Three flavors of doughka (for now…), left to right: lemon and olive oil, Mexican chocolate and sticky banana. Photographs by David A.M. Wilensky.
Get that stale hamantaschen flavor out of your mouth. Get some delectable risen dessert carbs in before Passover arrives. Just get yourself over to the Chelsea location of Dough and pick up Mexican Jewish pastry savant Fany Gerson’s latest creation: the doughka. Half doughnut and half babka, as the name suggests, Gerson’s latest confectionary creation made its debut last month.
Each doughka looks just like a babka, albeit on the smaller side. But unlike the perennially stale, ever-dense texture of that store-bought babka that got left at your house after Shabbos dinner last week (you know the one: half-eaten by the time your guests left; begrudgingly toasted back to life for breakfast the following morning), Gerson’s doughka begins with a base of the unbelievably light yeast dough from which Dough’s doughnuts are made.
The doughka comes in three flavors — “for now,” Gerson says: Mexican chocolate, lemon and olive oil and sticky banana. And they are available only at Dough’s Manhattan location — and only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays beginning at noon.
The author of two cookbooks on Mexican sweets (“My Sweet Mexico” and “Paletas”), Gerson busily oversees two locations of Dough (the other is in Brooklyn) as well as La Newyorkina, her Mexican ice business. In the middle of all that, Gerson recently took some time to talk with me (over a doughka, of course) about the creation of the doughka, new flavors she’s working with and the role of women in the kitchen.
How do you describe a babka? What makes a babka a babka?
To me, a babka is like a loaf. It’s a loaf, and it’s kind of dense chocolate or cinnamon bread that’s been braided. It’s like a braided sweet loaf, you know that’s very traditionally Jewish. And the ones that I’ve seen are mainly chocolate or cinnamon.
Growing up in Mexico, was babka anywhere near as prevalent in the Jewish community as it is here?
It wasn’t prevalent to me. There aren’t a lot of Jewish bakeries in Mexico, but there was this one store that had sort of Jewish specialties that was near my house. And they had a really good babka. You know, the store, it was very curated and you didn’t have many places to go. But any time I came to New York, that was it: going for bagels and all of that. And then I lived in Israel for one year. So for me, it was a very New York thing, but when I lived in Israel, they had them in all these bakeries.
Let’s talk about the other half of the doughka. What are the defining characteristics of a doughnut?
Well, there’s two kinds of doughnuts, mainly: the yeast doughnuts and the cake doughnuts. The only kind we make here — for now — are just the yeast doughnuts.
For now. We are gonna be making cake doughnuts. We’re experimenting with them right now. And so the yeast doughnuts are, they’re still bready, see? They’re like bread. It’s a yeast-risen dough that’s lightly sweet, and then the texture varies, depending on how it’s made, the ingredients you use. So there isn’t one, but if you have to define a doughnut, it’s a fried dough ring.
And what about the history of the doughnut?
Well, I think that you know, if you look back, most countries have some kind of fried dough.
Most people caught onto fried dough being tasty?
Exactly, yeah. So I also know, for example, in Spain they have a lot of, you know, churros. But if you think about churros, they were occupied for a very long time, the Spaniards. So, then in the Arab countries they have a different kind, they don’t have churros, but they have different kinds of fritters or doughnuts. And that’s the way it is with different civilizations — so I think it’s very hard to trace back. Anywhere they were harvesting wheat, you know?
So now that we’ve covered the babka and the doughnut, what is the story of the doughka? How did this come to be?
So the story of the doughka: It actually didn’t start with babka. We wanted to do sticky buns. We would take the scraps of our dough, and we would make these sticky buns. But we didn’t just want to have them as one bun like you would have it somewhere else. So, why don’t we have it as a loaf? So it started out as that idea, and I was just staring at the containers [the small disposable baking molds the loaves are made in], and I thought, what if I treated it like a babka? I loved it; it’s such a New York thing.
How long were you working on this?
