I'm no model Peruvian—I don’t pay attention to soccer, I don’t ask St. Martin of Porres or St. Rose of Lima for help, and my accent sounds like a mashup of several Latin American accents because I grew up in Miami. But I celebrate my Peruvian heritage through food. One year, for July 28 (the day that celebrates Peru’s independence from Spain), I single-handedly prepared a buffet of 15 different Peruvian dishes, and was still concerned that guests would think I didn’t offer enough variety. (Peruvians, as you may already know, are food-obsessed.)
This year, I chose to keep it simple and feature just a few old school Afro-Peruvian dishes, ending with a dish called ranfañote for dessert. I had never even tasted ranfañote before, and nobody in my family had even heard of the dish. I admit that it was a risky decision, but as the saying goes: “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” This dessert with the funny-sounding name not only stole the show that evening, but everyone who tasted it agreed that I shouldn’t wait until July 28 to make it again.
Ranfañote can be seen as a crunchy bread pudding or a sweet and crusty stuffing. There are many ways to make this dessert, but it will always consist of toasted cubes of stale, crusty bread drenched in syrup made from unrefined solid cane sugar (called chancaca in Peru). Chancaca has a deep, earthy aroma reminiscent of aged dark rum. Its rustic flavor also pairs well with sweet spices, so most cooks will typically add cinnamon, cloves, and star anise to their ranfañote syrups. Various fruits and citrus peels can also be found steeping in the ebony-hued syrup, and many cooks also fortify the concoction with a variety of liqueurs. In addition to bread and syrup, many ranfañote recipes include dried fruit and toasted nuts, as well as a dusting of grated coconut or slices of “Chilean coconut,” a type of palm nut native to Chile that looks and tastes like a regular coconut, but is about the size of a marble. Finally, few aficionados will ever consider a serving of ranfañote to be complete without crumbles of mild, salty queso fresco.
Ranfañote is as old school as desserts get in Lima, the capital of Peru. Having originated in the colonial era when Peru was a viceroyalty of Spain, this treat is said to have been the result of a resourceful cook combining various bits and scraps of many different ingredients to create a sweet, complex, and addictively crunchy dessert. Nobody quite knows what the name means, but the rolled R at its beginning is often exaggerated, suggestive of other words we associate with times of yore, like rococo. Many older Limeños may reminisce about getting small dishes of ranfañote from street vendors or at traditional bakeries, although that has been a rare scene for several decades. The vendedores ambulantes (street merchants) found throughout the Peruvian capital hardly ever showcase this historic dessert anymore, and many of Lima’s bakeries prefer to fill their vitrines with Instagrammable European and American-inspired pastries.
Not too long ago, in fact, this colonial specialty was in danger of being entirely forgotten amidst the repertoire of rich 20th-century desserts made with industrially processed foods. Evaporated and condensed milk drastically changed the way in which Latin Americans cooked, and the number of creamy, intensely sweet desserts grew exponentially as these products became available to the masses. The increased availability of refined white sugar also greatly affected confectionary in Peru, as it did throughout the rest of the world. Desserts like ranfañote—made with unrefined sugar and created out of necessity—became second-class to Swiss rolls filled with dulce de leche or custards topped with billowy clouds of Italian meringue. Over-the-top American desserts have also played a role in these colonial era sweets fading away from the public consciousness. Peruse the social media accounts of Lima’s young foodies, and you’ll be sure to find dozens of photos of brownies, cheesecakes, and colossal ice cream creations.
Ranfañote’s strong association with Afro-Peruvians also didn’t help much with preserving its popularity in a very racially divided country. This dessert is very closely associated with Peru’s Black community, which represents approximately 3 percent of the total population of the Andean nation. The spices used in ranfañote—particularly cloves and star anise—are hallmarks of many Afro-Peruvian dishes, along with chancaca. However, Peruvians seem to disagree on which community actually created ranfañote, and its contested origins are an allegory to the country's racial politics. On the one hand, there are people who support the idea that enslaved Africans in Lima created the dish using scraps, and this is why the dish is so closely associated with Afro-Peruvians today. On the other hand, there are Peruvians who believe that colonial Mestizo (mixed-race white and Amerindian) bakers created this dish to use up stale bread.
Regardless of its inventor’s race, almost all of Lima’s communities have prepared and enjoyed this ancestral confection for centuries. Fortunately, ranfañote persisted in the hearts and kitchens of enough Limeños to not slip into culinary oblivion. With the help of Peru’s new wave of chefs, one of the country’s oldest desserts has experienced a bit of a revival. The increasing popularity of food festivals in the country, like Mistura, has also served as a platform to reintroduce nearly-forgotten dishes like ranfañote to the Peruvian public. As a result, the crunchy cubes of bread bathed in rich, mahogany syrup and topped with salty cheese are showing up again in the capital city’s bakeries and street food stalls. Many Peruvians now see ranfañote not only as a tasty treat, but a gustatory affirmation of our country’s heritage.
Despite its strong historical ties to Lima, this old-school dessert doesn’t have to just live on a Peruvian table. Ranfañote features elements whose flavors and textures are just what many of us in the U.S.A. crave this time of year—warm spices, deep caramel notes, crunchy nuts, sticky sweetness, and little bursts of creamy richness. It is also the type of dish that straddles the line between dessert and snack. It can be made ahead of time and sit on the counter, enticing people to scoop up little portions throughout the day. It can be eaten with a spoon or picked up with one’s fingers. It makes for a perfect party snack or a solitary indulgence on days that you want to curl up under a blanket and binge-watch television.
As I mentioned before, there are many ways of making ranfañote. The below recipe reflects my own tastes, as well as my experiences growing up as a Peruvian and an American. Chancaca, or any of its Latin American variants, may not always be easy to find in the United States. The quality and flavor also vary drastically across brands. In its place, this recipe calls for dark brown sugar, which replicates its flavor well. I like to use a combination of almonds and walnuts, although any unsalted toasted nuts will work marvelously in this recipe. You can also omit the nuts entirely without greatly affecting the end result.
Traditional ranfañote is always sprinkled with shredded coconut. I choose not to include it during this time of year, but you are welcome to add it to your presentation. Finally, this dessert is typically finished with salty queso fresco, a mild uncultured cheese common throughout Latin America and available at many Latino markets throughout the United States. I find that using a very sharp cheese makes for a more interesting flavor contrast. Diced or crumbled extra sharp cheddar, blue cheese, or Parmigiano Reggiano work exceedingly well in this recipe.
- 1/2 cup raisins
- 1/2 cup brandy, rum, or vodka
- 1 pound ciabatta loaf, cut into roughly 1/2-inch cubes
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
- 2 cups dark brown sugar
- 2 cups water
- 1 1-inch piece cinnamon
- 1 star anise pod
- 5 cloves
- Zest and juice of 1 orange
- 1 red apple, quartered
- 1/4 cup port
- 1/2 cup toasted whole almonds, chopped
- 1/2 cup toasted walnuts, chopped
- 1 cup firm salty cheese, such as cojita or asiago, diced or crumbled (see note)
What's a vintage dish you've tried to riff on? Let us know in the comments!