Latin-American

Far From Home, the Dulce de Leche Cake I Didn't Know I Was Looking For

July 26, 2018

My host mom Nora picked me up at the Buenos Aires airport and drove me to what would be my home for the next four months, her two-bedroom flat on the edge of Recoleta, one of the city’s nicer neighborhoods. You could tell my room used to be pink—a relic of her eldest daughter who had moved out over a decade ago—but all the frilliest details had been covered up or put away, except for a few pressed flowers in the frame above my new bed.

Our first hours together, she left me mostly alone, closing the door to my room after pointing to my suitcase and then to a chest of drawers, suggesting I unpack, make myself at home. After dark, she knocked on my door and beckoned me to the kitchen, where on the table she had arranged a small Nokia phone, a map of the city, and a plate of something that looked like shepherd’s pie. I smiled. She talked so fast that she had no time to sit as she pulled out my chair, filled my glass with water, motioned to the phone on the table, and started pressing buttons with her skinny fingers. She wore chunky four-inch platforms but only came up to my armpit. A curtain of choppy, dyed black bangs covered her eyebrows and most of her eyes, which expanded like moons when she talked.

"Here’s my number, here’s our neighborhood, tell me if you like the way it tastes." She jumped from the phone, to the map, to the shepherd’s pie, which she explained to me was called pastel de papas and back again. She seemed nice, kind, and engaging. But I bristled. I’d been living away from home, taking care of myself for three years at that point, and here was a complete stranger who, all of a sudden, was giving me a curfew, a phone, instructions on when and how often to call her. She insisted that she make me dinner every night of the week. "Don’t worry about groceries," she explained, "I’ll take care of you."


One night, my phone was dead and the thrill of being completely unplugged in Argentina was enough to keep me from fixing it. That, compounded with the excitement of having just moved to a foreign city, had me bounding down the sidewalk, novelty coursing through my legs like an electric spark. It was well beyond midnight and the unfamiliar, uneven streets shook me with promise. Unfamiliarity, for some, can be a powerful stimulus.

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When I walked through the front door of Nora’s apartment, I found her sitting crossed-legged, cross-armed in the living room. Before I could register her body language, or even make out the worry on her face, she pointed a long index finger at me: “Where were you? You stayed out too late! I haven’t been able to sleep. You had me sick! Where’s your phone?”

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Top Comment:
“I remember, one year awhile back, lovingly (patiently) scraping frosting from Oreo cookies in order to recreate this, one of my (Argentine) father's favorite desserts, for his birthday. It worked out really well! I've also tried with graham crackers and kosher tea biscuits (Kedem brand)--expats make do, as always! The version of chocotorta that I mimic is meant to be made with "queso blanco," which in Argentina is sort of a cross between quark and fromage frais, rather than cream cheese. I use low-fat sour cream or greek yogurt instead--I find that this dessert really needs something with more tartness than cream cheese to cut through the dulce de leche. Thanks for the story!”
— Cecilia
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“I’m sorry, my bad,” I responded in stuttered syllables, my already-broken Spanish further shattered by her reprimands. “I was walking around, I lost my bearings, my phone battery died, I’m fine, I’m fine, I was just walking around.” I tried to explain, but it seemed my apologies weren’t helping. She was shaken up and I felt bad.

“I’m your mother now,” she finally pointed her finger away from me and towards her own chest. She tapped repeatedly on her ribcage. "If something happens to you, it’s on me. I’m your mother now.”

"But—"

”We’ll discuss more in the morning,” she said with finality, before slamming her bedroom door harder than I thought necessary. We went to bed that night with an icy gulf between us.

When I stepped gingerly into the kitchen the next day, she was sitting at the table reading a newspaper, sipping a mug of coffee. She had, spread in front of her, two pieces of toast, cream cheese, dulce de leche, jam, and a banana and invited me to sit with her.

“Here, have breakfast, it’s OK,” she cooed. “You’re fine, you’re not in trouble, but I need you to know that while you’re here in this country living with me, you’re my responsibility. I’m your mother, even if for just four months.”


Every day I came home from school to Nora, my de facto mother. She would ask me how my day went, what new word in Spanish I had learned, what time I would be hungry. When we sat to dinner, she would cart me across the Argentine palate. She made me the pasta her grandma had taught her how to make, the chicken her daughter always liked best. Meal after meal, she welcomed me into the family. Once I told her I liked polenta and she made it for me nine nights in a row. I developed a penchant for a version topped with sausages and red sauce that was then renamed in her culinary canon as el preferido de Valerio (Valerio’s favorite).

We would sit at the kitchen table long after dinner, as our cups of tea grew tepid, exchanging stories, hopes, dreams. Once I asked about her experience during Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship in the '70s when, as a law student, she watched the legislation she was studying collapse around her. She asked about my future, my expectations, my dream job, city, house, car. But also about my mother and my childhood.

A parent can mean many, many things. I was lucky enough to have a supportive, loving mother wish me a bleary-eyed goodbye at the airport in Texas. But what I wasn't expecting was Nora, as caring and as generous on the other end.

'Don’t worry about groceries,' she explained, 'I’ll take care of you.'

Living in a new city feels, in so many ways, like being a child again, traversing a playground of the unfamiliar. Parents help you navigate that sticky territory. They point the way or offer advice or stand by, silent but vigilant. Much like my biological mom taught me how to walk and how to tie my shoes and how to treat others, Nora helped me figure out my bus route. She taught me how to roll my Rs and how to greet strangers in a way that felt right, authentic, Argentine. She gauged my moods, stepping back ever so slightly if she detected an off-day at school. She asked how my tests went—and, later, what grades I got on them (sometimes in a way that felt a bit too close to home). The way a parent shapes the world for their child, she worked to shape this new one in which I had found myself, recounting history from her perspective, pointing me towards the empanada shops she thought were best.

