Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Baking the bread of the dead

     Tamar Fasja Unikel, left, sets out pan de muerto as Elena Vázquez Felgueres works on a
          laptop at Masa Madre, their "virtual" bakery blending Jewish and Mexican traditions.

     “We’re about to bake the pan de muerto,” says Tamar Fasja Unikel, heading into the depths of the Hatchery, the vast East Garfield Park restaurant and food service incubator.
     Fasja Unikel is half of Masa Madre, an artisanal bakery fusing Mexican and Jewish traditions. Pan de muerto, literally, “bread of the dead,” are sweet, pillowy round loafs, decorated with symbolic bones, that can be eaten plain, dipped in coffee or hot chocolate, or reverently placed along with marigolds and photos on an ofrenda, the altar honoring the memories of departed loved ones (both family and pets). Placing food there is an act of both love and sacrifice, since you don’t eat those offerings yourself. You mustn’t; it’s their food.
     In kitchen D-119 waits her business partner, Elena Vázquez Felgueres. The two met about 10 years ago at Centro, an arts and fashion school in Mexico City. Both moved to Chicago with their spouses independently, then reconnected here and decided to go into business together.
     Why not pursue fashion?
     “Chicago is not a fashion-forward city, so we had to change gears,” says Fasja Unikel.
     True enough. Chicago has always been a far greater source of food than fashion. More cow, less leather jacket.
     Though the women’s training is subtly reflected in the unusual rose aprons they wear — crossing in the back, straps spaced wide, hanging from their shoulders instead of their necks.
     “When we first started it was just two of us, we were baking long hours. The other aprons that go on our neck hurt a lot,” says Vázquez Felgueres. “We tried this shape and it’s very comfortable. You can wear it all day.”
     They can and do, at least Wednesday through Friday, their baking days, which begin at 4 a.m. and run until orders go out about 11:30 a.m. They lead a team of four bakers, but are very hands-on, plucking finished breads from the oven, painting them with butter, handing them over to be doused in sugar.
      Masa Madre is a “virtual” bakery — they work in a single rented space, a kitchen crammed with baking racks and tables and stacks of boxes. They have outlets and take orders for pick-up and delivery, but hope to open a bricks-and-mortar bakery in the West Loop next year.
     Masa Madre means “mother dough.” They chose the name because back when they started in 2018, buying ingredients at Costco and baking at home, they focused on sourdough, with its venerated eternal starter.

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