It started several months ago, but it was on and off. You know, you get sidetracked, you have other things to do. But once I was like, I’m gonna treat it as a babka, the process was pretty fast. Then I said, well, we have to have a chocolate one, and so on. But very close to here is Breads, the bakery, where they make really good babka. So for me, it’s important to differentiate ourselves.
Right, you want to have a unique product.
And I don’t wanna get anybody angry, like our neighbors. So we said, we’re not gonna do it big, we’re not gonna do slices, you know what I mean? I wanted to do everything a certain way. And I said, well, I wanna use Mexican chocolate because I’m from Mexico, so I wanted to use cinnamon too. So I thought, you could take the two main flavors of babka, cinnamon and chocolate, and why not put them in one? So we do like a dark chocolate spread that’s very similar to a traditional babka, but with a lot of Mexican cinnamon and pieces of Mexican chocolate. So it’s a hybrid, you know? But the dough itself of our doughnut is very different texture-wise [from a traditional babka].
Good. Honestly, I don’t usually like babka that much. It’s usually so dense and dry.
Yeah, so our dough is more spongy. It’s wetter.
But then it’s just baked like a traditional babka?
It’s baked just like a traditional babka. And then I said, well, let’s do other flavors, and then went back to the sticky bun idea. And so, why don’t we take the flavors of the sticky bun, but keep doing it the way we do the babkas? So that was the thought process behind them.
So that’s the Mexican chocolate and the sticky banana. Tell me about the third flavor, lemon and olive oil.
So this is the lemon. We wanted one where it’s more about the bread itself, so it stands out. But it’s not for everyone. Like, these two [Mexican chocolate and sticky banana] are more indulgent, more bold flavor. But this is more subtle. We roll it in lemon sugar, and then it has pieces of candied lemon, it’s brushed with olive oil and topped with sea salt.
Let’s talk about the new word you coined here. Honestly, the cronut was the first thing that came to mind when I heard about the doughka. But I couldn’t think of another example. Are the cronut and the doughka two isolated, unrelated phenomena? Or is there some kind of mashup baked goods trend going on here?
I actually didn’t wanna call it a doughka. It started out as a joke, sort of in the kitchen, like, ‘what are we gonna call it?’ Well, it’s like a babka, but it’s made with our doughnut, so it’s like doughnut babka, but it’s gonna be confusing. And I said, I don’t want people to see it as like, ‘What are we trying to do, the new cronut?’ Because trends, I don’t like to follow trends; I don’t like to do these for the sake of being, you know — I’m not a trendy person. For me, you know, it’s a very personal thing, a very New York thing. I just thought it was a good idea, and I didn’t know what to call it. So that was it. I don’t necessarily love the name; I just didn’t know what else to call it.
Are there more flavors on the way?
From this, we want to evolve and have more. I wanna do some savory ones. I’m working on one that’s a harissa chocolate. I wanna do a za’atar one, and that’s gonna have some type of cheese; not goat cheese, but something fresh like that. I wanna play around with pastes: pesto, sundried tomato paste — but ones we find in the market, so the pesto may not be a traditional kind of pesto. I rarely do straightforward. I’m definitely gonna do something spicy, like Mexican, you know? Play around with different chili pastes that I can make, or maybe a mole one. So we started with these three flavors, but we’re gonna have specials.
The ways in which your heritage comes together in your baking have certainly been written about before — and I think the doughka is one of the most obvious examples of it. But outside of the kitchen, in your life here in New York, what are the communities that you feel connected to, that you’re a part of?
I think I would say for the most part it’s Mexican but a lot of them happen to be Jewish as well. I didn’t go to a Jewish school growing up; I went to an international school. It’s so funny; I had a friend of mine say to me, ‘Oh, you had to move to New York to meet all your Mexican Jew friends?’ And yeah, I think so. There’s a certain kind of personality that wants to leave Mexico, you know, or settle or whatever. But I have a lot of American friends as well. But I think, being in New York, it’s so Jewish. It’s so embedded in everybody’s culture.
