by Bix Engels
When transplanted to a new land, even the most adventurous diners will miss the tastes of home-and yearn to rekindle family memories connected to food. Maite Zubía, thirty-one, came to Ann Arbor four years ago from Chile when her husband, Matias Bargsted, began a doctoral program in political science at the U-M. She dove into community life, teaching Spanish to students of all ages and acting in the Wild Swan Theater ensemble. Then, two years ago, their son, Pedro, was born-and she found she wanted to share her cherished family food traditions with him. The handmade sweets she made so impressed her friends that last year Zubía launched a company, Maitelates Chocolates, to turn out the exquisite and delicious artisanal treats known as alfajores.
Food has always been a big part of Zubía's life, she explains via email. "All the big important family celebrations have been around lots and lots of good food," she writes. One of her favorite memories is of visiting her grandmother's home in the Chilean countryside and making dulce de leche. The family would gather outside around a big copper pot over a wood fire. They filled the pot with fresh milk from their creamery, added sugar, and stirred. "In order to get a smooth and nice syrup, you have to be stirring all the time," she says, so a long-handled wooden spoon would be passed from one to another of the dozen or so grandchildren standing around the pot for each to take a turn at the task, as the milk concentrated and turned a golden brown. At the end, the kids got the big prize-scraping the sides of the bowl for the best part of the dulce de leche.
Now Zubía is making her own dulce de leche in Ann Arbor, as a chief component of her alfajor cookies (the name comes from Arabic and means "stuffed" or "filled"). She uses it as a filling between two very light, thin shortbread cookies and coats the sweet sandwich in semisweet Belgian chocolate. Working in Pastry Cart owner Barbara Steer's professional kitchen, she turns out alfajores in five variations, each with its own taste and texture: straight dulce de leche, coffee, roasted almond, coconut, and white-chocolate-dipped. They're $2 apiece at the Farmers' Market, online at maitelates.com, and-starting in February-at Everyday Wines in Kerrytown.
[Originally published in February, 2009.]