Conquering Foreign Palates Near You

Sergio Ratto introduces alfajores to America

From 8 to 4, Sergio Ratto crunches numbers as a Buena Park-based public accountant. But what Ratto really wants to do is go home and labor over alfajores, golf ball-sized Argentine shortbread cookie sandwiches filled with creamy dulce de leche caramel and covered in chocolate. Ask him about his hobby, and the garrulous Ratto leaves the world of the 401(k) and talks breathlessly of alfajores: the need for faultless ingredients. The arduous process of baking shortbread and separating it with a thin layer of dulce de leche. The proper way to dip the finished alfajor in chocolate so that it doesn't overwhelm the other flavors. The grueling search for distributors.

"I'm not going to lie," says Ratto. "My product is not organic. Not recommended for weight watchers. But it's an art piece."

It's this love for alfajores that inspired the Argentine native in 1996 to create Keko's Foods, the only mass distributor of alfajores in the United States. It's been a successful decade, as Ratto has tapped into Southern California's large Argentine community for loyal customers and maintains a website (www.kekosfoods.com) that draws its customers from the global Argentine diaspora. But Ratto now has his eyes set on a larger market: you.

"If Americans love to have Mexican tacos for lunch and Chinese food for dinner," reasons Ratto, "why can't they have a delicious Argentinean alfajor for dessert?"

If Ratto's dream comes true, it won't be the first time the tiny cookie has conquered foreign palates. The alfajor has its roots in Middle Eastern pastries like baklava and maamouls but was born in Spain during the reign of the Moors ("alfajor" is derived from the Arabic al-haus, meaning "stuffed"). It became a staple in the Moorish stronghold of Andalusia, home to many of Spain's conquistadors—the men who wreaked death and imperial ruination upon South America in the 1600s and left cookies in their wake.

While many South American countries adopted alfajores, Argentineans are obsessed with them. Buenos Aires' major daily, Clarín, once estimated that Argentines eat an average of 6 million alfajores per day. Each region has its own version—the province of Córdoba adds fruits and peaches, while Santa Fé's is more like a puff pastry. The jewel of Argentina's alfajores comes from the picturesque port city of Mar del Plata—the alfajor marplatense, a sugary cookie about the size of a coaster that also happens to be Ratto's specialty. Keko's Foods offers the marplatense in two varieties: cocoa cookie alfajor covered in chocolate and vanilla cookie alfajor covered in white chocolate. Both black and white alfajores are delicious, spongy delights.

Ratto didn't set out to bake the alfajor marplatense—his favorite is the Fantoche variety covered with white chocolate and meringue, and Ratto also fondly remembers fudge-filled, almond-covered and triple-decker varieties from his days in Argentina. But when Ratto and his wife, Cecilia, entered the alfajor business in 1996, the first recipe they found was for marplatenses.

Everything in those early days was similarly haphazard. The two used their cramped Long Beach apartment as their bakery and spent six difficult months perfecting the shortbread that is the backbone of the dessert. Once comfortable with their alfajor recipe, the Rattos tried to get their treats into local bakeries; most passed on something so exotic. During one call, a bakery goods distributor prompted Cecilia for a company name. The couple didn't have one. With Ratto next to her, Cecilia blurted out "Keko's Foods," in honor of her husband's childhood nickname. The name stuck.

Business improved as, conversely, life in Argentina worsened and more Argentines migrated to Southern California, with a large community in Garden Grove. Nowadays, the Rattos lease a bakery there and sell their alfajores in local Argentine restaurants (including Regina's and Pasta Connection) and in such South American produce stores as Anaheim's El Gaucho Meat Market and Produce Warehouse in Santa Ana. Keko's Foods also does special orders—one of Ratto's most loyal customers is an Argentine living in Switzerland; another is an American on the East Coast, a man who visited Argentina just once decades ago and has adored the alfajor ever since.

With orders increasing each year, it would be easy for Ratto to drop the personal attention he gives to his alfajores and mass-produce them. But he's adamant about taking his sweet time. "The preparation process is almost automatic to us now," he says. "But we know we have to make every alfajor count."

To order from Keko's Foods, visit www.kekosfoods.com or call (714) 373-2297.

 
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