This hybrid dessert combines two of our favorite sweet and creamy treats: rice pudding and flan.
'Latin American' on Serious Eats
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.
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.
I'll be the first to admit that ice cream making is a drag, but delayed gratification is deliciously rewarding, especially when it involves this luxurious, velvety ice cream made with sweet corn, tangy crema, and an insinuation of cinnamon.
Corn is ubiquitous in Latin American cuisine. It's used in every conceivable fashion, from the instantly recognizable tortilla to more obscure fermented beverages, like chicha de maíz. Torta de elotes—corn torte or cake—is on the more popular side and is made in several countries. It's rather similar to corn pudding: fresh corn is ground to a pulp, then combined with eggs, sugar, and other flavorings, such as sweetened condensed milk or cheese.
For the most part, yuca is used in savory preparations, but it does moonlight as a dessert ingredient. In Nicaragua, the yuca root's tough, brown skin is peeled off and the white interior finely shredded, then combined with queso duro, a firm, salty cheese. Eggs and baking powder are stirred in, and the mixture is deep-fried to make buñuelos (fritters).
I've been gathering and researching Latin American recipes in preparation for each week's installment of "Dulces" and decided to start with those that are most familiar; the ones I grew up eating. My husband couldn't wait for me to make this one: it's one of his favorites because it's all cocoa and sugar, but especially because it's one that he learned to prepare alongside his grandmother.
In Nicaragua, pastel de piña is what you'd be most likely to find cooling in the kitchen and for sale at any bakery. Though "pastel" translates into "pie" there, this is more of a tart with a lattice top. The pineapple filling is cooked until thick, sticky, and jam-like, the flavor intensifying and acquiring caramel notes as it simmers. It peeks out glossy and golden from the lattice screen that presses it against a crisp layer of buttery crust.
I grew up in a household where dessert was always served, and atolillo was frequently on the menu. It was a crowd-pleaser and easy enough to pull together even on a busy weeknight. Atolillo is a humble little custard made with milk, egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch, and lightly flavored with cinnamon.
Even if a layover is all the time I have in Miami, I have a mini-vacation when I bite into a pastelito de guayaba con queso at one of the airport restaurants. Pastelitos—literally, "little pies"—are puff pastry turnovers filled with guava paste and cream cheese.