Brooklyns Mexican-Jewish chef Fany Gerson makes doughnuts that are out of this world – Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Posted By on November 27, 2021

(New York Jewish Week via JTA) Fany Gerson, 45, has always loved sweets. When Gerson was growing up in the Polanco section of Mexico City, her mother tried to rein in her sweet tooth. Gerson was permitted an occasional treat, but only if it was made with care and love, as she told the New York Jewish Week.

Its a philosophy that Gerson has taken to heart and to her super-successful, creative food businesses, the enormously popular New York-based mini-chain, Dough Doughnuts, which she launched in 2010. That same year, Gerson, who considers herself a cultural Jew, also opened La Newyorkina, a business specializing in all-natural handmade paletas (Mexican fruit or cream popsicles), ice cream and pastries.

In the ensuing decade, both brands expanded and garnered acclaim Dough, for example, earned a spot on Food & Wine magazines Americas Best Doughnuts list, and Gersons name became nearly synonymous with Mexican sweets in New York. She also published two cookbooks, My Sweet Mexico(2010) and Paletas(2011).

More recently, after parting ways with her Dough partners in early in 2020, Gerson opened Fan-Fan Doughnuts with her business partner, Thierry Cabigeos, at the original Dough location in Brooklyns Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. At Fan-Fan, Gerson reinvented her dough recipe and added Mexican touches as well as flavors from around the world, including Mexican Cinnamon Sugar, White Coffee and Mango Lassi doughnuts, as well as Guava Cheese Fan-Fans, Gersons take on rectangular, eclair-like filled doughnuts. Despite opening in October 2020 mid-pandemic lines formed out the door.

In her work, as in her life, Gerson likes to reflect on the richness of her Jewish and Mexican heritages. I feel like through time Ive explored it through food and Im kind of bridging the two worlds, she said.

Gersons doughnut-creating journey, it turns out, may have a surprising Jewish inspiration: In her younger years, Gerson spent a year in Israel on an overseas student exchange program and worked on a kibbutz. One night, during Hanukkah, she was out dancing with friends at a club and they brought in large boxes of sufganiyot the fried, round jelly doughnuts traditionally eaten on Hanukkah. Gerson recalled never having seen or tasted anything like them, and it was possibly her first inkling that doughnuts would become a special part of her life (as well as future Hanukkah celebrations).

The joyful memory of those boxes of sugary, fried spheres served on a carefree night in Israel, so many years ago, comes rushing back whenever Gerson makes sufganiyot which shes gearing up to do as Hanukkah starts this year on Sunday, Nov. 28. This years sufganiyot selection from Fan-Fan includes house-made strawberry jam rolled in lemon sugar; vanilla diplomat cream, which is vanilla pastry cream mixed with whipped cream, rolled in toasted sugar; and chocolate halvah in collaboration with Seed + Mill at Chelsea Market.

But thats not all: Gerson is also collaborating with Jewish chef and author Jake Cohen, introducing a brand new sufganiyah thats inspired by Hanukkahs proximity to Thanksgiving: a doughnut filled with cranberry sumac jam and tangerine and rolled in salt and pepper. They are available from Friday, Nov. 26 through Monday, Dec. 6, the last day of Hanukkah.

Since Gerson always enjoyed working with her hands, her parents thought she was destined for art school. Instead, having discovered a love of cooking during a high school elective class, she lobbied for culinary school. After completing two years of cooking school in Mexico, her parents permitted her to enroll at the Culinary Institute of America, from which she graduated in 1998. This was followed by stints at well-known New York restaurants, including La Cote Basque, Rosa Mexicano and Eleven Madison Park.

When her friend and former boss, Cabigeos, suggested they open a doughnut shop, Gerson agreed to give it a try. Recognizing she was bringing an immigrants point of view to the great American doughnut, Gerson said she was careful to do it very mindfully. As she put it: Here I do one thing, and Ive got to do it right because people have a lot of nostalgia attached to it.

A selection of treats available at Fan-Fan Doughnuts in Brooklyns Bed-Stuy neighborhood, Nov. 18, 2021. (Risa Doherty)

More than a decade later, when the pair opened Fan-Fan, Gerson took things up a notch. For example, her reimagined dough is seasoned with a mild Mexican cinnamon tea, which adds a light, floral note to her pastries but no discernible flavor. On a recent visit, Toby Shebiro of Searingtown, New York, passed on Fan-Fans doughnuts and opted for a sticky bun made from that very same dough instead.

It was outrageous, she said. It wasnt gooey, the way many sticky buns can be. It was the perfect consistency, moist and flavorful, and not overly sweet.

For Gerson, food was never monocultural. Her paternal grandparents, like other Jews with roots in the Ukraine, brought customary Ashkenazi dishes to their table. But it didnt take long before these dishes got tropicalized with Mexican flavors, creating new traditions: gefilte fish with tomato was served warm and pan-fried, sour and spicy with guajillo pepper sauce; challah was made with apples and cinnamon; matzah ball soup featured avocado, cilantro and serrano pepper. She knew, too, that Mexican cooking had already been influenced by Spanish, Moorish, Mayan and Aztec cuisines.

Oftentimes, Gersons creations are inspired by the people she loves. She honored her husband, Daniel Ortiz de Montellano, with the Mensch, a Fan-Fan doughnut that contains hazelnut praline covered with Belgian dark chocolate ganache and topped with hazelnuts. (She first met Ortiz de Montellano, also a chef, in New York, only to learn that they had grown up eight blocks from each other in Mexico City. His mother, originally from New York, is descended from Hungarian Jews and moved to Mexico, where she met his father. )

Gerson seems to be more attuned to her own food memories than many of us. She said she has long missed her native Mexico especially throughout the pandemic but connects to it by working with the Mexican seasonings shes always loved.

Thats the thing about food, its not ephemeral, she said. How many memories are tied to food? A smell can take you back.

Perhaps those memories remain so vivid because eating is so sensory, allowing Gerson, as well as Fan-Fans customers, to recapture some childhood joy. Whats more, Gerson points out that food preparation is the only art that utilizes all the senses, giving her the added benefit of reminiscing throughout the baking process.

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

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Brooklyns Mexican-Jewish chef Fany Gerson makes doughnuts that are out of this world - Jewish Telegraphic Agency

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