Nancy Mendez was an 11-year-old girl growing up in Puebla, Mexico, when her grandmother taught her how to make corn tortillas. She botched her first try, and her grandmother said, “When you marry, how will you make them for your husband?” Mendez’s response: “I’ll buy them!”
She didn’t, though, and saved her money by mastering the process, waking up at 5:30 a.m. to rinse the soaked corn kernels, grind them into masa, and press and cook them so that her family would have fresh tortillas for breakfast every morning.
Little did Mendez know that 18 years later, she would hold the title of product coordinator for tortillas at Hot Bread Kitchen (HBK) in New York City, working with women from around the world who are preserving their countries’ baking traditions and selling their products to an appreciative audience of New Yorkers.
Her employer, Hot Bread Kitchen, is a not-for-profit bakery that provides low-income, foreign-born women with up to one year of paid training as bread bakers. Sales of the authentic and delicious ethnic breads they produce help offset the cost of their intensive baking program and English as a Second Language classes.
HBK founder and CEO Jessamyn W. Rodriguez says she came up with the idea for the organization during the decade she spent doing immigration advocacy, among other things, for the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations. “I realized that in most parts of the world, women make breads to nourish their families and communities, but men were getting the good jobs,” she explains.
When she launched HBK out of her own kitchen in 2008, Rodriguez’s goal was to change that equation and put professional and managerial baking jobs in women’s hands. So far, HBK has trained 45 women from 17 countries in commercial baking. The kitchen turns out 1,000 units of bread a day, most of which are made with local flours, and many with organic grains. The kitchen’s assortment of 70 breads ranges from the rustic organic heritage corn tortilla line Mendez oversees to pillowy Jewish-Polish bialys to the rich nan-e-qandi Persian sweetbread made with milk and honey. They’re sold at 10 city farmers’ markets and Whole Foods stores and to wholesale customers. (Some products are available regionally, and a “Global Bread Box” is available for overnight shipping from HBK’s website.)
Many graduates of the training program, including Mendez and Lutfunnessa Islam, her Bangladeshi coworker in charge of lavashand granola production, have risen to managerial roles at Hot Bread Kitchen. Islam has given demonstrations on how to make her native country’s whole-wheat chapatis, which Hot Bread Kitchen hopes to start offering soon. One of its most popular items is Moroccan m’smen, addictively rich, griddle-cooked flatbreads that are traditionally drizzled with honey and eaten for breakfast, or stuffed with caramelized onion, parsley, and spiced ground lamb for a savory snack or meal.
Bouchra Rachibi was one of three Moroccan women in the training program to introduce the recipe to HBK. Rodriguez recalls the snowy night in 2009 when she had the women come to the HBK kitchen and mix 300 pieces of m’smen for its debut at the New Amsterdam Market the next morning. Then she had them mix another 300. “They were totally incredulous,” Rodriguez recalls, unable to believe there would be such demand. The next day, long lines formed for the novel flatbread and they sold out by 1 p.m.
“You can tell somebody how important their culture is, but to have that validation, and to help them find a market for people who love their food, that is a wonderful experience,” says Rodriguez. To top it all off, Rachibi, a talented baker, went on to land a job baking bread at the Manhattan restaurant Daniel, where Rodriguez herself briefly apprenticed.
Overseeing HBK’s baking staff of 25 women (17 of whom are trainees, and 7 promoted supervisors) is a gentle master baker named Ben Hershberger. Growing up in a poor but resourceful Nevada family, he was milling grains and baking breads from the age of 6. At 13, he landed his first paid baking job. Hershberger’s last job was as head baker at Thomas Keller’s Per Se restaurant and Bouchon Bakery in New York City.
The decision to leave the pinnacle of the professional baking world to teach immigrant women the trade, says Hershberger, was driven by “a gut feeling” that this was the right thing to do. In order to enter the training program, applicants must get through a rigorous interview process, then a 2-hour session with Hershberger in the kitchen. “At Per Se, you have to have talent to get there,” he says. “Here, I can look at someone, recognize they have the passion and desire, and help model it into a professional career—that’s huge to me.”
In 2010, HBK moved its bread-baking facilities from a shared space in Long Island City to a funky East Harlem marketplace called La Marqueta, which dates back to 1936. The larger 4,000-square-foot kitchen space enabled Rodriguez to develop her next project, HBK Incubates, which selects promising and ambitious food entrepreneurs and offers them practical help: below-market-rate commercial kitchen space; kitchen training; accounting workshops; and marketing, product packaging, and public relations support. HBK also opened a small retail outlet called Hot Bread Almacen at La Marqueta.
One success story comes out of HBK Incubates LIFE, an offshoot of the incubator that helps low-income entrepreneurs. Fanny Perez graduated from the HBK baker training program in February 2013 and impressed coworkers with the ceviche, roast pork, and other Ecuadorian specialties that she brought in to share. Rodriguez encouraged her to apply for HBK Incubates and discovered that Perez was already running her own catering company, doing huge Ecuadorian weddings out of her home kitchen. Aided by HBK Incubates LIFE, Perez has launched a scaled-up business called Las Delicias de Fanny.
Rodriguez hopes to expand the Hot Bread Kitchen model to other cities, calling it “a very replicable model” for any city with “a diverse population and underemployed women.”
That’s good news for any woman with a baking tradition to preserve—even those who might not have always valued it. Nancy Mendez prizes the role HBK has given her as keeper of one of her country’s most basic culinary traditions. “It’s very important for the kids and for the family,” she says. “It’s how you remember where you lived, where you came from.”
