Chef Blanca Zesati blends traditional flavors and dietary inclusivity.
By Molly-Jo Tilton, Photos by Joi Conti; Styled by Origin Mexico and Owner Yazmin Castaneda
Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, Blanca Zesati was no stranger to home-cooked meals. She vividly remembers her grandmother preparing authentic Mexican meals for 20-plus people in a matter of minutes, something she calls “magic,” so it’s no shock that she would eventually become a chef at one of Austin’s most iconic Mexican restaurants. Zesati began working at 15 in a bakery, where she would eventually work her way up to cake designer, as a way to put herself through college. She recalls her first few years being difficult, often being the only woman in her classes and internships.
After graduating from Kendall College, Zesati landed at Congress, where she studied under Rebecca Meeker. There she learned knife technique and how to experiment with recipes and ingredients. She then moved on to work at Miraval, a resort in Austin, before becoming co-executive chef at Fonda San Miguel. There she has worked to craft a more inclusive menu while still honoring the restaurant’s traditional Mexican roots.
You’re around food all day. Who’s the chef at your house?
We do a lot of stuff together. That’s something that has always been important to me to do. My daughter loves baking, and she helps me in the kitchen. She’s about to be 6. My husband will be the grill master most of the time, and I laugh because, at first, I think he was a little bit more intimidated to make food. But I was like, “Believe me, anything that’s made for me I appreciate and I love regardless.” There have been little missteps here and there, but I’m happy that he’s trying. We’ve done a lot of dinners together for the most part. We’re trying to get beds outside so we can start growing our own produce. We did it at a previous residence and we were able to eat what we grew, which was really important to me.
What does the phrase “comfort food” mean to you?
Home. Champurrado to me, my grandma would make it mostly around Christmastime, so it also kind of just reminds me of the holidays. We were very active in our church when I was young. So it also reminds me of Las Posadas. We would go around with Mary and Joseph, what they did back in the day while she was having baby Jesus, the steps they made. As I remember, at every stop, they had champurrado to keep everybody warm because it was midwinter and [there was]so much snow on the ground. So, to me, it reminds me of the holidays and just reminds me of being young with my entire family, which is a really big family. I have lots of cousins, and we would be together, so it just kind of reminds me of happier times.
What makes this dish special to you?
Making it with my grandma. She had the really big clay pots that you would see in Mexico, and anything made in those comes out so different than what we make in a stainless-steel or aluminum pot. Whatever comes off of that the flavor is always so different. We always made it in the clay pot around Christmastime. She taught me how to cook it, and here at Fonda we’re using her recipe. She always said, “A little bit of this, a little bit of that.” It was never to a tee, but over the years, it’s writing it down and rewriting it down because she would change something or add something or kind of do substitutions. From her [recipe]I kind of got my own little one. I think I add a little bit more sugar than she does.
Is there a certain ingredient that makes your version of this dish different than other versions?
[My grandma] would always use a fresh masa over the bagged masa that you can get at the grocery store because she said that it always makes a huge difference in flavor. I think when you use bagged masa, you can actually taste the corn, the cornmeal in it. When you use fresh masa, you end up cooking it out, and that flavor kind of goes away. So the chocolate gets enhanced; the cinnamon gets enhanced. And I always add a little bit of extra chocolate as well.
What meal goes best with this beverage? (Or what meal do you prefer to eat with this drink?)
I go back to Christmas—it’s gonna be tamales, conchas, any kind of pandulces, Mexican sweet bread. Any of that you can, you know, dip it in there, and then you take a bite.
4 cups water, separated
3 cinnamon sticks, wrapped in cheesecloth
14 oz piloncillo
1 lb prepared masa
4 cups whole milk (sub almond milk for a dairy-free option)
3 Abuelita Hot Chocolate tablets
In a medium size saucepan, add 2 cups of water, cinnamon sticks and piloncillo. Bring it to a soft rolling boil until the piloncillo melts, after about 5 minutes.
While the piloncillo is melting, we need to prepare the masa. In a blender, add 2 cups of water and the prepared masa. Puree until smooth and set aside.
Once the piloncillo is melted, add the milk and whisk. Once the milk is scaled, add the chocolate and whisk until it’s all dissolved. Move the mixture often so that it does not stick to the bottom of the saucepan.
Once this mixture is hot, add the masa and water mixture and whisk constantly. Cook for about 10 minutes (the masa has to cook or it will go sour) or until you reach desired thickness. Add a little more milk to thin it out if you like. Whisk often to prevent it from boiling over.
Serve hot and enjoy.