Moms can be assigned or they can be chosen. And sometimes they can be a bit of both. What began as a random pairing through the chance of a housing lottery grew into something more cohesive, more cogent. It started to feel like home.

When my birthday approached close to the end of my four-month stay at Nora’s, she surprised me with a cake. It was the first birthday of mine we'd celebrate together—and probably the last—but she treated it with the attention and thoughtfulness of a mother who had raised me forever. As she sang, shrill verses echoing in her tiny kitchen, she pulled from the fridge a chocolate-dusted icebox cake. I later learned it was a chocotorta, an Argentine rite of passage. Layered with chocolate biscuits, thick cream, dulce de leche, and deep whispers of coffee, it was a simple, pantry-ready version of tiramisu. Any Argentine birthday party (or celebration, for that matter), is sure to serve chocotorta, and almost every kid has eaten one to commemorate another year around the sun.

This cake still oceans me back to that night, my first Argentine birthday, when I took a bite of chocotorta and wrapped Nora in a hug.

“Muchísimas gracias, madre,” I told her.

“De nada, hijo,” she beamed back.

We originally shared this article in May 2018, but we're bringing it back because you can never have enough chocolate. Or cake. Or chocolate cake. Tell us your ideal birthday dish in the comments below.

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19 Comments

Haf July 30, 2018
this made me cry. so beautiful <3
 
somebunnyslove July 26, 2018
Phew! When I shared this beautiful article's link on Twitter, I was surprised that it went nowhere. Thank you for bringing it back. (In case you missed it, I stated I wanted to use Stella Parks' Fauxreos for this recipe: https://twitter.com/somebunnyslove/status/1020390406427734016)
 
Samantha V. May 30, 2018
What a lovely story.
 
Julia B. May 29, 2018
I don't think I'll try the cake necessarily but, the story was beautiful. I hope you are still in touch with Nora's family :)
 
Judy L. May 29, 2018
Has anyone tried homemade creme fraiche in place of the Casancrem? Mine is nearly as think as cream cheese if I let it ferment on the counter an extra half-day. Or maybe mixed into some cream cheese? Dying to try this. Will likely use chocolate wafers. Funny, after I was grown and left home, my cousin stayed with my mother for grad school, and my mom did the same thing...curfew and all. She's like my little sister now.
 
Rachel S. May 20, 2018
What a lovely, touching piece. I had a very similar relationship with my host mom when I studied abroad in Spain. I miss her all the time.
 
Deeba R. May 20, 2018
Please write a book with all the recipes of the food you relished there. Love the narrative. Plays out like a film. Thanks for sharing it so beautifully ❣️
 
Eric K. May 21, 2018
Aw.
 
Pip May 16, 2018
Love the article and your temporary mom, even if she went too far with her mothering lol<br />As for chocotorta, as an Argentine living abroad, I agree with the comments, casancrem is hard to replicate because it has an inherent tartness that is much needed here. What I've done before is part creamcheese, part quark, or yes, even part sourcream should work.<br />Also of note are the cookies. Chocolinas, the original brand, are very mild chocolate cookies. The chocolate shouldn't be the star here, the star is the filling, then the strong coffee and then the chocolate.
 
Eric K. May 16, 2018
Great tips, Pip. Thank you. And 100% agreed, the dulce de leche filling is the star here.<br />p.s. Re: "...temporary mom, even if she went too far with her mothering." Nailed it.
 
Author Comment
Valerio F. May 29, 2018
Totally agree with all of this. How do you replicate Chocolinas abroad?
 
Mili July 1, 2018
You can buy them in Queens!!! There is a supermarket that sells Chocolinas right in front of an Argentinean restaurant called “El Gauchito” where they also sell many Argentinean treats!
 
Mili July 1, 2018
If you live in NY obviously .. ha! <br />I used to go once a month when I lived in Manhattan to buy things that would momentarily transport me back to home ❣️
 
Cecilia May 13, 2018
I remember, one year awhile back, lovingly (patiently) scraping frosting from Oreo cookies in order to recreate this, one of my (Argentine) father's favorite desserts, for his birthday. It worked out really well! I've also tried with graham crackers and kosher tea biscuits (Kedem brand)--expats make do, as always! The version of chocotorta that I mimic is meant to be made with "queso blanco," which in Argentina is sort of a cross between quark and fromage frais, rather than cream cheese. I use low-fat sour cream or greek yogurt instead--I find that this dessert really needs something with more tartness than cream cheese to cut through the dulce de leche. Thanks for the story!
 
Author Comment
Valerio F. May 14, 2018
Since coming back to the states, I've been on a hunt for the perfect replacement for Casancrem. For this recipe, I landed on cream cheese, but sour cream is a good idea. I'll have to give that a try next time.
 
Cecilia May 14, 2018
Yes, my mother was on the same lifelong hunt (her favorite breakfast was toast with Casancrem/Mendicrim and marmalade)! She finally settled on sour cream or greek yogurt, as mentioned above. If you can find it, quark is really the closest thing I've found in the states, although it's really only been more readily available in the past few years (thankfully that's never been a problem with dulce de leche!)
 
beejay45 May 11, 2018
You were so lucky to be able to do this and lucky again to get such a great temporary mom. ;)
 
Joanna S. May 11, 2018
<3 Nora
 
Eric K. May 11, 2018
Nothing like a caramel cake to remind us compassion is universal.