A Sweet to Smile For

Dulce de leche-filled butter cookies make a wonderful way to end a meal.

Most chefs draw inspiration from the past; few go as far as James Schenk and actually attempt to re-create it. Schenk is the executive chef and owner of San Francisco's Destino, one of the city's first Nuevo Latino restaurants. Schenk's Peruvian mother and grandmother were both chefs, and the food at Destino is predominantly Peruvian. The restaurant itself, however, is modeled after a cafe in Madrid that effectively became Schenk's home away from home during the year he spent as a student in the Spanish capital. When he opened Destino, in 2000, it was with the hope of replicating the warm, convivial spirit that had infused his Madrid hangout.

In keeping with his emphasis on good cheer, Schenk decided to set a plate of alfajores—butter cookies filled with dulce de leche—on the table at the end of every meal. Schenk had grown up eating those beloved traditional South American treats, and he thought that serving them at Destino would, as he puts it, "give people something that would let them leave with a smile on their faces". His hunch was sound: the tender, crumbly, perfectly sweet gems proved a huge success—so much so that Schenk began packaging his alfajores for sale two and a half years ago.

Schenk makes the cookies by hand, using an old family recipe that he adapted slightly. The ingredients list is short—just flour, butter, sugar, salt, vanilla, and sweetened condensed milk (Schenk prefers a Brazilian brand of the last, which he says is richer and creamier than American varieties)—but the dough is difficult to work with and the process is time-consuming. Still, he refuses to employ shortcuts like jarred dulce de leche and automated machinery because he feels they don't yield the best, most consistent product. Last year he added a chocolate-covered version of the cookies. When he told us that people "swoon" over both, we weren't surprised. Schenk suggests sprinkling the plain alfajores with powdered sugar before serving These delightful cookies are available at Gump's San Francisco (800⁄766-7628).