Put one tablespoon of mixture into each cup of a mini muffin tin and press down firmly to form a small cake.
- Chill in the fridge.
- When the cakes are firm, wash them over with sugar syrup and toss in icing sugar. Use a pastry brush for the syrup – dipping the little cakes makes them a bit claggy once the icing sugar has stuck to them. You can use icing sugar flavoured with cinnamon if liked.
 You need 0.5g of each of these spices. If you don’t have a spice grinder, use pre-ground spices – 1tsp ground coriander and 1/2tsp ground cloves.