Making Alfajores, and a Business

Maite Zubia sells her treats at the Farmers Market, Everyday Wines
The final step in making an alfajor, a traditional South American cookie, is dipping it in chocolate.

The final step in making an alfajor, a traditional South American cookie, is dipping it in chocolate.

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.

Maite Zubia dipping an alfajor in chocolate.

Maite Zubia dipping an alfajor in chocolate.

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.

Maite Zubia arranges her display at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market on Saturday.

Maite Zubia arranges her display at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market on Saturday.

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.

A wrapped alfajor Maitelates.

A wrapped alfajor Maitelates.

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.”

A tray of alfajores dipped in white chocolate.

A tray of alfajores dipped in white chocolate.

Maite Zubia stacks a tray of chocolate-dipped alfajores to cool.

Maite Zubia stacks a tray of chocolate-dipped alfajores to cool.

A shopper at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market samples one of Maite Zubia's alfajores on Saturday.

A shopper at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market samples one of Maite Zubia's alfajores on Saturday.

The Maitelates display at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market.

The Maitelates display at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market.


  1. By Sara Johns
    January 26, 2009 at 9:36 am | permalink

    I’ve had these cookies and they are incredible.

  2. January 26, 2009 at 9:43 am | permalink

    Stop by at farmer’s market for a sample, they are delicious!

    (and I’m waiting to do the recipe that combines them with Wasem’s donuts)

  3. By Marcello
    January 26, 2009 at 10:28 am | permalink

    Congratulations Maite, a big hug from the very south of the continent!!!

  4. January 26, 2009 at 10:38 am | permalink

    Maite… Congratulations !!!! you are the best and I will expect for your alfajor in NY..

    One more time… CONGRATULATIONS !!!!

  5. By Nancy Shore
    January 26, 2009 at 12:20 pm | permalink

    I have purchased this yummy cookies a couple of times and I also love them! They are a great little treat. They are also quite romantic, so they make a great Valentine’s Gift if you are in to that sort of thing.

  6. By Veronica
    January 26, 2009 at 12:58 pm | permalink

    FELICITACIONES MAITE!! CONGRATULATION! your alfajores are delicious! My family and I love them! Bravo Maitelates!!

  7. By Ann Rolf
    January 26, 2009 at 1:17 pm | permalink

    Maite….I’m so excited for you and feel privileged to have watched your journey, sampled some of your melt-in-your mouth chocolates and cheered on your success! I might have to treat myself to one for Valentines Day!

  8. By alejandra
    January 26, 2009 at 1:26 pm | permalink

    I knew it!! ur gonna have sucess in this pyme…

    Congratulations my friend

  9. By andrea
    January 26, 2009 at 6:34 pm | permalink

    I am addicted to these chocolates–the gold ones (with dulce de leche).

  10. January 26, 2009 at 9:23 pm | permalink

    yay! so glad to share “counter space” with maite at everyday wines! …for the record, i took a box up north for the family over the holidays, and everyone is hooked…these cookies are AMAZING.

  11. January 27, 2009 at 10:04 am | permalink

    Wonderful story about entrepreneurship, effort, innovation and growth in this tough economic times. Congratulations Maite!!!

  12. By Jo
    January 27, 2009 at 10:07 am | permalink

    Congratulations Maite!! You are an example of innovative woman. Your husband and Pedro have to be proud of you, as many of us.

  13. By Juan-Carlos LEON
    January 27, 2009 at 10:08 am | permalink

    Te pasaste !! Felicitaciones :)
    Estoy seguro que luego te veremos en la revista FORBES.
    Sólo faltó decir que venías de la CDT …

    Ann Harbor, enjoy this delicatessen !!

    All the best

  14. January 28, 2009 at 5:26 pm | permalink

    Wow, I can get alfajores in ANN ARBOR, and homemade? I’m 1/2 Argentine and can’t believe my good luck. I look forward to trying them out! –D

  15. By Judy Steeh
    January 31, 2009 at 7:47 pm | permalink

    Wow indeed! I just had homemade alfajores in Tokyo and they were fantastic. I got the recipe to bring home, but now I can just get them from Maite instead. YUM — I can hardly wait!

  16. February 4, 2009 at 2:02 pm | permalink

    Clearly Maite’s chocolates are delicious. After trying them in her flavors, I can understand why the traditional cookies of Chile, on which these are based are so popular in her home country. They never last long at our house.

  17. By KT
    February 25, 2009 at 8:16 pm | permalink

    A friend brought some of Maite’s chocolate covered cookies for Valentine’s Day and they were out of this world! I see Maite at the AA Farmer’s Market on Saturdays and she is such a pleasure to talk to. Great to see this coverage!!

  18. By Stefanie Dammert-Vega
    June 13, 2009 at 10:25 pm | permalink

    Maitelates? My friends from an Ann Arbor eating and reading group told me about this and I couldn’t believe it. I had brought over a box of alfajores to one of the meetings, a little box that I had been saving for a special occasion. My mother-in-law had brought the alfajores from Peru a week before. Now, I have to tell you, Peru was at war with Chile in the 19th century over land. The war these days is over who really invented Pisco Sour and ceviche! I say peace and prosper…and I’ll have to go get some alfajores in Ann Arbor soon. Wait for me…..