Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Alfajores and Other Peruvian Foods

A few years ago, Nico, a Peruvian friend of my daughter's, stopped by the house at Christmas time with a gift of alfajores he had just baked. I was immediately swooning and asked for the recipe for these buttery cookies layered between caramel. Unfortunately, his mother wanted to keep the recipe within the family, so I was out of luck.

I never forgot how delicious they were, so on my recent trip to Peru, I hoped to find some alfajores as good as Nico's. Typically covered in powdered sugar, the ones I tasted in Peru fell far short of the crumbly, delicate ones Nico made.

I returned to the states and decided I'd just have to find a recipe for them on my own.

That's when I remembered the wonderful crust in the Lemon Ricotta crostata I made a while ago from  a recipe by Domenica Marchetti. There was leftover dough from that crostata and I used it back then to make cookies stuffed with Nutella. Why not fill them with some homemade caramel instead? Bingo! Alfajores!

Alfajores are enjoyed as a special occasion treat not only in Peru, but in other South American countries as well. In Argentina, the caramel filling is called dulce de leche, but in Peru, it's manjar blanco. Either way, it's made the same way, a sweet reduction of milk and sugar.

You can make your own by submerging a can of sweetened condensed milk in simmering water for two to three hours. 

After the caramel has cooled, spread a tablespoon or so between the cookies. 

They're sweet enough as is, so I omitted the traditional shower of powdered sugar.

Put out a platter of these and watch them disappear quicker than you can say "dulce de leche."

Alfajores are only one of the specialty foods you'll find in Peru. Lima is actually considered the gastronomic capital of South America and with good reason. 

Here are a sampling of some of the foods we ate on our recent trip:

croquettes, ceviche, and probecitas (tender beef over rice and beans topped with a quail egg):

Pisco sours and roast pork sandwiches served with pickled red onion:

steak with blueberry sauce:

chicken smothered in a pepper and tomato sauce served with quinoa:

luscious flan:

Gelato with flavors not typically found in the U.S. like maracuyà (passion fruit):

Peru is a fascinating country with a rich history and friendly people. From its cities to the ancient site of Machu Picchu to the salt flats of Salineras and the Sacred Valley, the sights, sounds and flavors of Peru left us with unforgettable memories and a strong desire to return and see more.

Hasta la vista.


(dough recipe from Domenica Marchetti)

  • For the dough

  • 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

  • 1 cup confectioners’ sugar

  • 1/4 tsp fine sea salt

  • Finely grated zest of 1 organic lemon

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

  • 1 large whole egg

  • 2 large egg yolks

Make the dough

Put the flour, sugar, salt, and lemon zest in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse briefly to combine. Distribute the butter around the bowl and pulse until the mixture is crumbly. Add the whole egg and egg yolks and process until the mixture just begins to clump together in the work bowl.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and briefly knead it together. Without overworking it, shape the dough into a disk, patting rather than kneading it. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or until well chilled. Cut into thirds, then roll out each third on a wooden or marble surface, dusting the rolling pin and board with flour. Use cookie cutters to cut out discs, then place on a cookie sheet and bake for about 10 minutes at 350 degrees, checking at about eight minutes to make sure they don't burn.

For the filling:

1 can sweetened condensed milk

Remove label of milk. Submerge the can in water and simmer for two to three hours (depending on dark you like the dulce de leche. I kept it in three hours), making sure there is always at least one inch of water covering the can. Cool and spread between two pieces of baked cookies.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Salt Pans of Salineras, and the Sacred Valley of Peru

I've given you a hint in the title of this post, so you probably already know what you're looking at in the photo above. They're not terraces of snow or white marble -- they're thousands of individual pools of salt in Peru's Urubamba River valley.

Years ago, I'd visited underground salt mines in Austria and felt claustrophobic riding down a wooden slide where the salt was mined. But that felt like child's play compared to the descent to the salt pans of Salineras, Peru. It was a little too close to the edge for most of the harrowing ride down the valley, but our driver assured me he had done it many times before. 

The 6,000 individual salt pans of Salineras de Maras have been mined since Incan times. 

Individual salt pans form cascading terraces along a hillside.

