Chocolinas? Forgettable: Chocotorta? Extraordinary
These Argentine cookies are not good, but they’re the foundation of the perfect cake
As a kid, I knew one thing for sure: If I found a purple cellophane wrapper on the kitchen counter, it would be a good day.
Chocolinas are simple chocolate cookies from Argentina. They come in an orderly row inside a purple wrapper with curly yellow lettering on it, the kind where you pull a red plastic tab and the sleeve comes undone. The people I know rejoice when they see it in a common grocery store; they reach for packs by twos. The cookies are forgettable on their own: they’re chalky, dry, and leave crumbs everywhere.
Chocotorta, on the other hand, is something extraordinary. The only thing that stands between the two is milk, dulce de leche, sour cream, and time.
The process of assembling chocotorta is ritualistic. You dunk the first cookie in a bowl of cold milk and set it in the corner of a tin pan. You repeat this step until you’ve blanketed the entire pan with milky cookies. Then comes a generous layer of dulce de leche and sour cream, mixed together in a ratio that you can never measure, online recipes be damned. It’s a product of intuition that comes and goes with age, becoming perfectly tangy-sweet with just enough experience, and then progressively less sweet as the palate matures. Then another layer of cookies, another layer of cream. Repeat until you reach the desired height, usually five cookies tall. Refrigerate for a few hours and serve.
According to folklore — because yes, Chocolinas are woven into the fiber of our culture — a woman named Maite Madragaña was once tasked with promoting three products: Chocolinas, Mendicrim (a lighter version of cream cheese), and a regional dulce de leche. She borrowed from the classic Italian tiramisu and made a dessert all her own. This was in 1982, and thank goodness, because I couldn’t imagine a life, or birthday party, without her genius creation. Some might argue that a stack of industrial-grade cookies doesn’t deserve a place in the Latin food pantheon, but I beg to differ.
My family came to the United States from Argentina over 20 years ago. We were raised here, but if anything serves as a daily reminder of where we came from, it’s the food we eat: the minced beef and olive empanadas we used to take to school for lunch, the maté my mother still swears by every morning, and the chocotorta.
Our ability to keep making this cake has always depended on our proximity to an Argentine grocer or a relative’s plans to visit from South America. Thankfully, there was an abundance of both. Having the ingredients on hand also ensured that chocotorta was the first recipe we ever mastered as kids, requiring no complicated appliances or techniques. Chocotorta meant always having the feeling of home within reach.
In my house, chocotorta was only ever eaten for breakfast, and usually marked a day worth celebrating. A birthday, a holiday, news of a new baby brother. It also marked consolation: a breakup, a college rejection letter, news of a new baby brother.
What I recognized recently is what chocotorta didn’t mark, what cakes never mark: transition, the elusiveness that all will be OK but maybe not now.
A few years ago, I left my first post-college job to pursue a master’s degree in England. I went with lofty visions of what this would look like: I would wear turtlenecks, drink beer in pubs that were older than America, quote Kant in seminars. It would be all of that, and it wouldn’t. With the sweaters and the beer and the Kant came a sense of uncertainty. My future felt fuzzy, my life the subject of a Sofia Coppola film without the pastels or the requisite soundtrack. Let’s call it malaise. Whatever it was, it definitely didn’t deserve chocotorta. By July, after nearly a year abroad and my longest spell without the cake, I thought I had forgotten what it tasted like.
Soon after I returned to the States, I visited my parents in Florida, where I found a few stray packs of Chocolinas in the pantry. I unwrapped them and brought the milk, dulce de leche, and sour cream out of the fridge. I dunked, layered, repeated. I let it chill and then ate it over the kitchen counter. There was no milestone now: no engagement, no birthday, no new job. That day, it wasn’t a feel-good or feel-better cake. It was just cake: the perfect ratio of tangy to sweet, dense, moist, mine.
Nadine Zylberberg is a writer and editor based in New York City. Her curiosity has led her to work in fields including entertainment, sustainability, biotech, and more.