Masa Madre: Where Jewish + Mexican Cuisine Meets
by Zoe Rayn; Editorial Director
A few months back while interviewing the lovely folks at Comercio Popular, they mentioned a new Mexican/Jewish pop-up bakery that I promptly took a mental note to look up later on. After drooling over their Instagram for a few days I finally got to indulge in one of their cinnamon, churro babkas and I immediately thought to myself “holy fuck this is delicious I need to know more”.
Launched out of Tamar and Elena’s shared passion for good food, Masa Madre is a hybrid of traditional Mexican and Jewish flavors, which IDK if you can tell or not, makes for a damn near magical baked treat. Based in Chicago, the duo hosts regular pop-ups and take orders on their website, where they bake every babka and challah to order. Read on to learn about their journey, and generally to drool over these delectable treats.
Z: So what is Masa Madre exactly? How did it start?
MM: Masa Madre in Spanish means "mother dough" which is the natural yeast or starter made from scratch to make sourdough bread.
We started the business by making sourdough and it eventually evolved into making mostly babkas. The idea started when we realized how hard it was to find really good bread in Chicago, and we wanted to offer a very good product to people who appreciated it as much as we did. It ultimately became too much hassle to make sourdough and business at the same time, so we rethought the concept and ended up deciding to make babkas by combining our Mexican and Jewish heritage into our flavors.
Z: Were you always interested in cooking/baking? Had you ever thought this would end up growing as quickly as it has?
Elena: I was always interested in cooking since I was little, my mom and my grandmother are great cooks and taught me how to bake. But when I was 18, I spent a year abroad in Paris where my love for baking (and butter) really started, I had never tasted pastries like that before.
I studied culinary arts in Mexico and in Spain and worked at several restaurants and bakeries before opening Masa Madre.
I don't think either of us knew that Masa Madre would grow as fast as it has. It all started as an idea and it quickly evolved into this serious business. We are both surprised and grateful for our customers who have responded very good to our products and to the fusion of cultures we are offering.
Tamar: I always loved baking, and I had great influences on both sides of my family. My maternal grandmother started a bakery in Mexico City called Hadasa over 47 years ago, and my paternal one is an amazing cook. I didn't start cooking much until I moved to Chicago, where I started exploring with savory recipes. I started my food blog, ssugarpill.com, and I applied to be a host with EatWith, a platform where people could reserve a spot to come to eat at my place. But it wasn't until Masa Madre that I started doing it full time. I never thought it would grow this fast, it really hasn't even been a year and we've been lucky enough to have so much public interested in it.
Z: Why is it important to fuse these two identities (being Mexican and Jewish)? Is it something you consciously planned on or did it just happen?
MM: We believe food is the best way to bring people together, it's the passageway to people's understanding of each other's cultures.
This fusion happened naturally, we have been friends for a long time. We met in Mexico City and for different reasons we both ended up in Chicago a few years ago. We both happen to love baking, and eating so this project was born with the idea of fusing both our backgrounds into something we really love.
Tamar's Jewish background brings all these flavors and techniques used in traditional Jewish cuisine and we both add the Mexican touch by bringing back flavors and recipes we grew up eating at home.
Z: What has been a favorite part of working on Masa Madre? Any favorite customer interactions or stories?
MM: People's reaction to our products, we love being a part of people's event, gatherings and happy moments. We love how intrigued people are when they come to pick up their babkas. We're still somewhat underground and they all show their excitement and so many of them have shared their stories with us. This is a very personal business and that's part of what we love about it.
Z: Do you see yourselves ever opening a full-fledged bakery or truck one day?
MM: We don't know where the future will take us, but for now, we love the custom - order business model. We are very concerned about all the food waste that regular bakeries and restaurants generate every single day. By only baking what people order we avoid making extra food that might not sell, and this way we can keep using high-quality ingredients and we can assure our customers that their bread was made fresh that day.
We do plan on expanding our delivery areas around Chicago and to participate in more Farmer Markets and pop up events to be more accessible to people who live in other areas of Chicago. But we're not closed to the idea of having our own space in the future and finding a way to offer more classes too.