Inside the sweet world of Mexican desserts: A chat with Fany Gerson, author of My Sweet Mexico

When I first moved to Mexico, I was amazed by the multitude of sweets available here. I’d eaten a few Mexican desserts in my life, but this was much more than flan, capirotada and tres leches cake.

A quick trip through my local market revealed syrupy, honeyed figs; waxy-looking crystallized fruit, and candied lime peels bursting with shredded coconut. Traditional candy stores sold delicate, powdery marzipans made from pumpkin seeds and peanuts, and milky fudge-like bars of jamoncillo de leche (they’re pictured above). There were slices of tropical fruit dusted in chile powder, and gummy nuggets of sweet-and-spicy tamarind.

At Dulcería de Celaya — one of my favorite candy stores, because it looks like a time-warp from 1899 — there were rows and rows of treats I’d never seen or heard of before. One candy, a crunchy puff of meringue, became a favorite based almost solely on its name alone: “suspiro,” or sigh.

I wanted to know all about these sweets. Where did they come from? Why are they made with certain ingredients and not others? But it was difficult to find sources, either in English or Spanish. This is why I’m so excited about My Sweet Mexico, a new cookbook of authentic Mexican desserts, beverages and breads, written by Fany Gerson.

The book features recipes for nearly every sweet I’ve seen and gawked at in the markets: the lime wedges stuffed with coconut, the bright jamoncillos, gaznates, muéganos, marzipans. Plus there are gorgeous full-page photographs, and short histories of each group of sweets to start off each chapter. Among the chapters are Dulces de Convento (sweets of the convent), Dulces de Antaño (heirloom sweets), Pan Dulce, Maiz, Postres.

“These recipes are being lost,” says Gerson, whom I was lucky enough to meet in New York recently. “It’s part of a very strong oral tradition. Many people don’t even have written recipes, they’re passed down from grandmother to grandmother. Like many crafts in Mexico, it’s threatened. It’s not just the recipe — it’s the act of eating an artisan sweet.”

Gerson, a Mexico City native, studied at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. She’s worked in the kitchens of Eleven Madison Park and Rosa Mexicano, among others. Right now she makes paletas, aguas frescas and other Mexican treats for her company (and soon-to-be shop in Manhattan), La Newyorkina. You can also find her paletas at La Esquina and Marlow & Daughters in NYC.

Gerson was nice enough to field more questions from me last Sunday, while she sold her homemade aguas frescas at the New Amsterdam Market near South Street Seaport. Here’s more from our conversation.

Also, I plan to make her pan de muerto recipe in the next few days, so look for it soon!

How long did it take you to research this book?
One year traveling around Mexico, to as many places as I could. …My dad studied anthropology, and he taught a class called “Methods of Investigation.” So he helped me organize myself. I did index cards for each state and on each I wrote what [food] each state was famous for. Then I wrote down if there were any festivals or fairs, and how many days I thought I’d need. Then I grouped them together and created a calendar.

Do you think there’ll be a Spanish translation?
I’m hoping. I originally wanted to write the book in Spanish, but unfortunately in Mexico right now we don’t have the editorial support. And younger people don’t read as much there as they do in other countries. But they [the publisher, Ten Speed Press] said if it sells well, they’re going to translate it. So I hope it does. …If not, I would hope to buy the manuscript and translate it.

What’s the first thing you eat when you come home to Mexico City?
I go home and open the fridge and eat whatever’s there — red rice, queso oaxaca, fruit. I always make sure they have fruit for me, because that’s what I miss the most. I love guavas and my dad’s housekeeper will buy me kilos of guavas. I’m dying to eat at home. I always ask for ensaladas de nopales and verdolagas en salsa verde. I don’t even have to ask, it’s always there.

Where do you buy your ingredients in New York?
We have a couple of great markets. The Essex Street Market downtown, on the Lower East Side, is excellent. And there’s a couple of delis in Hell’s Kitchen — Tulcingo del Valle and Zaragoza Deli on Avenue A between 9th and 10th. I also have wholesale purveyors. But occasionally I go to Harlem and Queens, and I’m always searching for new places. Luckily there are more and more things available. I don’t like to buy online, because I like to see what I’m buying.

Was there one recipe that gave you the most satisfaction, to include it in the book?
That’s a very hard question to answer. I think a lot of them for different reasons. Probably the capirotada was my favorite thing. I’d tried capirotadas before but never like this. I made a new friend that I’d met through my dad and she said, “Why don’t you go stay with my mom?” They had corn fields behind the house and we’d watch TV as we peeled cacao beans… that one was personal, and it was delicious. There’s a lot of emotional attachment to getting a lot of the recipes.

What do you want people to get out of this cookbook?
My main goal is like I said before — to give continuity to tradition, and to get people back into taking the time to do things. Back to appreciating artisan candy, and not just the candy but the richness and culture behind it. It’s about enabling these traditions to continue on.

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19 Responses to “Inside the sweet world of Mexican desserts: A chat with Fany Gerson, author of My Sweet Mexico”
  1. muybuenocookbook

    Wow, this is great! Looks like a wonderful book! Hopefully when we are published you can interview us ;)

    Great job!

