Read more about Fany Gerson in “Passover a la Mexicana at The James Beard House” and try her recipes for gefilte fish a la Veracruzana, matzo ball soup a la Mexicana and boca negra (flourless chocolate cake with sweet tomatillo sauce).
In busy Mexico City, lunch is often eaten at 3pm, after school has let out for the day. When pastry chef Fany Gerson was growing up, that’s when the extended family of aunts and uncles would meet every Thursday at her grandmother Ana’s house for the midday meal. At 94, Ana is still hosting these lunches. “My grandmother’s very fancy,” Fany says. So, lunch starts with a soup course, followed by a main course of mix and match dishes — some from Ukraine where Ana’s mother Lena emigrated from and others from Mexico where the family settled. Herring might be served at the same meal as jicama with cucumbers, salt, and chili, Fany says, and matzo ball soup shared table space with mole.
To end the meal, there is always a large — huge, Fany clarifies — platter of fruit. Guava and apricot — whatever was in season. Fruit is the dessert, but for special occasions when Ana has her cook prepare the family’s simple all-purpose dough. Made with flour, sourcream, and butter, they use it to make pies filled with cans of cherries or blueberries in syrup she used to ask friends and relatives to bring back with them from trips to the United States (today, the cans are available in Mexico). The same dough is used to make a rugelach-like cookie rolled with apricot or raspberry jam and loaded with pecans and raisins. A generation earlier, Lena used it to make hand pies she called pirog filled with apricots, wild cherries, and shredded apple, Fany explains.
While she grew up on the dough, Fany didn’t learn the recipe until she was attending culinary school in upstate New York at the Culinary Institute of America. Being away from home, she says, brought her close to the recipe.
On a visit to see her family in Mexico, she asked Ana — who prefers to be called by her name instead of grandma or abuela — how to make it. Ana begrudged the request, Fany says. “I don’t like to be in the kitchen anymore,” she told Fany. But she agreed to make it with her. When they baked together, the measuring cups and spoons Ana reached for weren’t standard ones Fany had been using in school. “The cup she uses is not a measuring cup, it’s her cup,” Fany explains. The same is true for measuring spoons. And, the flour didn’t come with a measurement. Instead Ana explained to her that the dough would tell her how much flour it needed.
Today, as the chef and founder of sweets companies La Newyorkina and Dough, Fany is surrounded by desserts, so she reserves the family dough for holidays, rolling it into rugelach-like cookies with jam or marmalade, raisins, and pecans, and she sometimes uses it for the base of a pie she tops with crumble. It’s a true all-purpose recipe, bending with each generation and cook to their tastes. We used it to make a galette loaded with sweet summer strawberries.
For a complete dessert spread, serve it alongside Fany’s hibiscus raspberry paleta, another recipe she shared with us, perfect for cooling off during the summer heat.