The reason this French dessert is surfacing here under a Spanish alias is that islas flotantes are a served in many homes and restaurants around Latin America. The construction is the same as in their land of provenance: small mounds of feathery meringues float swanlike in a still, chilled pool of crème anglaise threaded with amber caramel sauce.
What we were there to get: one large box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes and one can of sweetened condensed milk. Someone sprinted to the living room to return the keys while someone else fetched a stool. Yet another would rattle and rummage for a large pot and a long-handled wooden stirring spoon. I would fill a bowl with water while baking sheets were set up in the dining room. This was a house of seven children, though some were too young to participate, and I loved the buzz of activity and sense that everyone had a task, much like Cinderella's mice.
Usually, we—my dad and I—would be at the pharmacy or checkout aisle in the supermarket and we'd toss a few glossy rectangular boxes into the red plastic shopping basket or already packed cold metal cart. But somehow, those gold-lettered boxes and cellophane wrapper, along with the excitement of Christmas being just a few days away, made a bar of nut-encrusted, wafer covered, crunchy, pale golden nougat a once-a-year treat that I truly looked forward to.
Buñuelos de rodilla are just such a recipe. These "knee fritters" are named that way because the flat disks of translucent dough are shaped upon the knees of women. Imagine spending a whole day carefully stretching hundred of buñuelos, crafting them so they fry up crisp, golden, and airy. The picture of this scene is wondrous and really illustrates how even the humblest foods are treated with respect and affection.
Pío V—allegedly named for 16th century Pope Pius V, though there are no written records or even verbal conjectures to explain the odd handle—is a Nicarguan dessert typically served around Christmastime. The name is quaint and speaks to the Nicaraguan history of Catholicism, but what I love most is that within the name are hidden another three, given that Pío V is made up of marquesote, sopa borracha, and manjar.
We all do it: we wander around the airport waiting for our flight to begin boarding, killing time by stepping in and out of newsstands, perusing the latest paperback crime thrillers, leafing through fashion glossies, wondering whether we should buy one of those vibrating neck pillows.
While I wasn't looking to construct an exact replica of the Havanna brand alfajor negro (chocolate alfajor), I did want to satiate my craving for that sandwich cookie's subtle chocolate flavor, almond and citrus zest essence, cake-like texture, dulce de leche filling, and chocolate coating.
Torta de pan—bread pudding—is not a novel concept to the dessert repertoire of many countries; in Latin America it is an everyday and very casero (homey) preparation. Variations and interpretations are abundant but not exhausting, surely due to the ease of its assembly and its always pleasing result. The custard-soaked and baked dessert is also a sensible way to salvage stale bread scraps that would otherwise find themselves tossed out with the fish guts and vegetable parings.
Food is a central part of Día de los muertos. Pan de muerto is a sweet, soft bread, coated with sugar and made fragrant with the beautiful aroma of orange blossom water. Even if you won't be rapping your knuckles on stranger's doors on behalf of your calaverita, this is a festive and curious bread that's worth trying.
This hybrid dessert combines two of our favorite sweet and creamy treats: rice pudding and flan.
If you're a lover of fried foods, you'll have a deep understanding of the ultimate satisfaction of eating a churro as it emerges out of a burnished gold, bubbling pot of scalding oil. When paired with a silky chocolate dulce de leche dip, these treats are absolutely irresistible.
Tres leches is a personal favorite, immortalized in my taste memory by my mother's recipe, here slightly modified to make room for a bit of tropical taste and texture. One of her signature desserts, it's a large fluffy sponge thirsting for a flood of the milky trifecta. Just when it seems there is much too much liquid, that the cake will drown, the cake slurps it up, gushing out only when prodded with a greedy fork.
Lunch was usually at a popular steak house like Los Ranchos, known for the churrasco and creamy salsa jalapeña. The dessert menu was flimsy and limited to a few uninspired ice cream flavors, the unavoidable overcooked flan, and cocoa-deficient chocolate cake, but there was one saving grace: the torta de higos. It's an easy construction of three components: cake, custard, and poached figs, but together, holy trinity, Batman
Years ago there was a fig tree in a corner of the garden. The figs hung low and plump, hiding in the shade of its own parasol leaves. The tree was unceremoniously cut down after the occasional evening bat became legion. Tree or no tree, higos en miel were made whenever they were in season.
Cocada is a coconut bark made in Latin America. Basically, coconut shreds are coated in sugary syrup and baked until crisp, golden, and delicious. This cocada is gooey and even custardy, with a caramelized, chewy surface and bottom and the unmistakable fleshy crunch of coconut.
There is one genre of cookie that I seem to be pulled to, like one magnet to another: shortbread. Some months ago I made a lemon-almond variety and talked about how much the texture reminded me of polvorones, specifically those manufactured by the Mexican company Marinela.
I couldn't help but think of the stereotypical fiery Latin temperament when I was making this recipe. Arroz con leche (riz au lait or rice pudding), is such a languid, drowsy, gentle thing, so tender it's even suitable for those with smooth gums and weak constitutions, and yet, it is among the most well-liked and frequently made desserts throughout Latin America. Maybe we're all bark and no bite.
In Chile, legend has it that a woman who sold fried dough in a Santiago square during colonial times was surprised by a strong gust of wind that made her skirt fly up. The big reveal: her underpants were torn. Today, the pastries she sold are still prepared in Chile. They're called calzones rotos (torn ladies' underwear) to her—and her mother's—eternal shame.
I resisted writing about flan for a long time. "How stereotypical!" I thought. After the eye roll followed performance anxiety. There's an overwhelming amount of bad flan made, served, and somehow eaten every day. Bad flan, riddled with deep dimples, like a bad case of cellulite. Bad flan, undercooked and slippery, like a strange serpentine sea creature swimming down your throat. Good flan should have slight jiggle, but more along the lines of a trainer-tightened posterior than a waterbed. Good flan is minimalist and sleek, like an expensive silk blouse.
My husband says alfajores are in Latin America's what the Oreo is in the U.S. The sandwich cookies are arguably as recognizable, but they've got a more elaborate history. Alfajor is a derivation of an Arabic word meaning "stuffed," as these treats are. Popular in Spain and in multiple Latin American countries, the alfajor was introduced—along with other foods and cultural elements—to the Iberian Peninsula during the centuries-long Moorish occupation that began in the 8th century.