Mexico's Vanishing Desserts: Cook Them to Save Them

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Ed Anderson © 2010


To try two recipes from Fany Gerson's My Sweet Mexico, click here for mazapanes de cacahuate (peanut marzipans) and here for Mexican-style caramel popcorn balls.

Judging from the number of burrito joints in North American food courts, you could say that Mexican food has made the jump to the mainstream. It is so entrenched—think of the tacos, nachos and tortillas that we who live north of the Rio Grande often call wraps—that we sometimes forget its link to Mexico. There's a telling (and funny) moment in John Sayles's movie Men With Guns when the gringo couple that is travelling through a war-torn state sits down for a meal in a local restaurant. The husband turns to his wife, who is slightly more bilingual, and asks: "How do you say 'quesadilla' in Spanish?"

So it was with great pleasure that I opened Mexican pastry chef Fany Gerson's new cookbook, My Sweet Mexico, which details an important and often overlooked part of Mexican cuisine—dessert. Gerson, who grew up in Mexico City, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and has worked in all sorts of restaurants, including Akelare, a Spanish Michelin three-star. Despite a successful professional cooking career, she never forgot the treats of her childhood, such as goat's milk caramels decorated with pine nuts or giant meringues and tamarind sorbet. This book is an homage to her lifelong love affair and is packed with recipes for all sorts of confections from sweet drinks (rompope, an eggnog-like beverage and vanilla cordial) to morning sweet breads (as in churros and huachibolas, which are cream cheese morning rolls) to heirloom sweets (pumpkin seed nougat, sweet milk fudge).

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Ed Anderson © 2010

To research the book, Gerson spent a year traveling around Mexico collecting cooking secrets and family recipes. She visited bakeries and sweet shops, ice cream parlors and markets, as well as museums, libraries, and the homes of people with specialties to share. She was motivated by passion for the food, but she was also moved to record traditional recipes that are on the verge of disappearing. The art of Mexican confections, she says, is endangered. She writes, "Many of these heirloom recipes are part of an oral tradition that is being lost." Globalization and its homogenizing forces are replacing the orejones (cinnamon sugar "ears") with doughnuts.

Of course the benefit of global food culture to me is that I get to make quesadillas for an easy weeknight dinner, but in Mexico, hundreds if not thousands of years of tradition are at stake, as witnessed in this book. One of the most interesting chapters is dedicated to corn, a grain that has been an integral part of the indigenous culture in Mexico and beyond since long before the Spaniards arrived. Gerson turns corn into the familiar caramel popcorn ball as well as sweet tamales, sweet fried masa cakes, and a blue corn dessert. For my mother, I made the pan de elote, a (gluten-free) corn bread that is more like a cake combined with a custard. She loved it.

There are also recipes for foods I never dreamed of, such as peanut marzipan and hibiscus ice pops. I keep going back to the book to look at the beautiful pictures and learn more historical tidbits, such as the fact that pre-Hispanic Mexicans, who didn't have cane sugar (it arrived later as part of the Columbian exchange), used a variety of insect honeys to sweeten their desserts. Imagine ant honey amaranth candies! (There isn't, however, a recipe that calls for ant honey in the book, which might be a relief to some or create a possibility of goose-chase for others.) This holiday season, I plan to make some of these sweets, connect with this history, and do my bit to keep the culture alive.

Recipe: Mazapanes de Cacahuate (Peanut Marzipans)
Recipe: Mexican Caramel Popcorn Balls

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