Independence marks a history page turned, a new chapter. But hardly a forgotten past. And so the release this week of My Sweet Mexico by Fany Gerson, a cookbook celebrating Mexican sweets past and present, seems fitting on Mexican Independence Day (cheers to that, by the way). Even more as the book is not simply a compilation of recipes for traditional Mexican candies and pastries (Gerson was raised in Mexico City), nor is it a modern pastry chef's singular reinterpretation of the churro (the Culinary Institute of America graduate has worked the pastry circuit at Eleven Madison Park and Rosa Mexicano in New York). My Sweet Mexico offers both, as Gerson focuses on telling the story of traditional Mexican sweets through their historic roots (and recipes) and ends with a final chapter of her own creations.
Gerson begins by saying that she "discovered [her] love affair with sweets at a very young age." Had our after-school activities involved hanging out at Dulcería de Celaya, a family-owned sweets shop in Mexico City that served its first goat milk caramels in 1874, and chatting with street vendors, we'd probably have had a couple dozen adolescent paleta love affairs ourselves.
Several recipes in the book were in fact perfected after Gerson talked her way into impromptu "internships" on more recent visits with those sweet shop owners. She also credits Mexico's convents, which get an entire chapter to themselves, as the source of her favorite childhoods sweets: borrachitos (a gummy candy), galletas de convento (caramelized almond cookies), and jamoncillo de leche (milk fudge) in a variety of make-your-own flavors (chocolate, lime, coffee, coconut and tequila among them).
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That obsession with the sweets of her native country is evident in the care Gerson takes to explain their cultural heritage, beginning with ingredient evolution: native honey, pumpkin and cactus; the tamarind and dates brought by Arabs; wheat, dairy cattle and sugar cane introduced by Spanish conquistadors.
Gerson tackles the history of Mexico's sweets from an hobbyist's perspective, meaning the information, while factual and intriguing, is somewhat sporadic in terms of what is included. The same goes for her writing style, which flips exuberantly from exceedingly casual in the recipe introductions to more of a book report-style when their history is discussed. And the chapters are oddly organized. Some sections are centered around an ingredient like corn, others are based on specific bakers' products (such as the convent chapter), and then there are the category chapters (beverages, sweet breads, frozen treats and the like). Even still, Gerson makes up for the book's quirky composition with her charm and sheer camomitos poblanos (sweet potato candies) enthusiasm. And most importantly, with those well-researched, carefully crafted and thoughtful recipes.
For instance, Gerson could offer yet another recipe variation on Mexican hot chocolate made with commercial chocolate bars in the beverage chapter. Instead, she gives detailed instructions for making your own chocolate tablets (a process that involves roasting fresh cacao beans and almonds and grinding them with Mexican cinnamon sticks). In the "Heirloom Sweets" chapter, essentially traditional street vendor and small sweet shop recipes, you'll find melcocha de pepitas (pumpkin seed nougat) alongside gaznates (fritters with Mezcal-spiked meringue). The fruit chapter includes limones rellenos de coconut (stuffed whole candied limes from Southwestern Mexico) and the empanadas de Jimote (tomato jam-filled turnovers) that she first sampled in Monterrey. Hardly your average sopapilla cookbook crowd. That now ubiquitous honey-clad symbol of Americanized restaurant desserts is a welcome absence here.
By the time you get to the final chapter of pastry creations that are truly Gerson's own, including a passion fruit-Mezcal trifle, "Mexican opera cake" with tequila syrup, and spiced chocolate cake with sweet tomatillo sauce, one thing is self-evident. A history lesson, even in the kitchen, really does inspire culinary independence.