"Much of the success of our brand is that it started at home," says Umber Ahmad, founder of Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery, which opened its first shop in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village this fall. The neighborhood—and, really, any New Yorker who had sunk their teeth into Ahmad’s profoundly bittersweet, sugar-dusted brownies at one of the cult coffee shops that sold them—had waited impatiently for Ahmad and her co-chef and partner, Shelly Acuña Barbera, to renovate the tiny space. Finally, on one of the last warm days in September, they were rewarded with a long glass case full of brownies, cream puffs, meringue-swirled tarts and other finessed versions of homey classics. In the morning, chic downtown denizens amble up leafy Greenwich Avenue to get their cinnamon brioche buns or flaky, fruit-filled hand pies. Later in the day, when school lets out, they’ll pick up their kids from the playground next door and return for hot chocolate and a slice of frosted snack cake.
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“This takes me back to when we were starting out,” Ahmad says. She and Barbera are sitting at the communal table in the handsome navy-walled bakery, tasting the citrus-frosted cake they’ve just developed and musing over how it’s the kind of homestyle treat she used to bring to friends when she was working in finance and baking on the side. One of those lucky recipients was chef Tom Colicchio, who was impressed by how she elevated something as humble as a sheet or loaf cake with embellishments like honey in the batter or vanilla in the fruit syrup. Colicchio helped Ahmad launch her business through his mentorship program for food start-ups, introducing her to Barbera and letting them use his ’Wichcraft kitchens in New York as their wholesale operation got off the ground.
From the very start, the perfect blend of homey and haute with a dash of worldly flavor was baked into their business plan: Ahmad, a first-generation Pakistani American raised in the Midwest, brings the home-baker perspective to the partnership, while Barbera, born to Mexican parents in California, draws from her pastry experience at Le Bernardin and Aldea. They took their name from the Urdu equivalent of je ne sais quoi, which Ahmad says describes everyday luxuries like her famous snack cakes. “These aren’t special-occasion bites,” she adds. “You should have your daily Mah-Ze-Dahr.” 28 Greenwich Ave., NYC; mahzedahrbakery.com.