When the Moon Was Ours
by Anna-Marie McLemore
Publication: Oct. 4, 2016
Genre: YA fantasy, magical realism
My rating: 5/5 stars
Spoilers: light mid-book spoilers, no endgame spoilers
I'm a sucker for powerfully atmospheric books, and When the Moon Was Ours belongs in that category's best-of. It's about a girl named Miel and a boy named Sam who are outsiders in an insular small town. When she was little, Miel emerged from a defunct water tower the town was draining; now, the hem of her skirt is always wet. That's only one of her oddities -- she's terrified of pumpkins, grows roses from her wrist, and lives with an older sister who heals those afflicted by unrequited love. Sam is also unique: his Pakistani descent sets him apart from the town's inhabitants, as does his hobby for crafting and hanging realistic illuminated models of the moon.
I should mention that Miel is Latina (well, mestiza, but Latin traditions and practices are a major focus of her life). With the current popularity of magical realism, it's unfortunately easy to overlook the fact that it's a literary movement with Latin American roots, so I was glad that those origins were powerfully present in this book. Heritage is significant to both Miel and Sam, and this is often conveyed through the food they make and eat (which lent itself well to what I do on this blog).
This story is heavy on setting and character and beautiful prose, so it takes a while for the plot to get into gear. I actually enjoyed that aspect of the narrative, because the easy pace lulled me into a false sense of security so that when the conflict hit, it hit hard. And it's the kind of conflict that deserves to be hard-hitting, because it centers around Sam, who is transgender, undergoing the threat of being forcibly outed.
The authenticity of Miel and Sam's relationship is part of what makes When the Moon Was Ours such an emotionally compelling novel. This isn't a romance, but the evolving bond between the two main characters plays a major role, and even when there were romantic tones, I didn't mind, despite my usual serious dislike for those kinds of plots. There was even a sex scene (maybe two? I don't quite remember) that didn't make me want to shrivel up and die. That's high praise from me.
There were two things that clinched this for me as a five-star book. First, the author, who was drawing on real-life experience for a lot of the non-magical aspects of this story, included not only a transgender main character but a secondary character who was also trans and another who (it's strongly implied but not actually labeled) is a lesbian. Second, I loved the cover! I'm not proud of it, but I definitely won't pick up (or, more often these days) click on a book if I don't find the cover art eye-catching. This cover ticked all the boxes: beautiful font, striking colors, and imagery reflective of the story.
I'd highly recommend this book to just about anyone, but especially readers looking for richly detailed fantasy, imperfect but compelling characters, and actual trans people in genre fiction. Now, on to the recipe!
Alfajores are a real-life dessert with tons of regional variations in Spain, Mexico, and South America. Miel fondly remembers the time-consuming process of making dulce with her sister, and later in the book, Miel and Sam make alfajores garnished with candied flowers. From the descriptions in the book, I thought the closest variant was the kind popular in Argentina, Peru, and Uraguay: two shortbread-like cookies sandwiched with dulce de leche and sometimes dusted with powdered sugar. I adapted this recipe from Peru Delights for the cookies and used Alton Brown's recipe for the dulce. There's also a less labor-intensive way to make dulce de leche, which I'll discuss below. This recipe varies from quick and easy to relatively time-consuming depending on whether you use a traditional dulce de leche recipe or a shortcut; either way, you can make the dulce ahead of time and bake and assemble the cookies later.
Dulce de leche
There are actually three ways you can do this part. First, you could opt to buy a can of pre-made dulce de leche; most major grocery stores will have cans of the La Lechera stuff in the specialty foods aisle. Second, you can buy a can of sweetened condensed milk and turn that into dulce fairly easily. Third, you can make it traditionally, which involves simmering milk and sugar for several hours.
a 13.4 oz. can of dulce de leche
Open it. Done!
a 14 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk
Remove the label from the can; place the can on its side in a deep pot and fill with water until the it's well submerged. Set the heat to high and bring the water to a brisk simmer, then reduce the heat to medium to maintain the simmer and cook for about 3 hours. Check the water every half hour or so to make sure the can remains covered; if too much is evaporating, add more. If the can isn't submerged, it can (apparently) split or explode. When the time is up, remove the from the heat and let it cool before opening. Unopened, the dulce will keep for several months. Unfortunately, you won't have any way of knowing if the dulce is ready; if, once you open the can, it's lighter than a dark caramel color, you can finish it by emptying it into a tightly-coved shallow dish (like a pie dish), placing that in a water bath, and sticking it in the oven at 425°F for 45 minutes to an hour.
1 quart whole milk (it really has to be whole milk. Trust me.)
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 tsp. baking soda
vanilla bean (optional)
If using the vanilla bean, split it and scrape out the seeds. Put the bean and seeds in a large saucepan and add the milk and sugar. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved, then add the baking soda. Reduce the heat until the mixture is barely simmering; cook for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Remove the vanilla bean and continue to cook for another 2ish hours, until the mixture is thick and dark caramel-colored. If you used a vanilla bean, pour through a mesh strainer. Scrape the finished dulce into a heatproof container, seal, and refrigerate until needed (up to one month).
Alfajor cookies + assembly
Okay, this is the easy part. These are a cross between shortbread and sugar cookies, and while the dough can be crumbly, rolling it out between sheets of plastic wrap or waxed paper helps a lot.
1/2 cup (one stick) butter, softened but not melted
1/3 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 cup cornstarch
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
powdered sugar (for dusting)
Combine the butter and sugar in a medium bowl. It's best to mix them with an electric mixer for a minute or two, but they'll be fine if you stir by hand for a few minutes instead. Add the egg yolks and vanilla extract; stir or mix to combine. Add the cornstarch, flour, baking powder, and salt and mix/stir carefully so you don't get dry ingredients everywhere. A soft, somewhat crumbly dough should form; if it's too crumbly to shape into a cohesive ball, add a tablespoon of milk and mix again. Wrap the dough ball in plastic and refrigerate for an hour. (You can keep it in the refrigerator for a few days, but you'll need to take it out half an hour before you need it to give it time to soften slightly.)
When you're ready to make the cookies, preheat the oven to 350°F. Roll the dough between two sheets of plastic wrap or waxed paper until it's about 1/4 inch thick; you may need to use a bit of flour to keep it from sticking. Using a biscuit/cookie cutter or drinking glass, cut dough circles. (From what I can tell, alfajores are usually about 2 inches in diameter, but you can do any size you want.) Put the cutouts on a baking sheet (you don't need to leave much room between them as they don't really spread), and bake for 5-8 minutes or until light brown around the bottom edge. Baking time will vary based on size, so keep an eye on them!
Remove from the pan and cool completely. Spread half of the circles with dulce de leche and sandwich with the other half. If desired, dust with powdered sugar. Enjoy!