SEATTLE — In October 2005, when Andrea Pons was just 10 years old, her family emigrated from Leon, Mexico, to the Seattle area — first to White Center, eventually settling in Maple Valley. When her family arrived, she was told by her parents that if anyone asked where she was from, she should say she was Mexican Italian.
Pons did have a great-grandmother who was Italian, but she died when Pons was just 4 years old. Her mother never made pasta or Italian dishes, and Pons says she didn’t connect with her Italian heritage at all. Still, from age 10 to 24, Pons tried to hide her Mexican heritage.
“Reflecting back on that, it created a lot of stress and trauma for me. The dialogue I received was, ‘Being Mexican is not enough; you have to say Mexican and something else to be accepted,” Pons says during a recent phone call.
She married at 20, but says her husband never wanted her to cook Mexican food, which only further disconnected her from her heritage. It wasn’t until 2019, when she was 24 and newly divorced, that she finally started cooking the food of her youth as an act of self-love.
“Cooking saved my life,” Pons says.
The proof is “Mamacita,” a gorgeous cookbook filled with Pons’ family recipes — many sourced from her grandmother — released at the end of October.
“Making these dishes helped me crawl out of a dark place of hiding and provided a space where I could finally show up as my whole self,” she says.
Shortly after Pons’ divorce, her mother gifted her her grandmother’s recipe booklet, and she began to reclaim her Mexican heritage, one recipe at a time. The only problem?
“There are no measurements, no ingredients. This booklet was to remind her of the steps she would forget,” Pons says.
Almost immediately, Pons — who works as a stylist — knew she wanted to build the booklet into a real recipe book to keep her family recipes alive. It would be a passion project that, when finished, she would give to her sister and cousins as a gift.
Her grandmother, Titita Tere, had memory issues, so Pons would go to her parents’ house to painstakingly go through each recipe, cooking and writing things down with her mom.
“[My mom] and my grandma learned to cook with their senses. My mom doesn’t even own a measuring spoon set. I had to bring mine over — and go one tablespoon at a time,” Pons says.
It started with chiles rellenos — a labor of love featuring poblano peppers that are roasted and peeled before being stuffed with cheese and dredged in whipped egg whites, fried into a fluffy pepper cloud.
“It is my favorite childhood dish,” Pons says.
She then moved to baking — Titita Tere owned a popular bakery in Leon called La Espanola, where she was renowned for her cakes and breads. Pons has included the recipe for Rosca de Naranja, an orange Bundt cake that was the most popular cake at La Espanola, selling out daily.
Soon, Pons was making her family recipes for friends, which led to lots of conversations she initially was “too afraid to have.”
“Friends were like, ‘Tell me about this recipe. When did you used to eat it in Mexico?’ It was then that I started to really feel I could peel off this mask that I wore for 24 years and open up to what it’s like to be an immigrant, what it’s like to hide behind being white-presenting, and it helped me reconnect to who I truly am,” she says.
Pons worked on the recipes for two years, and the project grew from wanting to preserve her grandmother’s recipes for her family to a book that she hoped would reframe how people look at Mexican food.
By September, she had sold 500 copies and attracted the attention of a publisher.
There are no tacos in the book, but there are recipes for chilaquiles and tamales. There’s also fruit salad, and a curry recipe. Instead of calling the book “authentic,” Pons says the book is “genuine.”
“These are generational family recipes, and what makes them authentic is that they’re genuinely authentic to what I ate as a child,” she says.
Rosca De Naranja (Orange Bundt Cake)
Serves 6 to 10
“This cake is my Titita’s legacy; it’s all the years of love and labor that she poured into her children and grandchildren. Her story is what inspired me to write this cookbook, and I knew that it would not be complete without being able to share this part of her.”
- For the cake:
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon sea salt
2 oranges, ends trimmed
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
- For the glaze:
1 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar, plus more as needed
3 tablespoons fresh orange juice, plus more as needed
¼ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Make the cake: Preheat the oven to 325 degrees, and position a rack in the center. Grease a 10-cup Bundt pan with butter. Lightly dust the pan with flour, and tap out the excess or use baking spray.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt, and set aside.
Using a paring knife, peel the oranges, and remove the pith to keep the cake from tasting bitter. Roughly chop the oranges, and remove any seeds. In a food processor or high-speed blender, pulse the oranges until smooth with a bit of texture but not puréed.
In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the butter until creamy, about 1 minute. Gradually add the granulated sugar, and beat until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. One by one, add the eggs, and mix well. Add the blended oranges. Briefly mix until combined.
Slowly add dry ingredients, and mix at a low speed. Be careful not to overmix. Transfer to the prepared pan, and smooth out the top with a rubber spatula.
Bake until the cake is golden and firm to the touch, 45 to 50 minutes. It’s ready when a toothpick stuck in the middle comes out clean. Cool on a baking rack set over a sheet pan for 10 minutes. Release the cake onto the rack, and let it cool completely.
Make the glaze: Whisk together the confectioners’ sugar, orange juice and vanilla extract in a small bowl. Adjust taste to preference. If you’d like a thicker glaze, add more confectioners’ sugar. For a thinner glaze, add more orange juice.
Pour the glaze over the top of the cooled cake, so it drizzles down the sides. Let the glaze set before serving.
Slice and serve. Store leftover cake at room temperature in an airtight container or a covered cake stand.