And you spent a year in Israel at one point.
Yeah, after high school. So, because I didn’t go to a Jewish school, I felt that I needed to find a part of my identity that I hadn’t connected with. So I thought it was in Israel, that I needed to connect with my Judaism. I went; I can’t say I connected with my Judaism. I had a blast; I made some of my best friends to this day. I was in the University of Tel Aviv for six months. It was the best year of my life. And I worked on a kibbutz.
Did you do any cooking or baking in Israel?
My first job was there, and it was in a kitchen in a little café that was part of the university. But I was kind of sexually harassed by the chef, and I ran out as fast as I could. But then years later, my first job as a pastry chef was at a Mexican restaurant, Rosa Mexicano by Lincoln Center. I went to Mexico to wait for my visa, and also I started researching a lot of old cookbooks. And that was when I started to think that I really wanted to write a cookbook about Mexican sweets. It was then when I realized that what I was looking for, or the part that I felt was missing, wasn’t my Jewish identity, but it was my Mexican identity. Because even though I didn’t go to a Jewish school and I did grow up in Mexico, I felt that that part of my identity was pretty solid.
From family. I am not religious at all, but I consider myself very culturally Jewish. So to me, that was sort of surprising that it was my ‘Mexican-ness.’ Because I sort of grew up in Mexico without realizing, but I always say, being far away brings you closer to home. And I think that both cultures, the Jewish and Latin cultures, are very similar in the sense that they’re very family-oriented. They’re both very focused on being a good person, being a kind person. I mean, like many other cultures. But there’s a lot of parallels there. So my friends here are mostly one or the other. They’re just an extension of who I am. And my other group of friends are people in the industry. Because they’re also entrepreneurs, they get you in a way that nobody else does. […] Everybody has their season, right? At Christmastime, the ones that do the candies, they’re going crazy. In my other business La Newyorkina, for me it’s the summer. You know somebody has your back, and you don’t have to ask for it. It’s like a family. It’s really nice.
What should I ask you about that I haven’t already? Anything else interesting you want people to know or that we glazed over?
Well, I think maybe we should talk about the role of women in the kitchen, because I think that’s very interesting. For most cultures, women are the ones who lead the home kitchen, the ones who have kept the traditions of the culture alive. But in the industry? It’s a male-dominated industry. I mean, it’s changing through time, but still even now.
I noticed you have a lot of women in your kitchen.
Yes. I mean, I hope that through time the conversation stops being about gender. And if we are gonna talk about gender, talk about the fact that women have played a really important role in the kitchen. It’s important to recognize. Honestly, having been working for many years, I found that having a staff of women, mainly, has been amazing. The key is, if you have a group of women that get along with one another, that support one another, the result can be amazing. And they say that about women friendships, too. Women friendships are difficult, but once you have one that has your back, that you feel is like a sister, the power of that friendship is enormous. So the power of a collection of women in the kitchen is enormous.
Who are some of the women who’ve had your back in the kitchen?
The first person I can think of is one of my best friends, Alex Raij, who actually owns a very interesting restaurant. Well, she owns three restaurants. They’re all Spanish. One is a Basque restaurant, the other one is a tapas restaurant, and another one, the one I wanted to tell you about, is in Cobble Hill, La Vara. It’s a southern-Spanish restaurant, but it also has Arab influences and Jewish influences. And we went to cooking school together, and her family is also Jewish, from Argentina originally. I’ve kind of always felt that she’s my kitchen angel. I’ve always felt that she believed in me, and could see things in me before I even could. She was always very encouraging and always trying to guide me. Kind of like a mentor, but she’s one of my best friends. In my two cookbooks, the only person that’s not in my immediate family that’s in my acknowledgments is her. She’s had my back, and I continuously look to her and I admire her professionally personally in every way. You just meet different people along the way.
David A.M. Wilensky is a freelance writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @davidamwilensky