Brooklyn-based Mexican Jewish chef Fany Gerson makes donuts that are out of this world

(Jewish Week via JTA) – Fany Gerson, 45, has always loved sweets. When Gerson was growing up in the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City, his mother tried to get her sweet tooth under control. Gerson was entitled to an occasional treat, but only if it was “made with love and care,” as she told The Jewish Week.

It’s a philosophy Gerson took to heart – and her creative and successful food businesses, the hugely popular New York-based mini-chain, Dough Donuts, which she launched in 2010. That same year, Gerson, who considers himself a cultural Jew, also opened La Newyorkina, a company specializing in all-natural, hand-made paletas (Mexican fruit or cream popsicles), ice cream and pastries. Over the next decade, both brands grew and gained acclaim – Dough, for example, earned a spot in Food & Wine magazine’s “America’s Best Donuts” list, and Gerson’s name has become almost synonymous with Mexican candy in New York City. She has also published two cookbooks, “My Sweet Mexico” (2010) and “Paletas” (2011).

More recently, after splitting from her Dough partners in early 2020, Gerson opened Fan-Fan Donuts with her business partner, Thierry Cabigeos, at Dough’s original site in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. At Fan-Fan, Gerson reinvented his dough recipe and added Mexican touches as well as flavors from around the world, including Mexican donuts with cinnamon sugar, white coffee and mango lassi, as well as cheese à la Guava “Fan-Fans”, the rectangular version of Gerson. , donuts filled in the style of an eclair. Despite opening in October 2020 – amid the pandemic – lines have formed at the gate.

In his work as in his life, Gerson likes to reflect on the richness of his Jewish and Mexican heritage. “I feel like over time I’ve explored it through food and I’m kind of a bridge between the two worlds,” she said.

It turns out that Gerson’s donut-making journey may have surprising Jewish inspiration: As a youth, Gerson spent a year in Israel as part of an overseas student exchange program and worked in a kibbutz. One night during Hanukkah she was out dancing with friends at a club and they brought big boxes of sufganiyot – the fried and round jelly donuts traditionally eaten on Hanukkah. Gerson remembered never seeing or tasting anything like it, and it may have been his first idea that donuts would become a special part of his life (as well as future Hanukkah celebrations).

The happy memory of those boxes of sweet and fried spheres served on a carefree night in Israel so many years ago comes back every time Gerson makes sufganiyot – which she prepares to do as Hanukkah this year begins on Sunday, November 28. This year’s Fan-Fan sufganiyot selection includes homemade strawberry jam rolled in lemon sugar; vanilla diplomat cream, which is a vanilla pastry cream mixed with whipped cream, rolled in toasted sugar; and chocolate halva in collaboration with Seed + Mill at Chelsea Market.

But that’s not all: Gerson is also collaborating with Jewish chef and author Jake Cohen, presenting an all-new sufganiyah inspired by Hanukkah’s proximity to Thanksgiving: a donut filled with cranberry and tangerine sumac jam and rolled in sugar. salt and pepper. They are available from Friday, November 26 through Monday, December 6, the last day of Chanukah.

As Gerson always liked to work with her hands, her parents thought she was destined for an art school. Instead, after discovering the love of cooking during an elective class in high school, she lobbied for a cooking school. After completing two years of cooking school in Mexico, her parents allowed her to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America, from which she graduated in 1998. This was followed by stints at well-known restaurants in New York. York, including La Côte Basque, Rosa Mexicano and Eleven Madison Park.

When his friend and former boss Cabigeos suggested they open a donut store, Gerson agreed to give it a try. Acknowledging that she brought “an immigrant’s perspective” to the “great American donut,” Gerson said she was careful to do so very carefully. As she said: “Here I am doing one thing, and I have to do it right because people have a lot of nostalgia attached to it.”

A selection of treats available at Fan-Fan Donuts in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood on November 18, 2021 (Risa Doherty)

More than a decade later, when the pair opened Fan-Fan, Gerson took things up a notch. For example, its reimagined dough is seasoned with a mild Mexican cinnamon tea, which adds a light floral note to its pastries but with no noticeable flavor. On a recent visit, Toby Shebiro from Searingtown, New York, passed on the Fan-Fan donuts and opted for a sticky bun – made from that same dough – instead. “It was outrageous,” she said. “It wasn’t gooey like a lot of sticky buns can be. It was the perfect consistency, chewy and flavorful, and not too sweet.

For Gerson, food has never been monocultural. His paternal grandparents, like other Jews of Ukrainian descent, brought customary Ashkenazi dishes to their tables. But it didn’t take long for these dishes to “tropicalize” with Mexican flavors, creating new traditions: the tomato gefilte fish was served hot and seared, sour and spicy with a guajillo pepper sauce; the challah was made with apples and cinnamon; The matzah dumpling soup included avocado, cilantro, and serrano pepper. She also knew that Mexican cuisine had already been influenced by Spanish, Moorish, Mayan, and Aztec cuisines.

Often times, Gerson’s designs are inspired by the people she loves. She paid tribute to her husband, Daniel Ortiz de Montellano, with “the Mensch”, a Fan-Fan that contains hazelnut praline covered with Belgian dark chocolate ganache and garnished with hazelnuts. (She first met Ortiz de Montellano, also a chef, in New York City, only to learn that they had grown up eight blocks from each other in Mexico City. Her mother, originally from New York, descended from Hungarian Jews and moved to Mexico, where she met her father.)

Gerson seems to be more sensitive to his own food memories than many of us. She said she has long missed her native Mexico – especially throughout the pandemic – but is connecting with it by working with the Mexican seasonings she has always loved. “This is the problem with the food, it is not fleeting,” she said. “How many memories are linked to food? A smell can bring you back.

Perhaps these memories remain so vivid because eating is so sensory, allowing Gerson, as well as the Fan-Fan customers, to rediscover some childhood joy. Additionally, Gerson points out that food preparation is the one art that utilizes all of the senses, which gives it the added benefit of being remembered throughout the cooking process.

Gerson deeply respects culinary traditions but is an innovator at heart. “Even something that becomes traditional is rooted elsewhere, so what I do is my own cultural blend,” she said.

James C. Tibbs