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.