They are all family-owned and passed down through generations.

The pools are filled with heavily salted water from a natural spring. The water is diverted into the pans through a series of channels, which can be blocked off, controlling where the water flows.

Once the pan is filled with water, the sun does its job and helps evaporate the water in a few weeks, leaving layers of salt about one meter deep (about 40 inches).

 The top layer is used in the leather industry; the middle layer is used for animals and the very bottom, and finest salt layer, is for human consumption. I'm sure many of you have purchased fleur de sel from France for your cooking. In Spanish it's called "flor de sal" or "flower of salt."

At Salineras, they sell lots of different kinds of salts, including some flavored with herbs and spices.

I bought several bags, including one type of salt that's used for medicinal purposes -- very useful after my ankle injury on this trip.

I was sidelined at the edge, due to my injury, but my daughter explored, walking carefully along the paths between the salt pans. 

When it's time to harvest the salt, families arrive with shovels and start filling bags with the salt.

Salineras is in a beautiful area of Peru called the "Sacred Valley" -- an area of rolling fields and fertile farmland between Cusco and Machu Picchu.

It's also an area of many ancient Incan sites, all crowned by the magnificent backdrop of the Andes mountains.

One of the most unusual places we visited was Moray. These concentric circles are thought to have been a center for Incan agricultural research, where crops were grown at different levels, and where temperatures changed precipitously from the lowest to the highest terrace.

We also stopped at Chinchero, where there are more Incan ruins and where we got a demonstration on natural dying and weaving from two Quechua women who were spinning baby llama wool.

 Most of the colors came from plant material, such as this purple corn:

But one of the colors came from a small beetle that lives on cacti, called the cochineal beetle. It appears to be white, but once it's scraped off the protective white covering on the cactus and crushed between the fingers, it turns as red as bright lipstick.

The beetles are dried,

 Then crushed into powder before mixing with water.

Artists and textile experts have long used the natural dye in their work, and it's also been used in food coloring for centuries as well as in cosmetics. It fell out of favor for a while, but after some synthetic red food colorings were found to be carcinogenic, the natural cochineal red is making a comeback. 

Similarly, Italians produce a liqueur called alkermes, whose intense red color also comes from an insect. The liquid, infused with flavorings like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, is widely used there in baking and as a digestivo.

 There are so many more Incan sites to visit in the "Sacred Valley" and we barely scratched the surface.

 The people we met were so friendly and warm, we were sorry we couldn't spend more time there. I hope you get a chance to visit too.

Hasta la vista.

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Thursday, May 19, 2016

Quinoa Salad and Perils in Peru

It was no surprise to see quinoa on the menu at restaurants across Peru, including this salad my daughter ordered at a restaurant in Cusco during our recent vacation together. 

After all, quinoa (pronounced "keen-wa") is a wonder food that dates back 5,000 years to Peru's Inca civilization.

We were even served a quinoa pastry for breakfast on our train ride from to Ollantaytambo from Aquas Caliente (the nearest town to Machu Picchu, our ultimate destination).

Back home, I recreated the salad, but since the mango I had bought wasn't quite ripe, I used nectarines instead, along with the avocado and maché lettuce that was in the original salad.

The second time I made it, the mango had ripened, and I added some red onion too, something that's used quite a lot in Peru, I found. Whether you use nectarines or mangos (or even a peach or apricot), it's a tasty salad packed with plenty of nutrition. Quinoa is a complete protein in itself, and if you have any gluten intolerant friends, they'll thank you, since it's not a grain, but the seed of a plant that's in the same family as beets and spinach.

The real reason we went to Peru however, was not to eat quinoa, but to visit its breathtaking sights, including the most recognizable icon of Incan civilization -- Machu Picchu.

My daughter had planned for us not only to traipse through the 15th century ruins, but had made reservations for us to hike the large mountain you see in the distance - called "Huayna Picchu," or "Wayna Picchu."

I should have known there would be trouble ahead, after learning that Huayna Picchu means "young person's mountain," while Machu Picchu means "old person's mountain."

More on the trouble later.

