How chef Umber Ahmad went from banking to baking

Born to Pakistani immigrants in Michigan, Umber Ahmad excelled in school and later graduated from MIT. She earned two more degrees before starting a career in investment banking where she met world-famous chef Tom Colicchio, who was one of her business clients. When he sampled the incredible desserts she baked as a hobby, he encouraged her to make it a career. Colicchio went on to advise her as she opened Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery, her award-winning pastry shop in New York City's West Village.

Here are some of Ahmad's signature recipes: 

Sautéed fennel with pink grapefruit and olives

Ingredients

Sautéed Fennel with Pink Grapefruit and Olives
1 bulb fennel, reserve some of the fronds
1 large pink grapefruit
¼ cup green olives, drained, pitted and cut in half
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt 

Directions

1. Slice the fennel bulb into thin slices. Set aside. Peel and segment the pink grapefruit. Take each segment and slice along the vein to remove the outer membrane. Place all remaining, naked segments into a bowl. Set aside.

2. Heat skillet over medium-high heat. Coat bottom of the pan with olive oil. Be generous, but not crazy. Once the oil starts to glisten, add the fennel slices. Season with kosher salt and sauté, stirring occasionally, for about 4 to 5 minutes. Remove pan from heat.

3. Add in grapefruit slices and green olives, toss gently. Sprinkle with some of the reserved fronds before serving.

Nisu 

Ingredients

2 packets active dry yeast, 14 grams total
½ teaspoon granulated sugar
7 cups all-purpose flour
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
4 teaspoons ground cardamom
2 cups evaporated milk
1 ¼ cups granulated sugar
¼ cup warm water
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon milk
Pearl sugar
Slivered almonds

Directions

1. In a bowl, sift together flour, salt, and ground cardamom. Set aside. In a small bowl, mix together yeast and ½ teaspoon granulated sugar. Add in ¼ cup warm water and mix gently. While yeast proofs, move onto next steps.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, with the paddle attachment, beat the granulated sugar and 2 large eggs together until light and creamy. Add in the evaporated milk. Mix well.

3. Switch mixer attachment to the dough hook. Slowly add in the flour mixture. Stop mixing after flour is fully incorporated. Add in proofed yeast all at once. Mix until incorporated.

4. Add in butter, one tablespoon at a time. Mix well between additions. Place dough in a well-oiled bowl. Cover with a damp cloth and let rise, until doubled, in a warm area, about 1 hour.

5. Punch down dough and segment into eight (8) equal pieces. Roll each piece into a long rope, keeping lengths consistent. Braid into two four-braid loaves. Cover and let rise for 45 minutes.

6. Preheat oven to 375 degrees (350 convection oven). Beat egg yolk and milk together. Using a silicone brush, brush the tops and sides of each loaf. Make sure to get into all the nooks and corners. Sprinkle the loaves with slivered almonds and pearl sugar. Bake for 22 to 25 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.

Lamb pulao 

Lamb ingredients

2 pounds lamb shoulder, cut into large chunks
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 inches ginger root, peeled and grated
2 large yellow onions, cut into quarters
1 green chili (jalapeno), whole
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon whole cloves
3 smoked black cardamom
2 cinnamon sticks
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 tablespoon ground coriander
2 tablespoons kosher salt
Extra virgin olive oil 

Directions

1. Cover bottom of large stock pot with olive oil. Heat over medium-high heat until the oil glistens. Add lamb, garlic and ginger. Cook until meat becomes lightly browned, stirring frequently. To the meat, add onions, green chili, and remaining spices. Stir to combine.

2. Add water to cover the meat, plus 3 inches more of water. Cover the pot, leaving the lid slightly ajar, and cook over low-medium heat, until the meat is tender. You can check the meat by inserting a paring knife into a piece. If it yields easily, the meat is cooked.

3. Strain the resulting liquid (yakhni) and set aside. Separate out the chunks of meat from the remaining mixture; set aside. Discard the balance of the spice mix. If cooking the pulao to completion immediately, go to the next step. If not, refrigerate the yakhni and meat until ready to use.

Pulao ingredients

2 medium yellow onions, sliced
¼ cup plain yogurt, whole milk preferred
1 large green chili, whole
½ teaspoon black peppercorns, whole
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
2 smoked black cardamom
½ teaspoon ground cumin
2 ½ cups reserved yakhni
1 cup basmati rice 

Directions

1. In a large pot, cover the bottom with olive oil. Heat over medium heat until the oil glistens. Add the sliced onions to the pot; sauté until the onions are golden brown, stirring occasionally.

2. Add reserved lamb and plain yogurt to the onions; stir until blended. Add in green chili, peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon stick, black cardamom, and ground cumin to the lamb; stir until combined. Add in reserved yakhni; bring to a boil.

3. Add rice, stir. Bring to a boil again; then reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and let steam for 30-40 minutes. Check to see that the water has evaporated and the rice is getting tender. Before serving, top rice with small pats of butter and a sprinkling of ground cumin.

