Two of my biggest loves are baking and bread. Growing up in Mexico City, there was never a shortage of delicious local breads for every occasion: pink and yellow conchas (fluffy round breads with a crumbly seashell-like topping dyed in various colors) with cafecito in the mornings; sugared pan de muerto (a spongy yeast bread flavored with anise and orange blossom, with the pieces lying across its surface representing bones) for Día de Muertos every November 1st and 2nd; pan de yema (a flaky bread made with egg yolk) accompanied by Oaxacan hot chocolate while sat in little market stalls…
The thing about bread in Mexico City is that there’s a bakery on every corner, always extending an invitation to passersby with the wafting scent of fresh, hot loaves. Be it the traditional helpings of conchas or bolillos (for sandwich-making) or the Spanish and French influence found in their brioche varieties, Mexico City is teeming with a bread culture that is hard to find elsewhere, and is as colorful as the city itself. Even though I bring anise and chocolate and orange blossom back home to California, there’s nothing that can compare to the flavors of Mexico City.
Our family settled in Mexico when my Swedish grandmother (who we lovingly knew as Mormor) with Jewish ancestry married a Catholic Mexican soldier and moved to his home country. Being Jewish – most importantly, Mexican Jewish – has not always been an easy journey for me. It took me years before I found a home in the Jewish community, principally since my Catholic mom never exposed my siblings and I to our Jewish roots, due to her fundamentalist beliefs. It wasn’t until my father’s death, and later my own research into my family backgrounds, that I found my footing.
Mexico City — my parents’ homeland — proved to be the start of it all. Now, I can’t see any separation between my Mexican and Jewish cultures in their love of bread, and many of my go-to spots in Mexico City are Jewish bakeries, such as Sinai Deli and Bakery and Wendy’s Kosher Bakery. I dip their challah into a hot plate of mole — an authentic Mexican sauce flavored with chiles, chocolate, spices and tomatillos.
While I didn’t explore my Jewish identity until my early 20s, I grew up bearing witness to the intertwinings of my multicultural background at Mormor’s dinner table. Mormor strongly believed in tying in our cultures to every dish she cooked, from an iron griddle of shakshuka topped with Swedish dill and layered with Mexican cotija cheese to the porcelain platter of hot latkes accompanied by Veracruzan sour cream and applesauce made from Mormor’s preserves. I treasure the moments spent baking in her kitchen, my little hands gripping her handwritten recipe cards to find the next ingredient.
Decades later, I still savor these childhood dishes. Like Mormor, I’ve resolved to always safeguard the importance of both of my faiths and my heritages in my household, and keep each culinary tradition alive. Inspired by her table, my kitchen pursuits mix the sweetness of my Mexican culture with my Swedish heritage, and the Jewish classics I’ve fallen in love with. I will raise my future kids in a Spanish-speaking environment with cinnamon rolls for breakfast, chilaquiles for lunch and challah for (Friday night) dinner.
Despite different flavors and techniques, the Mexican and Jewish shared passion for dough has nurtured my love for baking. All my recipes have evolved from Mormor’s own: homemade bagels fashioned with Mormor’s jalapeño cream cheese, freshly baked babka sprinkled with Oaxacan chocolate shavings, and Rosh Hashanah challah with Stockholm’s famous apple cider and the sweet glut of the Mexican honeybees.
I have experienced the best of the two culinary worlds I belong to and have the privilege to live in. The bakes and breads of my Mexican and Jewish heritage continue to help me navigate the vastness of my multicultural identity. Smelling and tasting the nostalgia in every bite brings me back to not only my childhood living in Jewish-friendly Mexico City, but also to Mormor’s beloved kitchen, where magic came in the shape of challah and conchas.
Get the recipe for Mormor’s Oaxacan chocolate challah here.