As we walked through the site, we couldn't help but wonder how the Incans could have hauled these huge boulders and cut the massive stones without any iron tools, or how they could have created the walls and buildings without any mortar between the stones. Add the sheer height and the thin air to the mix and it becomes an almost unimaginable architectural feat.

Temples and houses are interspersed among the agricultural terraces.

It was one of the most difficult hikes I've ever done, but we were rewarded with stunning sights all along the steep climb.

Including wild orchids growing along the sides of much of the tropical forests along the mountain.

I wanted to turn around several times and go back to safer ground (and terrain that made it easier to breath) but was encouraged to keep going by not only my daughter, but by the people coming down the mountain who urged me to go slow and get to the top. Only 400 people a day are allowed to climb Huayna Picchu, and you have to reserve way in advance.

So onward we climbed, to these narrow, steep steps near the summit.

The steps seemed to get more narrow and more steep as we climbed higher and some people decided to turn back.

But there was no stopping us at this point, when we were so close to the top, even if we had to use our hands and knees part of the way on these ancient stone steps.

When we got to the top, we were rewarded with extraordinary views of the neighboring mountains and the ruins of Machu Picchu.

Very little is known about this archeological site that was hidden from most of the world until 1913 when National Geographic Magazine published an article by American professor Hiram Bingham, who two years earlier had "discovered"  it. Bingham wasn't the first Westerner to have stumbled on it though.  That claim is thought to have been attributed to Augusto Berns, a German adventurer who looted the citadel's gold and other artifacts.

After making our dizzying way to the summit of Huayna Picchu, we had unparalleled, spectacular vistas of the Andes mountains with 360 degree views. It seemed as though you could touch the sky.

Although it looks like she's at the edge of the mountain, my daughter is sitting on a ledge with a small landing of grass beneath her feet, overlooking Machu Picchu and the zig-zaggy road used by vehicles to drive there.

After soaking in the almost mystical feeling of being in this ethereal place, we had to start our descent, and part of it was navigating through a tight crevasse in dim light, with jagged rocks hanging at eye level. For tall people like me and my daughter, we were crouching the whole time through the narrow passageway.

And so the descent began, on steps that were wide enough for only one person. Anyone coming in the other direction had to wait at the one of the platforms, where there was room to two or more to maneuver.

Careful as I was though, shortly after that last photo, I unfortunately slipped and injured my ankle. Nonetheless, I had no way to get down except to walk on my own. One kind stranger, seeing my distress, thankfully gave me her walking stick for the descent. 

For two more hours, I took careful, slow and painful steps until I got to the guard shack at the entrance, where we had started earlier in the day and where we needed to check out. 

My daughter called for paramedics, who came to my rescue a short while later. I am so grateful to Cristian and Riccardo, for the gentle way they cared for me, even if it meant an embarrassing shot in the rear in the mountain hut to help relieve the pain. Muchas gracias amigos.

 Back at home now, I've had time to reflect on this trip, and how special it truly was to see Machu Picchu and other sacred sights in Peru, and to have my daughter as my companion the whole way. 

My daughter might say otherwise, given the handicap I thrust on her the last couple of days of the trip, but as for me, if I had to do it all over again - torn ligaments and sprained ankle included - I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

But for the record, I may confine my exercise to swimming pools in the future. 


Stay tuned for more adventures and recipes from Peru and in the meantime, try this delicious salad:

Peruvian Quinoa Salad

printable recipe here

1/2 cup quinoa (I used a mixture of white and red quinoa)

1 cup water

2 Tablespoons olive oil for sautéing

1 mango (or 2 nectarines or peaches or apricots), diced

1 avocado, diced

a couple of slices of red onion, minced

salt, pepper

3 T. olive oil for dressing

juice of one lime

Cook the quinoa in the water for about five minutes. This is less time than most packages call for, but in Peru, the quinoa was crunchy, and a waiter told me that the chef had sautéed it in some oil after it was boiled a bit. 

Let the boiled quinoa cool a bit, then heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet and toss the quinoa in the oil for a few minutes.

Remove to a bowl and let cool, then add the rest of the ingredients, adjusting seasonings and adding more lime juice (or white wine vinegar) if necessary.

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