If you're at a South American bakery and see a sweet in the display case that looks like an imploding planet Krypton, don't be alarmed. It's only postre chaja, a relatively obscure and luscious Uruguayan sponge cake filled with peaches, whipped cream, sometimes dulce de leche, and topped with delicate shards of French Meringue that you absolutely must try.
Born in 1927 — the same decade that saw the first pavlova — from the mind of Orlando Castellano, owner of a tearoom in Paysandú, Uruguay, the dessert was named after the chaja, a bird indigenous to South America and notable for the air pockets beneath its skin. The light, airy texture of the dessert resembles the fluffy exterior of this bird, also known as the "silent screamer."
Moist, super-sweet and saturated with juice from the peaches layered between the light white cake, postre chaja is little-known pastry gem that's available in L.A. if you know where to look. There are just a few spots that sell the dessert. Here's where you can grab your own:
Grand Casino Bakery and Cafe
The Grand Casino in Culver City is a charming neighborhood hot spot on Main Street where you can eat breakfast and lunch on weekends to the lilting strum of a Spanish guitar while watching the Argentine soccer team strut its stuff. Aside from their killer empanadas and alfajores, they also make a great chaja, either plain or with chocolate shavings, and you can order them in small individual sizes for $4.95 or an eight-inch round for $24.95. The meringue exterior is chunky and crunchy, but the inside light and feathery with a thin layer of whipped cream accenting the peaches.
If you want larger cakes, they will make them to order for $35.95 and up. While you can't scrawl happy birthday on top of the meringue shards, the cakes will prove a refreshing divergence from red velvet, lemon chiffon or hazelnut brown butter. Don't skip out of there without carrying home a jar of their house-made chimichurri either — it's the best in town. 3826 Main Street, Culver City; (310) 202-6969.
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Mercado Buenos Aires
Mercado Buenos Aires is an Argentinian market, deli, restaurant, bakery and vendor of copious Argentine imports from keychains to beach towels to the most exhaustive assortment of yerba mate in Los Angeles. It also offers a killer postre chaja. The chaja here is denser and more intense than Grand Casino's, but still wholly addictive. A modest smear of dulce de leche covers the bottom layer of sponge cake, adding richness and nuance. Dripping with moisture from the whipped cream and peach juice (a la tres leches) this cake is an absolute dream.
A small cake will cost you $4.50 and an eight-inch round goes for $19.50. Be sure to call beforehand to ensure they have them in stock — these sell out fast. And if you're in the mood for more sugar, you can pick up a box of Havana alfajores, the preeminent brand from Argentina. 7540 Sepulveda Boulevard, Van Nuys; (818) 786-0522.