It’s hard to believe that Umber Ahmad once solely pursued a professional life outside of the bakery. Her delicious confections, ranging from award-winning brioche doughnuts to appropriately titled “heavenly” cheesecakes, rival those of any experienced and celebrated pastry chef in New York City. But don’t let her science education and subsequent career in finance downplay or distract from these undeniable talents in the kitchen. They, along with a cultured childhood filled with strong maternal influences, actually played the most pivotal of roles in creating Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery as we know it today.
“Food is a language, a way to communicate,” according to Ahmad. Though she was born and raised in northern Michigan, her family—originally hailing from Pakistan—encouraged a unique and eye-opening upbringing of globetrotting and sampling different cuisines. As a result, Ahmad learned how to manifest nearly every aspect of her life through food. A degree in genetics has lent itself to gastronomically perfect cookie recipes (like her dark chocolate explosions), while a taxing job on Wall Street opened doors to the world’s most renowned chefs, restaurants, and brands. Every opportunity, no matter how seemingly random, has played a role in Ahmad’s overall food conversation (which now includes the opportunity to work alongside famed restaurateur and Top Chef head judge Tom Colicchio, who serves as an advisor to the bakery through his newly-created Discovery Platform).
Perhaps the most important culinary influence in Ahmad’s life is her Scandinavian caretaker, affectionately called “gram,” who exposed the burgeoning pastry chef to exotic spices, tastes, and cooking techniques at a very young age. Ahmad recalls one particular memory of baking nisu, a cardamom-infused Finnish bread that can be braided and topped with nuts and sugar. It is typically sliced and served with coffee during special occasions and holidays, though the nostalgic menu item has found a permanent spot on Mah-Ze-Dahr’s shelves with the help of fellow pastry chef and partner, Shelly A. Barbera. A graduate of the French Culinary Institute and former dessert head of three-Michelin starred Brooklyn Fare, Barbera joined Ahmad in 2013 to elevate what was initially an online retail store selling limited quantities of baked goods. Upon meeting, the dynamic duo immediately clicked and have been baking together and expanding the business ever since.
We sat down with Ahmad at her West Village shop to discuss the process of creating her memorable treats, as well as the stories and experiences that shaped them. Achieving mah-ze-dahr, the Urdu word for “the essence” (or the “je ne sais quoi,” if you will), is her ultimate goal, which has obviously translated into every delectable bite you take.