Flourless chocolate cake is a familiar dessert for many Jewish Chicagoans during Passover, when only unleavened bread is allowed on the table. But the flavors of Masa Madre’s chocolate cake might not be quite so familiar. Their version is topped with a glossy ganache featuring the spices of traditional Mexican café de olla.
Masa Madre also offers other Jewish pastries with Mexican flair, including sweet babka loaves stuffed with the flavors of cinnamon churros or drenched in tres leches, and braided loaves of challah topped with hibiscus-scented za’atar brought in from Mexico.
It’s a twist that comes from the bakers’ unique blend of cultures.
“I come from a community in Mexico which is Sephardic. So it’s Middle Eastern, you know, pistachios, cardamom, all of those flavors,” says Tamar Fasja Unikel, co-owner of Masa Madre. “But we also have, you know, like the tres leches, those are flavors that are very Mexican that are also from our community.”
“These are flavors that we grew up with,” says co-owner Elena Vázquez Felgueres. “So we’re just thinking about desserts that our grandmothers made or mothers made.”
Vázquez Felgueres and Fasja Unikel met a decade ago in their native Mexico City while studying fashion design. Vázquez Felgueres moved to Chicago in 2016 so her wife could study at the School of the Art Institute. Fasja Unikel arrived two years later so her husband could complete his masters at the University of Chicago.
Their reunion in Chicago gave rise to a fledgling business.
“One day we were having dinner at her house, and we were thinking how Chicago needed more bread, more fresh bread,” recalls Vázquez Felgueres.
The pair began selling homemade sourdough loaves at farmers markets, but soon, switched to confections reflecting their unique blend of cultures.
“There’s about 40,000 Jews in Mexico City, so it’s quite a large community and it’s very tight. So this mix of flavors, I feel like it’s happening a lot in Mexico, in Mexico City, especially,” says Fasja Unikel.
Vázquez Felgueres agrees that for Chicagoans, this culture mix might be surprising. “I think a lot of people don’t know that this is like a mix of culture that exists.”
Not long after they began, demand for their goods surpassed what their home ovens could produce. Last October, Masa Madre moved their baking to the Hatchery, a food incubator on Chicago’s West Side.
Since their sales were already conducted entirely online, the pandemic hasn’t slowed them down.
“After everyone shifted towards being online, people started getting more used to the idea of preordering and picking up and all of that,” says Vázquez Felgueres. “So it was easy for us to transition and to just flow with it.”
And they say that sharing the flavors of home with Chicago has made Chicago feel more like home for them, too.
“I had a hard time adjusting. I think it was hard to find something that could connect us to the people here,” recalls Vázquez Felgueres. “And after we started making bread and sharing it with everyone, we’ve met so many people through this business, other women, other people just trying to make small businesses and share their stories.”
Fasja Unikel says as they have grown their business, they have also grown connections, especially with others in the culinary community.
“Having this business has really opened a space for us here in Chicago and made a community around us,” she said.