American Bakery Brings Oh-so-sweet Taste of New Orleans to Tel Aviv

It's hard to miss the Rasner family's delighted smiles when they talk about New Orleans cuisine and mention visions in their mind's eye of fried chicken, gumbo and Mississippi mud cake dripping with chocolate.

A small hat tilted fashionably over carefully combed curls, bright lipstick on smiling lips and a scarf tied above the lapel of an elegant coat - that's how Natalie (Goldman) Leon looks in a black-and-white photo taken in the first half of the 20th century. Natalie, or Nat as everyone called her, is the grandmother of Talya Rasner, the owner of the NOLA American Bakery, which opened last month in Tel Aviv.

The American-Israeli bakery bears the acronym of the city where both grandmother and granddaughter were born: New Orleans, Louisiana. The business cards bear the likeness of the beloved grandmother.

"She died two years ago, when I was already beginning to think about opening a bakery, and she lived in the city all her life, until Hurricane Katrina," says her 33-year-old granddaughter. "My grandfather, to whom she was married for 62 years, died two weeks before Katrina. At first everyone ignored the reports about the storm, but when the tone became more serious, my father convinced my grandmother to get on a plane and leave the city. The house where she lived was totally demolished. Within two weeks Grandma lost her entire world, and then she went to live with my aunt in San Antonio [Texas] until she died."

Natalie's ancestors, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, arrived in America in the 19th century, living first in Chicago and afterward in the famed city of sin and pleasure on the banks of the Mississippi River. Natalie's children were born in New Orleans, among them Talya's mother, Kathy. In 1970 Kathy came to Israel as part of a Zionist youth movement student exchange program, and here she met Kobi Rasner, a native of Ramat Aviv.

"My parents were married in 1973, and then they decided to go to the United States for a few years to study," says Talya. "They ended up staying for 14 years and I and my two younger brothers were born in New Orleans. We grew up as part of a small, united American Jewish community. Every Shabbat we went to a Conservative temple, where my grandparents had been among the founders. My mother taught Hebrew and folk dancing. We returned to Israel in 1987. When I'm asked about my identity I reply without hesitation that I'm Israeli, but if there's one place in the United States where I feel I belong, it's New Orleans. That city is home to me."

The sense of belonging is also connected to food and memory. It's hard to miss the Rasner family's delighted smiles when they talk about New Orleans cuisine and mention visions in their mind's eye of fried chicken, gumbo and Mississippi mud cake dripping with chocolate.

"It's the best cuisine in the world. Love of food is rooted in the heart of anyone born in that city or anyone who chose to live his life there," says Kobi, who over the years entertained the notion of opening a Creole restaurant in Israel.

"A large percentage of the Jewish community observed kashrut at home but outside they ate everything," notes his daughter. "And that flexibility, of adapting to the spirit of the time and the place, I find charming."

After her army service Talya decided to learn industrial design in Milan. "When I returned to Israel I worked in the field - design is part of my soul. But I reached a crossroads." The world of American pastries is part of the taste of her childhood, but is less well known in Israel. "There are people who make cupcakes, brownies or muffins," she notes, "but there's no place that combines all of them under the same roof or creates other, less familiar types of classic American baked goods."

The past two years have been devoted to dreams, plans and searches for a place and a professional staff. Talya: "We live, sleep and breathe food at home. I love to bake, but I'm not a professional pastry chef. We looked for a pastry chef who is an expert in the secrets of American sweets - not a simple task in Israel, where the baking culture was influenced mainly by European pastry."

Making whoopie

"When I bite into a cookie and close my eyes, I can see myself at the age of 6, walking hand in hand with Dad and eating a cookie I got because I was a good girl." The above-mentioned cookie is whoopie pie, a thick sandwich of chocolate and marshmallow cream - not a fragile French petit four, but it also revives a world of sweet childhood memories.

The speaker is Harriet Sternstein, 50, the pastry chef who joined Rasner for the opening of the American bakery. Sternstein is an optimistic free spirit, who has roamed all over the world. She was born to a Jewish family in New York and spent a good part of her life on the West Coast, where she studied to be a pastry chef. In the past decade she has lived in Paris' 15th District and was the owner of a bakery for dogs ("I opened the first European bakery for pets, a very common business in the United States" ).

Two years ago Sternstein visited Israel for the first time and decided to embark on a new adventure. She met Rasner here by chance, through a mutual friend. During the past few months, the two have holed up in the home of Talya's parents to recreate childhood flavors and recipes.

The world of American baking, compared to more sophisticated Europe, is based on simple flavors. The first European settlers brought with them to the New World the baking tradition of the Old World. But the austerity and Puritan ethos dictated by the founding fathers played a significant role in formulating the culinary culture. In general, the dominant taste is very sweet, the more sugar glazing the better; the modest shape of the home-made baked goods hints at the use of careful manual labor, even in modern times when the confections come off the assembly line of a flourishing industry.

In the new bakery the ovens stand in front of the open kitchen, and the fragrance of freshly-baked goods fills the large space. In the glass cases an alternating, daily selection is featured: Mexican wedding cakes made with butter, pecans and powdered sugar; pop tarts - a home-made version of a mass-produced pastry from the 1960s; oatmeal and raisin cookies; chocolate and peanut-butter drop cookies; and dozens of other sweet and savory confections originating in regional cuisine or family recipe books.

For those who opt to sit and eat inside, there is beef in Creole sauce, corned beef and classic American breakfasts served throughout the day. These feature real bagels and Southern-style biscuits.

When we were children, we eagerly read in Hebrew about the rikikei tiras (literally, corn biscuits ) and hobtzah (buttermilk ) that black cooks prepared for Southern belles. Since then we have learned that the word rakik refers in Arabic and Hebrew to thin baked goods such as saj pita, whereas baked American breakfast foods are more like English scones or other shortbreads. And indeed, there are not many things in the world that can equal the rich flavor of a hot American biscuit. When you add bacon strips, a grilled tomato and poached eggs, you get a truly heady experience.

The tables in the bakery lend the place a lively atmosphere; the garden furniture in the backyard offers a green and surprising haven in the heart of the big city. If you close your eyes and take a big bite of traditional apple pie, you may feel as though you have arrived in the American South, land of indolent pleasures. We already have 100 percent humidity, now we have the right pastries too.

Nola American Bakery, 197 Dizengoff, Tel Aviv, 03-5230527.