While most of her contemporaries were concerned with opening a restaurant, pastry chef Fany Gerson had another goal. “Most friends and colleagues I have in the industry had dreams of having their own business,” she says. “Mine was to write a cookbook.” The Mexico City native and Culinary Institute of America graduate did just that in 2010 with My Sweet Mexico, an ode to the sweet offerings of her upbringing. That same year, she debuted La Newyorkina at the Hester Street Fair, where she began selling a selection of paletas, Mexico’s frozen, on-the-go treat that would become her calling card and the focus and namesake of her second book, released just one year later.
Today, Gerson’s goods are available through her website and at several locations across town, including the High Line beginning on Friday, April 18. Here, we chatted with Gerson about how her sweets have benefited from her savory training, why farmers’ markets can serve as inspiring fieldwork, and the ingredients for which she’ll travel thousands of miles to retrieve and share.
What is the paleta’s place in Mexican culture?
You can find paletas — and paleterias — all around Mexico. I was very surprised to learn that many people in the States grow up making popsicles, because in Mexico, for the most part, you just go to the paleteria. The array is enormous, and you see them in every little town.
Are some flavors more traditional than others?
We have a lot of fruits that are found in Mexico. You’ll always see tamarind, guava, and lime. And then there are a lot of fruit offerings with chilis. The flavors of paletas range from salty, sour, sweet, and spicy — often at the same time.
What is your goal when creating a new flavor?
I want to create a flavor that will transport you to Mexico. Ultimately it’s a flavor that brings about some nostalgia — even if it’s a new combination. A few years ago I did an event with Big Gay Ice Cream, where we also sold a rainbow paleta with five rotating flavors. We were in LA for the event, and the farmers’ markets there are amazing. In Mexico, you use the best of what the markets offer, so we used a lemon paleta with black and red raspberries and verbena. That one took the experience of the paleta to a new level. It incorporated my training as a pastry chef with what the farmers had to offer.
Which of your flavors do particularly well?
We always have tropical flavors because they don’t depend on the seasons. This year we’re going to launch a line of paletas that we’ll be selling in stores, and all of those flavors will be tropical. The mango chili is our most popular one, and others that do well are the pineapple jalapeno and cucumber lime. Then we have our pink limeade, which is kind of a hybrid. Yellow lemons aren’t very common in Mexico — but limes are. So we made it a lime flavor but tinted it with hibiscus.
Are there certain ingredients that you’re very particular about sourcing through Mexico?
Yes: the hibiscus, the Mexican cinnamon, and the tamarind. I take care in sourcing these directly from Mexico because of the quality, but also because they’re very specific flavors. Tamarind from different countries just tastes very different, and the Mexican cinnamon is difficult to find, but the hibiscus is the biggest one. Even when I go to a Mexican purveyor, I’ve told them, “This is not Mexican hibiscus — this is Chinese hibiscus.” It looks beautiful, but I can tell it’s not authentic because it has no flavor — I’d have to use three times as much. So now I use organic hibiscus from a farmer in Mexico.
Even though you’re no longer working in restaurants, do you feel like your in-house experience has shaped your work today?
Absolutely. In life, I feel that all of the different experiences you have are able to bring you different values that you don’t always realize in the moment — they often reveal themselves afterwards. I always say I’m the anti-pastry pastry chef. Most pasty chefs are morning people, and I’m not. They’re very methodical, and I’m not. Having been in restaurants and having experience on the savory side of the kitchen allows me to have freedom and pushes me to understand sweets in a very different way. You can’t just follow a recipe and expect the same results — there’s climate, there are changes in the ingredients — you want to create and understand that balance of being consistent and artistic.