Last year, on March 12, I got a phone call from my husband: I was told that everyone was being sent home to work from their respective abodes indefinitely. At that point I knew that things were bad—and they were about to get worse. By the weekend, New Yorkers were starting to hoard necessities and engage in the brutally competitive art of panic buying in a city full of anxiety-ridden type-A supermoms. Lockdown and stay-at-home orders were imminent.
And while everyone was loading up on things like toilet paper, Lysol spray, Clorox wipes, and masks, I was good on all those fronts. (I’m Asian through and through so buying in bulk is how I roll.)
But we didn’t have the kind of little pleasures that brought me joy. Things that are mostly epicurean in nature. So I focused on acquiring the foodstuff I knew I would miss and headed straight to Mah-Ze-Dahr (my beloved local bakery) to stock up on baked goods to freeze before the space temporarily closed on the 18th.
Let me tell you, it was the best pandemic decision I ever made. You see, I don’t bake. And yes, I know it’s a minor flaw—but there was nothing I could really do about it at the time. We had much bigger problems to face.
However, now that it’s been more than a year, I vowed to never let that happen again: It was time to learn how to make my favorite Mah-Ze-Dahr treats. And Umber Ahmad, the bakery’s founder was generous enough to indulge me. Here, she shared three super simple recipes that’d be nearly impossible to get wrong. Also: For those who have yet to hear about her, she was investment banker who earned a genetics degree from MIT, an MA in public health at the University of Michigan, and an MBA from Wharton. How can you not trust the fate of your snickerdoodles when you’re being guided by a brain like that?
3 Foolproof Baking Projects for Beginners
“Snickerdoodles are the unsung heroes of the cookie family. They are easy to prepare, chewy to bite into, and the perfect addition to an afternoon coffee—the best cookie for an ice cream sandwich, and exactly what you want after a day of school. Prepared with basic kitchen staples, the dough balls can be kept in the freezer for ready-to-bake-whenever-the-mood-hits moments.” —Umber Ahmad, founder at Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery (New York City)
Ingredients (Makes 24 cookies):
1 ½ cups flour
1 tsp. cream of tartar
½ tsp. baking soda
⅛ tsp. kosher salt
¾ + ⅛ cups sugar
8 tbsp. unsalted butter, at room temperature 2 ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
¾ tsp. vanilla extract
- In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt; set aside. Using a handheld mixer on medium speed, beat 3/4 cup sugar and the butter together in a medium bowl until pale and fluffy, 2 minutes. Add 1 tsp. cinnamon and the vanilla; beat for 1 minute more. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add reserved dry ingredients; mix on low speed until just combined. Refrigerate dough for 30 minutes.
- Heat oven to 375°. Combine remaining sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl. Remove dough from refrigerator and, using a 1-tbsp. measure, spoon out 48 portions, rolling each portion into a 1″ ball as you go. Roll each ball in cinnamon–sugar mixture to coat. Arrange dough balls 2″ apart on 2 parchment paper–lined baking sheets. Bake until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a rack and let cool.
“I love bircher muesli for many reasons. In addition to how ridiculously nourishing and delicious a breakfast it makes, this is an incredibly versatile and easy recipe to make. You can adapt it for whatever ingredients you have in your pantry. It also keeps for days in the fridge, travels well to school and work in a mason jar, and can even be enjoyed drizzled with some warm cream, yogurt, coconut chips and brown sugar on top. Whatever your heart desires and your kitchen has!” —Umber Ahmad, founder at Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery (New York City)
4 cups whole milk
2 cups half and half
12 ounces instant Quaker oats
4 ounces yogurt (plain, vanilla, honey), regular or Greek
½ cup honey
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup walnuts, pecans, almonds or other nut
4 ounces raisins, sultanas, dried cherries, chopped dates other dried fruit of your choice
1 cup chopped apple pieces
- In a large bowl, mix together milk, half and half, oats, yogurt, honey and cinnamon. Cover and place in refrigerator overnight. The next morning, add in nuts, dried fruits and apple pieces. Mix well and serve topped with additional fruit, if desired.
FOCACCIA WITH SEASONAL VEGETABLES
“I love focaccia. It’s the ideal vessel for all the bounty of the season. This perfectly delicious dough can be topped with any number of vegetables, cheeses, and spices to create an easy and hearty meal. Left unadorned, it is a great sandwich bread, accompaniment to a bowl of soup, or (my personal favorite) dipped into some olive oil and sprinkled with coarse salt.” —Umber Ahmad, founder at Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery (New York City)
Ingredients (Makes One 9”x12” Baking Pan):
1 envelope active dry yeast
2 tablespoon sugar
5 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon kosher salt
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, soft
1 cup mozzarella, fontina, or gruyere cheese
2 cups grape tomatoes, chopped kale, asparagus spears, or other vegetables
- In a large bowl, mix together yeast, sugar and 2 ½ cups of warm water (warm bath water temp). Let mixture sit until it foams, about 4–6 minutes.
- To the bowl, add in add the flour and kosher salt. Mix together until all the flour has been mixed in. Drizzle the olive oil around the inside edges of the bowl. Turn the dough over to coat it in the olive oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm, draft-free spot until doubled. This usually takes 3 to 4 hours.
- Using the soft butter, generously coat the inside of the pan you’re using. Transfer the dough to the prepared pan. Fold the dough over on itself a few times. Pour any leftover oil from the bowl onto the dough, adding a bit more if needed. Turn the dough to cover the whole thing in the oil. At this stage, don’t stretch it out to fit the pan. Put the pan back in a warm, draft-free spot to rise again, this time anywhere from 2 to 4 hours.
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Using your fingers with a bit of olive oil on them, gently stretch the dough out to fit the pan, if needed. Then, using a gentle up and down motion, create dimples with your fingers, making sure to press all the way down.
- Drizzle more olive oil on top of the dough and sprinkle evenly with your cheese of choice. Sprinkle some sea salt and cracked black pepper, if desired. At this point, layer on your vegetables, and add on olives, minced garlic, sesame seeds, anything you like. Press the toppings lightly into the cheese to ensure they stick.
- Bake focaccia for 20-30 minutes, until focaccia has puffed up and is lightly golden brown.