When life gave her lemons, Iris made a lemon cake out of them.
If life had not given Iris Lauber a bittersweet taste of challenges and hurdles, I may have met her somewhere else. Maybe in a café in Haifa, Israel next to the small town where she was born and lived until the age of 5 with her Romanian immigrant parents. Not so hard to imagine since I just moved to New Hope from Israel and my Romanian born mother moved to Israel, after WWII, around the same time as her parents. But fate led us to meet in New Hope, of all places. Iris’ parents set that in motion when they decided to leave Israel for the US some 45 years ago.
I heard about Iris Lauber and her cake baking business from the local New Hope Facebook group, and had no idea that we have common roots and history. We were both born to Romanian mothers in Israel in the same year! Minutes into our conversation, I felt like I had found a long lost friend and maybe even a distant relative, that just like me, had arrived to this place to find New Hope, in life.
We met on the coldest day of the year at the Lumberville General Store up River Road. I must have passed by that coffee shop more than a dozen times but never noticed it was such a perfect spot for coffee and a bite to eat. We sat in the back room, a charming, cozy place to sit and get to know a new friend.
“I think it has something to do with my father and with Martha Stewart.” Iris laughs in response to my question of how she ended up as a professional baker.
“What do you mean?” I asked, trying to decipher what lies behind her charming smile and big laughing eyes. “My father, like his mother and most Romanian Jews I have met, was a fantastic cook. I don’t know if it has to do with surviving the holocaust or what, but food was always a really big deal in our family. In school, my friends thought I was weird. While they were bringing PB&J sandwiches for lunch, I brought traditional dishes like roasted eggplant on freshly baked bread that made the entire classroom smell like garlic. Cooking and making sure that everyone around me is well fed is in my DNA.”
“And where does Martha Stewart come in to all this?”
“Oh, Martha Stewart is my biggest inspiration and obsession. I remember the first time I watched her show when I was in my teens and thinking to myself that when I grow up I want to be just like that woman. I admire her. She works very hard, day after day, and after she crashed and went to jail, she came back stronger than ever. I dream of being on TV too and sharing my talents”.
But before she would achieve fame and glory, life had other plans for Iris. Starting in high school, she worked as a hair stylist. Then she got married and pregnant and life seemed on track until that day when it took a tragic turn.
“One day, my water broke, just like that, while I was giving a perm to an older woman. The woman rushed me in her car to the hospital while I was already in labor. My oldest son, Benjamin, was born very pre-mature, and suffered from multiple health issues. I stopped working and stayed home to nurse him. Benjamin died at the age of five. After that, I couldn’t go back to work. My husband and I had two more children and we agreed that I would stay at home with them; I just couldn’t leave them alone.
The years passed, the kids were in school and one day I was asked to be a volunteer mom and bring spaghetti for a fund raising event. I suggested that I bring some cookies instead. The cookies were a smashing success and helped to raise a lot of money. A few days later, I started to get calls from the moms asking me to bake them some cookies and cakes for money. Suddenly, all these ideas and recipes that my father had taught me as a child, which I thought were so annoying, they just came back to me. And not just the simple stuff, I am talking about tortes and other traditional Romania foods. My husband pushed me to get certified. I did and before I knew it, I had a baking business; I called it Iris’s Sweet Side.
The business took off fast. I was getting noticed and got some bigger jobs baking wedding cakes and doing catered events. I even made appearances on TV morning shows and became a celeb back in Ohio.
The success of the business helped me realize that I am worth it. I started to value my time. My customers know that if you call me you are going to get more than a cake; you are going to get a unique, thought out experience. I succeed because my baking stirs up feelings and emotions when someone tastes them; I think that’s why they keep coming back.”
So that explains the baking. But how did you end up here, by the river?
“At some point, if you go too fast you can end up off-track, just like Martha. I felt that I was getting lost in all of the hype. My true passion for baking has to do with putting all of my heart into it. I put a lot of thought, planning and passion into my baking. My clients need to know that I’m fully invested in my creation. So, one day, we were on a vacation in New Hope, PA and I fell in love with its European chic. And that was it. I decided to relocate my business and family here, and the rest is history. It is really easy for me to reach out to people here. The community of New Hope embraced me and my business right away. With the help of some particularly good people, such as Max from Max Groceries that sold my cakes by the pound at the beginning, thank God, Iris’s Sweet Side has evolved into a busy and thriving business that serves the entire Bucks County area and beyond. I’m busy baking cakes and cookies for specific needs and events, and anything else I have a passion for. I try to balance creativity with the American sweet tooth and come up with delicious and interesting baked creations.
As an expert, where would you recommend going for a really good dessert experience?
I would go to Sweet Melissa in the Stockton market. She is makes wonderful pies and baked goods that are hard to resist.
When In New Hope, Do as the Locals
Iris’s guide to New Hope local living:
Romanian-Israeli-American Cuisine, fresh from my kitchen
Lamberville General Store up River Road.
Romantic Place to sleep
The Wedgwood Inn. The most romantic B&B on the east coast, walking distance from town.
Where to Soak in Some Nature
Delaware Canal Towpath Park
The Canal path is excellent for walking or running, but on a nice weekend, keep to your right or you might get hit by a bike
Not to Miss
A good concert and dinner at Havana Restaurant & Bar
Live Like a Local
New Hope gets crazy with tourists on a nice weekend day. Consider visiting during the middle of the week.
What is your favorite cake?
Personally, I love citrus cakes with blends of oranges and lemon and marshmallow based icing. It is a perfect balance of sweetness while stimulating your sense of smell. It makes your mouth water! That’s also the cake Martha loves the most. I love to make personal cakes for life events that I know make people happy and in a way, allow me to share in those special moments in life — Bar Mitzvahs, weddings, birthdays, professional events and even the occasional just-got-divorced party.
Divorce parties? Seriously? How would you make that cake? “Haha, I’m just kidding . . .” Iris says laughingly. “But I can imagine using lots of lemons and not much sugar in that recipe.”
Is there a baking tip you’d like to share?
My grandmother always said (seriously, she really said this but in Romanian), “Nothing good can come out in life without good ingredients”. The same goes for baking. My tip is that if you’re trying to cook like a pro you shouldn’t compromise on the ingredients. There is no way to sugar coat that. You might think that you are saving time and money, but the outcome will just not make the cut.
If you could bake a cake for anyone in the world, who would that person be?
Iris takes some time to ponder and I notice a tear in the corner of her eye. “I would make the perfect pie, European style, not too sweet as most Americans are used to, but the real thing, a pie that I would put all my heart into planning and baking, and when it would be done I’d split it in half. One slice for my father, may he rest in peace. He would have been so proud of my baking, if he was still alive.”
And the other half?
“That half would obviously has to go to Martha Stewart. After all, she is my biggest inspiration.“
As we leave the Lumberville General Store and head back to the frigid River Road air, we say our goodbyes and Iris generously promises to bake me a special cake.” Why do I deserve such an honor? I ask. “It’s a special friendship cake, she explains, “you and I are now friends and that deserves a celebration. Anyway, it is cold out there and this cake will warm your heart.”
Iris’s Sweet Side