Fall bounty inspires these rustic tarts from New Orleans pastry chef Christina Balzebre
Fans of New Orleans’ Levee Baking Co. know better than to dawdle on a Saturday morning, lest they miss out on the soul-warming goodness coming out of the oven at the converted double-shotgun house on Dryades Street. Sourdough cinnamon rolls, rosemary biscuits, smoky cheddar cornmeal scones, rye brownies, salty honey custard pies—or whatever else pastry chef and owner Christina Balzebre dreams up in the wee hours—often sell out just an hour after the bakery opens at 10 am.
The voracious appetite for Levee’s rustic pastries and crackling loaves in a town seemingly saturated with competition has taken her by surprise, to say the least. “It’s shocking to me that there’s still a demand,” Balzebre says modestly. But she claims the show of support for her weekly pop-up has more to do with community than croissants and coffee. “That’s what people crave the most. New Orleans is such a neighborhood-based culture, and the pop-up has become a total community-focused event, which I love so much.”
Balzebre’s outlook isn’t surprising for someone who once pursued sociology as a career path. A Miami native, she arrived in New Orleans as a Loyola University freshman shortly before Hurricane Katrina blew into town. Despite the timing, she fell in love with the city and its rich cafe culture, and upon graduation, landed a job baking at Satsuma Café in the Bywater. She later worked as pastry cook and bread manager for Link Restaurant Group, and had a short stint at Willa Jean before striking out on her own. Last year, she got a call from Melissa Martin, founder of Mosquito Supper Club, inviting her to share her kitchen and space on Dryades Street. In addition to the Saturday pop-up, Balzebre supplies four cafes throughout the city, including Congregation Coffee in Algiers Point and Mammouth Espresso in the Central Business District. It’s all her operation can handle at the moment, but she does have her eye on expanding in a few years. For now, she’s in a good place, she says, “I feel incredibly lucky to be in a position forged by women entrepreneurs before me.”
Jump on the whole grain train
The backbone of Levee’s pastries and bread is whole grain flour from New Orleans’ Bellegarde Bakery, where owner Graison Gill and his team mill heirloom grains from regional sources when possible. Freshly milled flour is gaining momentum throughout the country and is available from a handful of mills and bread bakers across the South. Freshly milled whole grain flours are more perishable than white flour so store them in the freezer, where they’ll keep indefinitely. They also behave slightly differently than processed flour; Balzebre recommends using a high proportion of fat and expect to use more water.