Growing up in Mexico City, Tamar Fasja Unikel had a tradition of making her own birthday cake at her grandmother’s Jewish bakery.
“I remember filling [the cake] with food coloring and very long candy popsicles (lollipops) that are very Mexican and putting like a ton of it in the cake,” she said.
Fasja Unikel moved to Chicago in 2014 with her husband and, in 2017, was joined by Elena Vazquez Felgueres, a friend from Mexico City she had met while studying fashion design. Yearning for fresh bread, the pair decided to bring the flavors and ingredients from their Mexican-Jewish cultural upbringing to their adopted city.
“Tamar had the idea of opening up a bakery … We wanted to connect with something in this new city that we were living in, that would make us feel at home,” Vazquez Felgueres said. “And for both of us food, pastries and baked goods is something that connects us to our families.”
Vazquez Felgueres and Fasja Unikel founded Masa Madre in 2018. The bakery, located in Pilsen, sells its artisanal Jewish pastries – such as sufganiyot doughnuts, babkas, challah enriched with hibiscus za’atar from Mexico – exclusively online.
“[The challah] is made by hand from start to finish. It takes a while, I mean, we make it in two days. It takes people and hands and really great ingredients,” Fasja Unikel noted.
For both bakers, their sense of belonging and cultural identity was reinforced through religious traditions and shared meals.
“In my home in Mexico, we always had a very large dinner for Shabbat, and then the next morning a brunch, and after the brunch, we would walk to my grandmother’s house and have this huge meal with all of my cousins and aunts and uncles,” Fasja Unikel said. “So I miss that. But I feel like as my family grows, we’re going to keep that tradition going.”
Although Fasja Unikel no longer specializes in funfetti-like birthday cakes, she has tapped back into her Jewish upbringing for recipes. She spent time in Israel perfecting her babka — a sweet braided cake made in Polish and Ukrainian Jewish communities.
“Even though [my grandmother] had a bakery and her family was from Poland, she never made babka,” Fasja Unikel said. “So I feel like, I had that little sliver, you know, I can make babka, and I’m not going to step in her field of knowledge.”
Vazquez Felgueres reminisced about the bakery’s early days, when they started experimenting with measurements and temperatures, trying to perfect their challah dough recipe.
“Our favorite part of [the business] is when we get to experiment and create new flavors, because we go back to the beginning where we were everyday working with the same dough and perfecting it because that’s when we realized everything affects the product, like the weather, your emotional state, your focus, the ingredients,” she said.
After working in restaurants and bakeries that operated at a breakneck pace, Vazquez Felgueres wanted to create a radically different kitchen environment. In past jobs working mostly for men, she says she often felt uncomfortable, like she wasn’t able to bring her full self to work. Now she manages a growing team of bakers who are all women and is dedicated to nurturing a calmer work culture.
“We know [our employees] have kids and they have families. And so do we. So we always try to be very understanding,” Vazquez Felgueres said. “And I feel that when we are working like that, everything becomes better, the product comes out better, because people are happy and they feel at peace.”
You can order fresh loaves of challah and other baked goods from Masa Madre’s online store for pickup or delivery Wednesday through Friday. The bakery offers same-day delivery throughout the city and northern suburbs, as well as free pickup from several partner cafes, boutiques and Jewish centers.