When Fany Gerson's grandparents left Russia early last century they had no idea their Hanukkah table someday would be filled with chili-spiked latkes.
"It's definitely a modern thing," says Gerson, a native Mexican who also is Jewish. And latkes are just the beginning.
The pastry chef and author of "My Sweet Mexico" (Ten Speed Press, 2010) merges her cultures at every opportunity: the Hanukkah jelly donuts called "sufganiot" get filled with guava and mango; Mexican coconut sweets called "cocadas" stand in for macaroons. Matzo ball soup is garnished with cilantro, chilies and limes.
And Passover gefilte fish? Pan-fried in a tomato-chili sauce.
For many people, Mexican food ends at tortillas and beans. But centuries of influence from Spain and its contact with the Middle East have left their mark on the culinary landscape. Especially when it comes to sweets. For Gerson, it's a matter of yet more cultures being blended. And deliciously so.
"It's not that you go to Mexico and find a baklava, but you find a lot of similar flavors," Gerson says.
Mexican dessert fruits like prickly pear and guava often are dried or made into pastes, like quince and dates in the Middle East. Spanish nuns brought candy-making know how, turning loose their technique on coconut, mangoes and other native fruits, and adding puckery accents such as tamarind.
Breads began to showcase dates, pecans and Asian spices such as cinnamon. Crumbly Middle Eastern semolina cookies show up as almond flour confections called Mexican wedding cookies. And dairy from Spain merged with spices from India to create the now-iconic Latin dessert, rice pudding.
"We didn't have dairy before Spain came, and I'm not sure that the Spaniards had it before the Arabs came," Gerson says. "You see the cultural blend everywhere you go."
Gerson continues to mix and match her cultures, always creating new traditions. For Passover, when bread and other leavened items are forbidden, she concocts a flourless chocolate cake with tequila-soaked raisins.
"It's not Passover-ish, but it's yummy."
Start to finish: 3 hours (1 hour active)
Makes 24 pieces
Two 14-ounce cans condensed milk
12-ounce can evaporated goat's or cow's milk
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
Lightly coat a 9-by-9-inch baking pan with cooking spray. Line bottom with parchment paper or foil, leaving about a 1-inch overhang on all sides.
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine condensed milk, evaporated milk, butter, vanilla and salt. Heat, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula, until mixture has thickened and starts pulling away from sides of the pan, 30 to 40 minutes. When ready, it will slide out easily when tilted.
Pour into prepared pan and allow to set, about 2 hours. Cut into rectangles or desired shapes.
Here are ways to modify the recipe to produce a variety of flavors and colors.
Ÿ Chocolate: Add 6 tablespoons of cocoa powder.
Ÿ Lime: Leave out the vanilla. Once the mixture has been removed from the heat, add 1 teaspoon of grated lime zest, 1 tablespoon lime juice and a few drops of green food coloring. Add the ingredients slowly and stir well.
Ÿ Coffee: Add 2 teaspoons of coffee extract.
Ÿ Coconut: Replace the evaporated milk with an equal amount of coconut milk.