Tamit Behar Wood
Why are Israelis so happy? Why does the United Nation’s World Happiness Report consistently rank Israel above the United States and parts of Europe on the happiness scale? Despite wars, insecurity and economic hardship, Israel, it appears, seems to be a very good place to live.
I got a little insight into “Israeli happiness” while eating the best French toast I’ve ever had, at Kirsh Bakery and Kitchen in New York City last week.
Anat and Dan Kirsh took one look at each other 20 years ago in Tel Aviv, where they were employed at Café Basel, she as a waitress and he a bartender, and fell madly in love. They went on to discover that they had other things in common as well — a love of homemade-caliber food and customer service, the restaurant business and New York City. Both diehard Tel Avivites and graduates of virtually every food industry job — from dishwashing to general managers of high-end establishments from one end of Tel Aviv to the other — the pair plotted and planned and worked toward the goal of opening their own place.
When a friend told them of a vacant carpentry shop in a historic building in Jerusalem, it was love at first site. There, in 2006, Zuni Café was born — a restaurant and 24/7 diner specializing in French and American comfort food, with a nod to Anat and Dan’s mutual obsession with New York and his mother’s European-style baking. Zuni was a huge overnight success, particularly with American ex-pats who stopped by to get a taste of home, but also with local Israelis who became obsessed with, of all things, the French toast.
Dan took his childhood memories of his mother’s pain perdu — “lost bread” — made with day-old bread battered and pan-fried in butter, and gave it an upgrade with mascarpone cream and mixed berries. It was an instant hit in the café.
All manner of French toast then made it onto the Zuni menu, including savory options such as lox and crème fraiche, and spinach and cheese topped with a sunnyside-up egg. Next thing you knew, Zuni became just as famous for its French toast as its brasserie-style comfort food and cocktails.
In 2012, with an experienced team in place at Zuni and two young children in tow, the pair decided to pursue their dreams in New York. At first, they considered launching a chain of kiosks specializing in French toast made with their signature milk bread and a variety of toppings, but bigger things were in store for them. In 2016, they founded Kirsh Bakery & Kitchen, a full-service café and restaurant in the Upper West Side neighborhood they now call their New York home.
“Israel is home, and it always will be.” Anat told me, “but I live in two dimensions — here and Israel. Tel Aviv is my very favorite city in the entire world — the feeling of being home, of belonging. As much as I love New York, there is no place like Tel Aviv.”
The couple brought their two young children to New York to start their business, but they return to Tel Aviv at every opportunity, taking turns managing Zuni and Kirsh. While we talked about the distinctions between Tel Aviv and New York, and the differences and similarities between the palates of Israelis and Americans, Anat told me that her children were studying in Israel. She said her children feel comfortable in Israel and the U.S. because the family has solid friendships and communities in both countries.
Although they plan to continue living in New York as their restaurant business grows, the Kirshes plan to continue maintaining a home in Israel. This struck me as the key to why Israel ranks so high on the happiness scale: Community — close family ties, the shared experiences of mandatory military service, and strong ties to a shared faith — tends to make the average Israeli feel a sense of belonging that leads to more satisfaction and perhaps a greater sense of security.
While Americans and Europeans often move away from family and the friends they grew up with, Israelis tend to keep in touch with them and live almost communally, where the support of loved ones is an integral part and focal point of their lives.
At Kirsh Bakery& Kitchen, while I ate my upgraded “lost bread” and traded restaurant stories with Israelis — who, like me, have become ex-pats in another land to seek their fortune — I was filled with gratitude that we live in an age when air travel is affordable and we are able to touch base with our homeland and even straddle the two countries, something our parents weren’t able to do. It’s good to know we come from a land where happiness reigns despite obvious day-to-day struggles and worries.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a poem with the refrain “All that is gold does not glitter, all those who wander are not lost; The old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost.”
I wholeheartedly agree. It won’t take but a bite of Kirsh’s French toast to convince you that those who wander are not all lost.
So, here is its recipe.
If you happen to be in New York City, pick up a loaf of its milk bread to make this. Otherwise, I’d recommend using day-old challah cut into 1 1/2-inch-thick slices. That’s what this Israeli is going to do when she gets back to her kitchen in Uganda, while missing both the U.S. and Israel.
ZUNI CAFÉ MASCARPONE FRENCH TOAST
For the mascarpone cream:
14 ounces heavy cream
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
6 extra-large egg yolks
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons Myers rum (optional)
16 ounces Italian mascarpone cheese
For the French toast:
6 ounces heavy cream
1 extra-large egg
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
8 1 1/2-inch-thick slices of one-day-old milk bread or challah
3 ounces butter, for frying
4 ounces mixed-berry confiture (or chocolate)
To make mascarpone cream, place heavy cream and powdered sugar in a mixing bowl and whip with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Set aside in the refrigerator.
In a double-boiler, place egg yolks, granulated sugar and rum. Whisk for 5 minutes without stopping, or until you have a light-yellow, fluffy foam consistency.
Take egg mixture off the heat and fold in half the mascarpone cheese. Once incorporated, gently fold in the other half without overmixing. Do the same with the whipped cream from the refrigerator, folding half the whipped cream into the cheese mixture and then gently folding in the other half until fully combined. Refrigerate until ready to use.
To prepare the batter for the toast, whisk together heavy cream, egg and sugar. Place the bread slices into the batter one at a time, soaking each slice for 3 minutes while turning over in the batter until bread is soaked through. Continue with remaining slices.
Melt butter on low flame and pan-fry slices for 6 to 8 minutes each, constantly turning from side to side until each is cooked through and golden brown. Place slices on paper to soak up excess fat before serving.
Serve sprinkled with powdered sugar, chilled mascarpone cream and berry confiture. Serves 4.
Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.