Maite Zubia lifts a cookie with her fork, a cookie she’s just dipped in slippery melted chocolate. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she asks. “It’s simple, but it’s beautiful.”
She’s in the basement of an Eighth Avenue home on Ann Arbor’s Old West Side, which is also set up as a commercial kitchen, showing The Chronicle how she makes these traditional South American cookies, called alfajores. She’s also telling the story of how she’s growing her business, Maitelates: “It’s been a story of support.”
Zubia came to Ann Arbor in 2004 with her husband, who’s studying for his Ph.D in political science at the University of Michigan. She’s worked at Wild Swan Theater – “They’re like my family here,” she says – and has taught Spanish classes as well. But when her son Pedro was born on Christmas Eve in 2007, things changed.
Her husband’s scholarship was running out and she needed to make some money, but with an infant in tow, working at the theater became too difficult. She’d been making Dulce de Leche – a creamy caramel that’s made with sugar and fresh milk – to give to family and friends. Since Dulce de Leche is the filling used in an alfajor, a simple shortbread-type cookie, she wondered if the cookies might be something she could sell at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market.
Last spring she talked to Molly Notarianni, the market manager, who told her that market rules required the product be made in a commercial kitchen. That began a quest that led her to Jefferson Market & Cakery, where owner Mary Rasmussen agreed to rent out the shop’s kitchen to her by the hour.
When she returned home to Santiago, Chile, last summer for a visit, she took a class to learn how to make chocolate. Chocolate-dipped alfajores are a variation on the traditional cookie, and one she thought would appeal to the American sweet tooth. The cookie also draws on her family tradition – Zubia’s grandmother owned a farm, and in the summers her family would gather there and make Dulce de Leche in a large copper pot over a fire, each child taking a turn at stirring during the hours it took to cook.
Back in Ann Arbor, Zubia began selling her individually wrapped alfajores at the farmers market in September, just on Wednesdays, for $2 apiece. Her first day she brought 100 and sold 50: “I thought, ‘I’m a winner!’” she recalls, laughing. The next Wednesday, she sold 80 – and so on.
In November, she got space in the Saturday market, which was a turning point, she said. Sales continued to grow. The Saturday before Christmas she made 500 cookies, and sold out.
By this time, Zubia had moved production to the basement of Barbara and Michael Steer’s home, in the commercial kitchen set up for Barbara’s business, The Pastry Cart. It was a better fit, Zubia said, and the Steers have been incredibly generous. Barbara Steer is back in school and doesn’t use the kitchen much, so Zubia can work there whenever she wants – generally, that means at night, when her husband is home and can take care of Pedro.
Barbara Steer also has given helpful advice, Zubia says, like encouraging her to buy local ingredients and offering suggestions on recipes and techniques. At the beginning, she made the “classic” alfajor – the Dulce de Leche-filled cookie covered in chocolate. Now, she has four other variations, mixing the filling with coconut, roasted almonds, and espresso (she uses Roos Roast‘s Lobster Butter Love coffee), and one kind covered with white chocolate.
Making Dulce de Leche is a simple but time-intensive process, stirring sugar and milk for several hours over a low flame. Mainly, it’s boring. So Zubia makes a lot at one time, and stores the finished product in big plastic tubs in the kitchen’s refrigerator. The rest of the process is typically parceled out over several days. She makes about 200 shortbread cookies at a time, then after they cool she fills them with Dulce de Leche. She likes to let them rest a day, so that the cookie can absorb some of the filling. Then she’ll dip them in chocolate, and let them cool again before hand-wrapping each one in squares of black paper and sealing it with a sticker designed for her business.
Zubia sells her alfajores individually as well as in funky corrugated-cardboard boxes: 12 for $22, and 18 for $32. She’s also found there’s a market for pure Dulce de Leche, which she now sells in glass jars. And starting last weekend, the cookies are for sale at Everyday Wines in the Kerrytown Market & Shops, adding to owner Mary Campbell’s list of “incubated” businesses there. You can also buy the cookies online.
“I’m taking it step by step,” Zubia says. “I’m enjoying the moment – most of all, I’m relieved that it worked, and that I’m helping my family.”