    • gloria

      Wow, there is so much great info in this post. I definitely want to get the book, please let me know when it is published and in fact I’ll check to see if it is. Thanks so much. I will be coming back to read more on this post but tengo que limpiar la casa. Yep, I haven’t cleaned house yet since I’ve had a cold and I have to get to it. Thanks a lot.

    • jhettiger

      Fany …. way to go on the FINE COOKING piece. Stay in touch! You are the best!!

  2. Leslie Limon

    Looks like I’ll be adding another cookbook to my Christmas wishlist! :)

  3. Armando Piña

    You two need to go on the food channel. Also, please promote the book and do a book signing in every city.

  4. Sara

    How fun to see an interview with the author! I just picked this up at the library a few days ago–it caught my eye on the new book shelf. It’s beautiful to look at, incredibly interesting to read from a cultural perspective, and I can’t wait to cook from it. I also am hoping to make the pan de muerto in the next few ways (for obvious reasons, right?).

    What I love about looking at this book, as well, is how “new” it all is–I think the average person THINKS there is little to surprise in Mexican cuisine (based on the familiarity of stereotypical Mexican food), but this book is a total refutation of that. And I agree with the previous commenter about the Christmas wishlist thing–definitely!

    And I will definitely be looking for La Newyorkina the next time I go to New York!

    • YayaOrchid

      One more reason why I love your blog! You share such wonderful treats and finds with your readers. I DEFINITELY want this book! Gotta go search for it. Thanks for the heads up.

    • Lesley

      Hi Sara: Very cool that you found it at the library, and that you liked it so much! If you end up making the pan de muerto, please take a picture of it and send it to me, and I’ll forward it on to Fany. I know she’d love to see it.

      • Sara

        Made it today! How can I send you a photo? I hope to blog on it too but I’m not very timely in doing so these days. Loving it–how can bread made with so much butter be so light? And the orange flower water just created the loveliest aroma in my kitchen.

        Now if only I can find some quince around here to try another recipe from her book–everyone’s talking about it, noone is stocking it.

  5. Erik García

    Hola. Genial entrevista y mejor aún blog. He disfrutado mucho leyendo tus entradas anteriores y esta realemnte me abrió los ojos. Es increible la cantidad de cosas en nuestra gastronomía que no son apreciadas aquí en México y son disfrutadas y apreciadas en otros lugares y por otras personas. Un fuerte abrazo y una sincera felicitación por emprender la tarea de difundir la cultura culinaria mexicana. En cada hogar hay una cocinera con su “especialidad de la casa” esperando a ser entrevistada por ti! ;)

    Ps. I wrote in spanish so you can practice. Oh yeah, and you should try the best carnitas ever cooked in mexico city. They’re near my house, you wont regret. i promise! I’ll send you the info if you’re interested!

    Saludos!

    Erik.

    • Lesley

      Gracias por tu comentario, Erik! Y bienvenidos al blog. Me encantaría entrevista otras cocineras en Mexico — no sé si leiste un blog post que hice sobre los chiles rellenos de Juanita (una grande cocinera que tiene ochenta-y-tanto años), pero fue uno de mis favoritos. Tengo que buscar más. :-)

      Yes, please send me your favorite carnitas place! My email address is on the “about” page.

  6. Gerardo

    Excellent, I just ordered a couple of copies, one for my wife and another for my parents!

  7. Christi

    What a shame it is not available in Spanish, yet! Hope it sells millions, looks amazing.

  8. Susan

    I recently bought this book and love it! Well worth the money and very nicely presented. I made the ChocoFlan; it was a huge hit!
    You can buy it at Amazon Books.

  9. Tracy López

    This is on my list of books to buy. It looks fantastic. Wow, I’ve never even heard of most of these. They sound amazing, and the interview was really interesting. Fany seems like a really cool person.

  10. Tere

    Talking about sweets, you should visit the capital city of Puebla. There’s a whole street dedicated to selling traditional sweets, it’s called Calle de Santa Clara. You should try Tortitas de Santa Clara, Camotes, Macarrones, Duraznos and Molletes. Oh and Borrachitos. I think you’ll enjoy them.
    Also, you can engage in other culinary adventures… have you tried esquites and chalupas?

    • Lesley

      Hi Tere: I know, I really do need to visit Puebla. (I’ve been once, but it was 2003 and I only stayed for one night.) Hopefully early next year Crayton and I can get away for the weekend. A friend of ours is from Cholula and he’s promised to give us the full foodie tour, so we’ll be in good hands. I have indeed tried esquites (they’re one of my favorites) but not chalupas. What are the chalupas like? Are they similar to Tex-Mex chalupas?

      • Tere

        No, our chalupas are simpler, just a small tortilla fried in lard, then some green or red sauce and some meat. I recommend that you rather eat them off the street, they’re the most delicious!

  11. Andrea Balanzario

    Hola, me gustaría entrevistarte para mi columna…Saludos !!!

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