Fany Gerson saw a niche that needed filling. Cookbooks and pastry shops highlighting French croissants, British scones, Italian gelato, and American doughnuts are a dime a dozen. But Mexican desserts were a cookbook desert until Gerson’s My Sweet Mexico.
The Mexican-born chef, who worked at Akelare in San Sebastián, Spain, as well as at Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, presents traditional candies like pastel-colored milk fudge, popular pastries such as dead man’s bread, and modern desserts like her Mexican opera cake that combines French technique and Mexican flair. Gerson did her homework (this is her first cookbook). She has compiled a remarkable collection of Mexico’s dessert traditions, and for this alone My Sweet Mexico is worthy of our attention.
How did the recipes fare? The end results were nice-looking and delicious—once we figured out how to make them work. We baked three sweets, beginning with a pretty complicated one: a Chocolate Rum Tres Leches Cake. A tres leches cake is a cake that is soaked in milk, then topped with frosting. We had a hard time figuring out the best way to soak the cakes (Gerson doesn’t explain exactly how to do it). This is what we did: placed the cakes back in the cake baking pans (as she suggests), poured as much tres leches sauce over them as fit, waited several minutes for the sauce to absorb into the cakes, and continued to top them off with more of the sauce. (This will take some time and patience.) We also found that cutting a very thin layer off the top of the cakes to expose their pores helped the sauce absorb faster.
This recipe’s biggest glitch was that there wasn’t enough icing to completely frost the assembled cake. We looked to Gerson’s other tres leches cake to compare. The problem was clear: Both recipes called for the same amount of icing, but the one we were testing had double the amount of cake. The fix was to double the icing, which worked beautifully. We also found that we had to grease the cake pans and decrease the baking time. Once we adjusted the recipe accordingly, the result was a delicious rum-soaked chocolate sponge cake that we couldn’t stop eating.
The next recipe, Conchas Blancas (White Shells), was delicious too; it made us wish these briochelike morning buns were as common here as they are in Mexico City. But we also wish Gerson had been more clear in her descriptions. For example, she says to let the dough rise at room temperature for about 1 hour. How much is it supposed to rise? Our dough didn’t rise at all either time we made these buns. The topping on this sweet bread is a layer of crumbly sugar that you place on each raw dough round. Gerson instructs you to roll a gumball-size amount of the topping in your hands. I looked at my colleagues and asked, “What size gumball do you think she means, large or small?” Again, a better description, like scoop the topping into 1-tablespoon portions, would have been helpful. To make the topping rollable, we had to add a 1/2 cup more butter, and then had to cut the recipe in half since it made double the amount of topping needed.
The final recipe we tried was the Convent Cookies, a white cookie batter mixed with crushed caramelized almonds. These cookies were not our favorite, especially for the amount of work they required. But I can see their appeal. A typo in the ingredients caused a lot of confusion: It called for “7 ounces (scant 1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened.” But 7 ounces is a scant 1 cup butter, not 1/2 cup. And when making the caramelized almonds, more description would have helped. There is an unwritten expectation in My Sweet Mexico that you, the reader, are an expert cook—that you know that Gerson’s sugar-and-water combination takes about 10 minutes to become golden caramel, and that by “cook” the caramel you should boil it.
Yes, there were problems with the recipes. And yes, the author assumes a high level of expertise. But the recipes are authentic, and if you work through them, they can be delicious. Does My Sweet Mexico demand a place on cookbook shelves? We think so, but less as a stainable, workaday cookbook and more as a historical and cultural reference that pays homage to the cuisine of Mexico.