My Sweet Mexico

untitledMexico’s dulces (sweets) are a blend of indigenous ingredients melded with European traditions, and in “My Sweet Mexico,” Mexican native Fany Gerson brings these sweet indulgences to vivid life. A Culinary Institute of America alumna and the granddaughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Fany is no stranger to the melding of two worlds. Some of the oldest recipes here are ancient drinks like atole (ground corn; the word “atole” comes from atl, water, and tlaoli, ground corn). Others stem from Spain’s Arabic heritage, like mazapan, alfajor de miel, and orange blossom water (even the Spanish word, azahar, comes from Arabic).

The included illustrations and photos bring the varied facets of modern Mexico to life: as you first open the cookbook, the endpapers recreate azulejos (glazed tiles) and a colonial wooden door that gives way to photos of antique candy shops, exotic tropical fruits like soursops and mameys, gorgeous food photos and local artisans hard at work. The book starts with an in-depth primer on ingredients and tools. A note: many of the more exotic fruits that Fany uses, like tecojote, mamey, or zapote negro, may be difficult to find. Because they are ingredient-specific recipes, there are no substitutions for these recipes. But they are few in number, and the other ingredients should be readily available in your area.

For those new to Mexican desserts, I would recommend starting with one of the simpler recipes like jamoncillo de leche (milk fudge). The milk fudge has few ingredients and is made in one pot; I made it with the suggested variation of evaporated goat’s milk, and it’s like a firmer version of cajeta (dulce de leche). Be prepared for much stirring and waiting; it takes about 30-40 minutes for the mixture to reach the right consistency. There are also several suggested flavor variations like coffee (I used 2 tsp. reconstituted instant espresso in place of coffee extract), lime, etc. to mix it up a bit. This is one that would be great for gifting around the holidays.

The importance of corn in the Mexican diet can’t be overlooked, and corn gets its own chapter, with such entries as pemoles (coffee-flavored corn cookies), sweet fried masa cakes, and fruit tamales. In other chapters, there are unexpected gems like bean candy, which reminded me of the sugared beans I would snack on in central Japan, or the amaranth “Happiness” candy, a heavenly combination of nuts, dried fruits, honey, and puffed amaranth seeds. Candied fruits are another staple; I love Mexican candied pumpkin, and Fany demystifies the process, suggesting several variations like candied prickly pears, tamarind pods, papaya and chayote. The coconut-stuffed limes glisten like emeralds, hiding an unexpected (but fitting) filling.

The chapter on “pan dulce” (sweet breads) is near and dear to my heart; I live in a city surrounded by Mexican bakeries, and I love to browse the cases stacked with ever-changing assortments of brightly-colored pastries. I particularly liked Fany’s recipe for huachibolas (cream cheese morning rolls); the yeast dough hides a surprise filling of cream cheese (I tried the recipe using Neufchatel cream cheese). Fany also chronicles old-fashioned sweets like candied nuts and caramels, some with pronounced tropical flavors, like gaznates (fritters filled with mezcal meringue) or lime meringues. There’s even a chapter on frozen desserts (Mexican ice pops and ice creams), with some truly surprising (and refreshing) flavor combos on display, including avocado, corn, and cheese ice creams, spicy mango ice pops, and rose petal sherbert. (Fany just published her second cookbook, Paletas: Authentic Recipes for Mexican Ice Pops, Shaved Ice & Aguas Frescas, if you are looking for a more in-depth guide to Mexican frozen desserts.)

Finally, the book closes with “Mexico Moderno” (Modern Mexico), ten recipes that Fany created to pay homage to “the new Mexico,” one that blends imported influences with traditional flavors. Recipes include a decadent chocolate-rum tres leches cake, cheesecake with spiced quince, upside-down plantain cake, and mango bread pudding with tamarind sauce.

“My Sweet Mexico” pays homage to Mexico’s cultural and geographical diversity, and Fany is an engaging tour guide. Each recipe includes informative tips, recipe origins, or notes about a specific artisanal shop that brings the recipes to life. The recipes themselves are clearly printed and easy to follow (if time-consuming); like all recipes, you may find that you need to adjust cooking times based on your cookware, oven temp, etc. They’re written in such a way that they’re not intimidating, making Mexican sweets accessible even for novice bakers. It’s a gem of a cookbook that deserves to be in your kitchen.

(Review copy generously provided by Ten Speed Press)

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