Malika Ameen’s first memory of food is her mother’s biryani. As an adult living far from home, the aroma of braised beef, basmati rice and spices cooking together would bring tears to Ameen’s eyes because it reminded her so powerfully of home and her mother.
“I can envision my parent’s house and me in my parent’s house and all of these happy memories and moments in my life. It’s like every good memory with my family. The smell equates love to me,” she said.
Ameen’s Mom prepared dinner daily, but her parents cooked side-by-side on the weekends. While her parents were cooking, her interest in baking grew. She would stay up, late into the night paging through Martha Stewart’s first cookbook. “The one of her standing in front of a copper kitchen,” Ameen remembers. Growing up, her home was always filled with family and friends, perfect test subjects for nearly every single recipe in that cookbook, from cookies to flans to tarts.
“I made everything but the wedding cake.” She grins and then knowingly laughs at herself. Her exuberance for baking vibrates across the table from me, as she sits comfortably in a white tunic over jeans, with her dark hair pulled back from her face, her eyes telling me almost as much as her lips.
In second grade, she had to write an autobiography. Ameen found it years later while cleaning up her Mom’s house. It was a booklet, bound with fabric. Inside she had blank pages to fill. One of the pages was an illustration of Ameen by a stove saying, ‘I’m a really good baker and I love to bake.’ She serendipitously found this booklet just before starting culinary school in New York City at the Institute of Culinary Education in 1997.
While in school, she enjoyed the two-week pastry arts program the most. Her first internship was with a French pastry chef who didn’t like to speak English in the kitchen, even though he could. And, he really didn’t like women in the kitchens.
“It was all French men under him. I didn’t speak French, I was a woman and I was brown. He was very difficult and made it clear that I was not welcome in his kitchen. The internship was set for two weeks, so I did not leave early. I had the choice to extend, but did not. He was horrific,” remembers Ameen. Although the experience was negative, Ameen contends that, “Difficult chefs and difficult kitchens really do mold you. It builds a certain character in you.”
She asked to be placed in a different restaurant and worked under Gina DePalma at the Cub Room in Soho. Under DePalma, Ameen’s love for pastry deepened.
Not long after, Ameen met her now ex-husband in New York. He was also a chef. They had a son and then were both offered positions at Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, California.
One of Ameen’s most memorable experiences was appearing on Martha Stewart’s show. They picked one of her cookies for the holiday baking week. She took the tattered cookbook from her childhood with her and showed it to Stewart and said, “I would have never imagined in my life that I would become a chef and end up on a show with you.”
In 2009, her marriage ended, her Dad had a massive heart attack and the restaurant she’d opened with her ex in Chicago only a few years before, closed. “It was time to reinvent myself,” said Ameen who was suddenly a single Mom of three small children.
So, she created custom catering and desserts, primarily focused on cookies and granola. “There’s this alone time in the process that’s exciting, because you’re connecting with your food and ingredients. But, I missed interacting with customers and getting feedback in person,” she said. Which is the part of cooking Ameen loves most of all.
That’s when she considered creating a baking book focused on spices. “The books are always very ethnic or encyclopedic,” she said. “I wanted to share my passion for baking with spices.”
Today, Ameen has her own book of recipes, “Sweet Sugar Sultry Spice”, inspired by the traditional American deserts she first made as a child. While I write this, her take on Peach Cobbler is baking in my oven, the smells of peaches and blueberries waft into the living room with a hint of nutmeg, vanilla and cinnamon.
She advises home bakers to buy spices in bulk and whole, grind them with a mortar and pestle. “Don’t get stressed about spices, if they are a bit old, try them.” But if you’ve inherited spices from a relative who has long since passed away, “It’s time to throw them away.”
Even for a chef and baker who regularly experiments with flavors and spices – sumac, saffron and cardamom to name a few – Ameen appreciates the grocery store basics: A bag of Cape Cod Salt and Vinegar potato chips.
Knowing this about Ameen made me want to pick up her cookbook even more. I secretly love salt and vinegar chips too. Their sharp vinegary jolt to my taste buds reminds me to appreciate the more subtle flavors in my life. That reminds me, I better check on that peach cobbler baking in my oven.
From Sweet Sugar, Sultry Spice by Malika Ameen,© 2016 by Malika Ameen. Reprinted by arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.roostbooks.com
Crunchy Top Peach Cobbler
Roasting or baking makes summer peaches even sweeter and caramelizes the natural sugars, deepening the fruit’s flavor. Roasted peaches are one of the most sublime things you will ever taste. These magnificent peaches star in a simple cobbler made with nutty brown butter and crunchy nutmeg sugar. This is an easy dessert that comes together quickly but tastes like it took ages.
Active time: 20 minutes. Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Serves 6 to 8
1 pound peaches, pitted and cut into ½-inch slices, with skins on
¾ cup granulated sugar, divided
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Seeds from ½ vanilla bean
1½ teaspoons tapioca flour
4 tablespoons (2 ounces) unsalted butter
¾ cup all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon ground Vietnamese cinnamon
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¾ cup buttermilk, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup blueberries
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Vanilla ice cream, to serve
Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Line a baking tray with parchment paper to catch any drips and place a 9-inch pan on it.
In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine the peaches, 3 tablespoons of the granulated sugar, the lemon juice, and vanilla bean seeds. Bring to a simmer and cook for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. In a small bowl, whisk together 1 tablespoon of the granulated sugar and the tapioca flour.
In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium-high heat and continue to cook until it begins to smell nutty, about 2 minutes. Swirl the pan and continue to cook until the butter is golden and dark brown flecks begin to appear, about 3 more minutes. Pour the browned butter into the 9-inch round pan.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, the remaining ½ cup of granulated sugar, the baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. Add the buttermilk and vanilla extract and whisk just until batter forms. Using an ice cream scoop, deposit dollops of the batter in the round pan. You don’t want to mix the dough with the brown butter, but it’s okay if some butter seeps through. Add the tapioca-sugar mixture to the peaches in the saucepan and toss to coat. Scatter the peaches and juices over the dough. Scatter the blueberries on top of the peaches.
Bake for 25 minutes. While the cobbler is baking, mix together the turbinado sugar and nutmeg in a small bowl. Remove the pan from the oven and sprinkle the cobbler with the nutmeg sugar. Return the pan to the oven and bake for another 25 to 30 minutes, until golden brown. Serve warm or at room temperature with vanilla ice cream.