Snowball cookies

Ingredients

1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter, softened
4 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups pecans, toasted and chopped
2 cups confectioners' sugar 

Directions

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, add butter and sugar. Beat until light in color and texture, about 5 minutes. Add in vanilla extract, mix to combine. Add in pecans, mix to combine. Add in cake flour; mix just until incorporated. Chill dough for 1 hour.

2. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Roll approximately a tablespoon of dough and shape into 1-inch balls. Place on prepared cookie sheets with 1 inch of space between cookies (don't worry, they don't spread when they bake). Bake 20-25 minutes, until very slightly golden in color. They won't get dark, so don't overbake them. Remove from oven and let cool slightly, about 5 minutes.

3. Roll each cookie in confectioners' sugar. Once the cookies are completely cooled, roll in confectioners's sugar again. Serve immediately, and if there are any leftovers you can store them in an airtight container at room temperature.

Moroccan chicken pie

Ingredients 

3 pounds chicken thighs, boneless and skinless
5 cloves garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 cup chopped Italian parsley
½ cup chopped cilantro
1 Spanish onion, finely chopped
pinch of saffron
¼ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 cinnamon sticks
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
3 cups chicken stock
1 cup ghee (clarified butter)
¼ cup canola oil
½ pound blanched almonds
¼ cup confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¾ teaspoon ground ginger
1 preserved lemon, optional
2 tablespoons lemon juice
8 eggs
½ cup ghee (clarified butter)
1 package phyllo pastry sheets 

Directions

1. Cut chicken thighs into large chunks. Using a mortar and pestle, crush the garlic and kosher salt to make a paste. Rub the chicken with the paste, then rinse well and drain the chicken. Place chicken in large pot, along with parsley, cilantro, chopped onion, saffron, turmeric, black pepper, cinnamon sticks, butter, and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover and simmer for 1 hour.

2. While the chicken cooks, heat the canola oil in a skillet and brown the almonds lightly. Drain them on paper towels. When the almonds are cool, crush them with a rolling pin until they are coarsely ground. Combine the almonds with the confectioners' sugar and ground cinnamon. Mix well; set aside. Shuck the oysters only removing the lid (do not detach the muscle).

3. Remove cooked chicken pieces from the pot. Roughly chop/pull apart to make 1 ½-inch pieces. Sprinkle ground ginger on top of the chicken; set chicken aside. By boiling rapidly, uncovered, reduce the sauce in the pot to approximately 1 ¾ cups, then add lemon juice. Beat the eggs until frothy, then pour them into the simmering sauce and stir continuously until the eggs cook and congeal. They will become bit stiff, which is what you want.

4. Check for seasoning; set aside. If using preserved lemon, rinse the lemon and discard the pulp. Dice the peel and set aside. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Unroll the phyllo sheets, keeping them under a damp towel to prevent them from drying out. Fold 4 leaves in half and bake in the oven for 30 seconds, or until they are crisp but not overly brown. Remove from oven and set aside.

5. Using a silicone brush, brush some of the ghee on the sides and bottom of a large cake pan (10" or 12" diameter). Cover the bottom of the pan with a phyllo sheet, letting the sheet extend over the sides. Note that the entire bottom of the pan should be covered. Brush the extended sheet with ghee so it doesn't dry out. Place chunks of chicken evenly to cover the phyllo sheet in a single layer. If using, sprinkle the chicken with some of the preserved lemon. Then lay down a layer of phyllo pastry to cover the chicken. Brush with ghee. Sprinkle a thin, even layer of the well-drained egg mixture.

6. Lay down another phyllo pastry sheet; brush with ghee. Repeat the chicken layer, and then the egg layer, ensuring to put down a sheet of phyllo pastry brushed with ghee between each layer. Once the last layer of egg has been put down, place the crisped phyllo sheets on top of the egg mixture. Sprinkle the almond-sugar mixture over the pastry.

7. Cover with six more layers of phyllo pastry, with ghee lightly brushed between each layer. Fold the overlapping phyllo sheets in over the top to cover the bisteeya. Brush lightly with ghee. Put two (2) phyllo sheets over the top of the bisteeya, lightly buttering each, and fold these neatly under the pie (almost like you're tucking in a sheet).

8. Brush the entire bisteeya again with ghee. Bake the bisteeya until the top pastry leaves are golden brown, 20-25 minutes. Shake the pan to loosen the pie, using a spatula around the edges. Pour off any excess butter; reserve. Invert the bisteeya onto a large, buttered baking dish. Brush the bisteeya with the reserved butter and return to the oven to continue baking an additional 15-20 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from oven, and invert onto a serving platter such that the almond-sugar mixture layer is on the top. Dust the top of the bisteeya with confectioners' sugar and a bit of ground cinnamon. Serve immediately