Photography by Albert Elbilia
Exclusive recipes from Hot Bread Kitchen:
- 2 cups unbleached bread flour
- 2 teaspoons salt, divided
- ½ teaspoon yeast
- ¾ cup warm water
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- 1½ teaspoons olive oil or vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons breadcrumbs
- Poppy seeds (to taste)
1. In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, 1 teaspoon of the salt, and the yeast. Add the warm water and mix using the dough hook attachment on medium speed for 8 to 10 minutes, until the dough is well developed and smooth. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rise for 1 hour, or until the dough has doubled in size.
2. Divide the dough into six equal pieces. Gently pull the edges of each piece together to make a ball. Flatten, with smooth side up, and shape into a round disc about 4 inches in diameter. Place the discs on a cutting board dusted with flour or cornmeal, cover, and let rise for about 1 hour, or until doubled in height.
3. While the dough is rising, place a pizza stone in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 500° F.
4. To make the filling, sauté the diced onions in the oil over medium-low heat until they reach a deep, caramel color. In a separate bowl, mix the onions with the breadcrumbs, poppy seeds, and remaining teaspoon salt and let cool.
5. To fill the bialys, use the pads of both index and middle fingertips to make a depression in the center of each disc. Using fingertips, press about 2 tablespoons of the onion filling (use more or less as desired) into the center of each bialy.
6. Use a spatula or bench knife to transfer the bialys directly to the pizza stone. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until they reach a golden brown.
Makes 6 bialys
- 2 cups unbleached bread flour
- 5 tablespoons semolina, plus additional for shaping
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup minus 2 tablespoons water
- 1 teaspoon canola oil, plus additional for shaping
- ¼ cup salted butter, melted, for shaping
1. In a mixing bowl, combine the bread flour, semolina, and salt. Add the water and 1 teaspoon canola oil. Mix on medium speed using the dough hook attachment for 10 minutes or until the dough is smooth.
2. Divide the dough evenly into pieces about 1½ inches in diameter. Shape into tight balls. Coat each ball with oil and let relax on an oiled baking sheet for at least 30 minutes.
3. Gently stretch each piece with both hands on an oiled surface (a countertop or baking sheet works well) until the dough makes a thin, translucent sheet about 14 inches in diameter. Brush with melted butter and sprinkle with semolina.
4. Fold each side of the dough (top, bottom, left, and right) ⅓ of the way across the original diameter to make a 3-inch-square envelope. Let rest, covered with plastic wrap, on an oiled pan for 15 minutes.
5. Stretch the dough by hand again on an oiled surface to create a 7-inch square. Cook on a hot griddle or cast-iron skillet over medium heat for about 3 minutes on each side, or until golden brown and bread puffs up.
Makes 12 m'smen
Armenian Lavash Crackers
- 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon yeast
- ½ cup water
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- Sesame seeds, poppy seeds, kosher salt, or za’atar spice blend (available in Middle Eastern markets) for topping
1. Preheat the oven to 280° F.
2. In a mixing bowl, stir together flour, salt, yeast, water, honey, and olive oil. Using the dough hook attachment, mix on medium speed for about 10 to 12 minutes until the dough is smooth and stretchy. Let the dough rest for 10 minutes and then divide into two batches.*
3. Roll out the dough a batch at a time on a floured surface with a rolling pin to about ⅛ inch thick, and place on the back of an upside-down oiled sheet pan.
4. Pulling gently from the center, stretch the dough to the edges of the sheet pan, keeping as even as possible. Spritz quickly with water and partially bake for 3 minutes.
5. Remove from the oven and let cool. Top with desired topping and cut with a pizza wheel into 6-inch squares.
6. Place a layer of parchment over the dough and top with a second sheet pan. Bake between sheet pans for about 20 minutes at 280°F, or until crisp. Repeat steps 3 through 6 with the second batch of dough.
*Optionally, you can divide the dough in half again and use a half-sheet pan in step 3, working in four batches.
Makes 12 large crackers
- 3 cups masa harina (corn that has been soaked in lime and then ground into flour), available in Latin markets or from Bob’s Red Mill
- 2 cups hot water
- Tortilla press (two heavy books or cutting boards can be substituted if you don’t have a tortilla press)
- 2 nilos (thick, round sheets that can be cut from a zip-top plastic bag, about 8 inches in diameter)
- Comal or griddle
1. Combine the masa harina and water in a bowl and stir until the consistency is like Play-Doh. Cover and let sit for 1 hour.
2. Divide the masa and roll into balls that fit into your palm, about 1½ inches in diameter.
3. Placing the nilos above and below a ball of masa to keep it from sticking, flatten in the tortilla press until it is a thin disc, about 6 inches in diameter and ⅛ inch thick.
4. Gently transfer the flattened masa, still covered with both nilos, to the palm of one hand. Remove the top nilo and flip to the other hand. Remove the second nilo and transfer back to the other hand, catching only ⅓ of the tortilla with the edge of your hand.
5. Quickly drop the tortilla onto the comal by passing your hand, palm up, over the comal. Cook over medium-high heat for about 1 minute, until the edges start to come up from the pan. Using a spatula, flip the tortilla and cook for another minute. Flip the tortilla a third time and cook for a final 30 seconds.
6. As you remove the tortillas from the heat, stack and wrap them in a clean dishtowel or linen to keep them hot. Serve immediately.
Makes 12 tortillas
Photography by Albert Elbilia