Last week Elena Vázquez Felgueres and Tamar Fasja Unikel, the owners and proprietors and also chief bakers and delivery drivers of Masa Madre, which is, as far as they know, Chicago’s only Jewish-Mexican bakery, met in Vázquez Felgueres’s kitchen in Pilsen to try out recipes for Passover, three weeks away.
This is unusually early for them; most of the time, their business keeps them so busy they don’t start thinking about holiday specials until the holidays are nearly upon them. Passover, however, presents a special challenge: in commemoration of the Israelites’ precipitous exodus from Egypt, which didn’t leave them enough time for their bread to rise, Jews abstain from leavened baked goods for the length of the entire eight-day festival. Over time, the prohibition has expanded to include grains, including wheat—meaning no flour. Passover baked goods are notorious both for their density and lack of flavor.
This Passover, Masa Madre will be selling flourless chocolate cake. Vázquez Felgueres and Fasja Unikel have both come to the kitchen armed with family recipes. Fasja Unikel’s comes from her aunt, who owns a bakery in Mexico City, where both women grew up; Vázquez Felgueres’s comes from her grandmother, who texted her a photograph of the recipe, handwritten in a mixture of French and Spanish.
“It’s complicated to do family recipes,” says Fasja Unikel as she reaches into the oven to test her cakes for doneness. “They’re not used to doing exact measurements. When they say cups, they mean water cups, not measuring cups.”
“Some say, ‘add puño,’ a pinch, a handful of flour,” adds Vázquez Felgueres. “But it depends on the [size of the] hand. I don’t know why they’re like that. They probably had kids and a full house and no time.”
Vázquez Felgueres and Fasja Unikel first met in fashion school in Mexico City a decade ago and reunited in Chicago early in 2017 after Vázquez Felgueres moved here. (Fasja Unikel arrived in 2011.) They established Masa Madre that December. Business has been growing steadily since then, mostly through word of mouth and Instagram. The bakery’s calling card is its babka. Fasja Unikel learned the recipe in Israel three years ago from the baker Lior Mashiach.
“It’s the perfect balance of bread,” says Vázquez Felgueres. “Not too sweet, not too light, chewy.”
They began tweaking the recipe with Mexican flavors to make it their own: dulce de leche, cinnamon churro, and a sweet chile jam. They expanded to other holiday treats: pan de muerte for the Day of the Dead; rugelach and sufganiyot, or filled doughnuts, for Hanukkah; hamentaschen, triangular jam-filled cookies, for Purim; challah for Shabbat. (Though their kitchen isn’t kosher-certified, they use kosher ingredients and have dairy-free variations of most of their recipes.) For Passover, they plan to infuse their chocolate cake with café de olla, a blend of coffee, cinnamon, chocolate, and piloncillo, a raw dark sugar.
As soon as Fasja Unikel’s cakes come out of the oven, Vázquez Felgueres begins mixing her batter. The recipe calls for only five ingredients: butter, eggs, chocolate, sugar, and almond meal. “It’s very simple,” she says. “Apparently.”
“Hopefully,” Fasja Unikel adds.
The batter comes out light and creamy. “It tastes like chocolate mousse,” says Vázquez Felgueres. Fasja Unikel pokes a finger into the bowl and licks it, and then smiles. “It’s good.”
Fasja Unikel grew up eating a combination of traditional Jewish and Mexican flavors. Her mother’s family is from eastern Europe and her father’s is from Syria. Her paternal grandmother would add avocado and salsa to her kibbeh, while her mother’s family would serve gefilte fish with tomatoes, chiles, and onions. Vázquez Felgueres, who isn’t Jewish, grew up in a Jewish neighborhood and was familiar with the cuisine also, although until Masa Madre, she wasn’t sure which pastries went with which holiday. “Tamar is a great teacher,” she says.
Vázquez Felgueres pours her batter into miniature loaf pans and pops them into the oven while Fasja Unikel stirs together melted chocolate, butter, ground coffee, and piloncillo to make the ganache topping for the cakes. Vázquez Felgueres adds a dash of cinnamon, and Fasja Unikel makes a note of the quantity. “We’re always asking questions,” she says. “Going to restaurants and coffee shops, trying babka.” Both women dream of spending time in Mexico City with their grandmothers’ recipe notebooks so they can standardize and reproduce the recipes.
Masa Madre’s business model is custom-order only. Vázquez Felgueres worked in larger bakeries when she came to Chicago and was appalled by how much was thrown out at the end of the day; now they only bake as much as they need. They make all the deliveries themselves, which makes them feel more connected to their customers.
While the cakes bake, they chat about Fasja Unikel’s baby, due in June, and a recent catastrophe involving a can of exploded condensed milk that was on its way to becoming dulce de leche, something that has never happened to either of them before. (“I think it’s because we left your husband in charge,” muses Vázquez Felgueres. “It was like a bomb went off.” They’re still trying to figure out how to get the remains off the ceiling.) Finally the moment of truth arrives: the cakes are on the counter.
Vázquez Felgueres’s are light, almost like a souffle, and sunken in the middle. Fasja Unikel’s are denser, with a nutty flavor from the ground walnuts in the batter. The two bakers taste both with and without the ganache and consider. “I think I’ll have to modify the recipe,” says Vázquez Felgueres, peering at the crack on top of her cake. “But not bad for a first trial.”
As usual, they’ll cede the final decision to Fasja Unikel’s husband and Vázquez Felgueres’s wife, both of whom have very similar tastes. But for now, it’s time to clean up the kitchen and get ready for the next round of deliveries.
“We’ll have to be eating chocolate cake for another week,” says Fasja Unikel, trying to look mournful.
Vázquez Felgueres shrugs. “It’s a tough job.” v