Not every six-year-old can say they have baked cupcakes in the shiny chrome kitchen, alongside a renowned Emirati pastry chef, in one of the world’s most luxurious hotels. But then again, not every six-year-old is as driven as Allisah Hakeem seemingly is.
Allisah has dreamed of being a professional pastry chef for “as long as I can remember” she tells us before our trip to the Burj Al Arab.
Her favourite thing to do, she says, is to bake cookies (in-between her dance lessons, piano playing and book writing). “She really has baking in her blood,” says proud mum Ridhima. “My sister is a food blogger in India and Allisah is growing up watching her Auntie at work. She has fallen in love with food and it’s amazing to see.”
As soon as Allisah, with her glossy black hair swinging, eagerly pushes open the doors of the Burj Al Arab, we know we’re going to see some magic happen. And if that is accompanied by jellybeans and chocolate frosting, then all the better.
A little shy to start, our star girl takes in her surroundings, her eyes twinkling as she catches sight of Chef Sahar Al Awadhi, one of 32 pastry chefs responsible for the decadent sweet treats on offer across the restaurants of Dubai’s most iconic hotel, who is already preparing their baking space.
“It’s all about preparation,” Chef Sahar advises. “You must have everything ready and measured and then you can start creating.
“We work hard here, but we also have fun with the dishes. I like to use local ingredients as much as I can and really enjoy styling Emirati desserts with a modern twist,” she explains, as she begins showing Alissah the art of frosting.
Over the afternoon, a lovely friendship blossoms between the two cake-lovers, who take their time in deciding what would taste best on the cupcakes they’re decorating.
Allisah is amazed to hear that this successful chef had gleaned everything she knows from reading and watching her mum cook, which is how she first found her passion in pastry making. “My mum was always in the kitchen and I used to watch her mixing and measuring,” Sahar explains. “I knew it was what I wanted to do from an early age.
“There were no culinary schools for me – I just taught myself through endless trials and practising. I still practise all the time. And the best thing is you need to taste everything you try!” she laughs.
As Allisah carefully places some jewel-coloured jellybeans on one of her creations, she chatters to Sahar about the book she’s just written, an impressive feat for a little girl of six. “It’s called Lyra and Cookie and that’s what I will call my first pastry restaurant,” she excitedly explains.
“It will be filled with treats baked by me and books written by me.”
As the sweet aroma of a batch of fluffy, freshly baked cupcakes assails our senses, Sahar announces that the most important part of any cooking session is the eating. Something we’re certainly happy to hear.
After the feast, Sahar leaves little Allisah with some sage parting advice. She soaks it all up with growing admiration. “Keep practising,” says Sahar. “Never stop experimenting with your ingredients and your ideas, and never forget to eat what you make.”
It looks like we might actually have the next Mary Berry, right here in Dubai.
Pistachio Christmas tree waffles with berry “ornaments” by Chef Sahar Al Awadhi
3 cups plain whole-wheat flour or
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar or 5 tablespoons of honey
2/3 cup unsalted butter, melted
3 cups warm buttermilk
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup pistachio powder
A few drops of natural, organic green
1. Start by heating your waffle iron.
2. In a bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. In a separate bowl, whisk together the butter, buttermilk, eggs, honey (if using), vanilla and green food colouring to get a nice and bright colour (like a Christmas tree).
3. Make a well in the dry ingredients and add the wet ingredients to it. Stir until just combined, mixing in the pistachios towards the end of combining the ingredients. The batter should still have some lumps – that’s okay!
4. Pour some batter in the hot waffle iron until browned on the outside and cooked through. Cut them into triangles and overlap them pointy side up. Brush a little melted chocolate to make a tree trunk and decorate with berries and whipped cream as your “ornaments”.
5. Transfer any you aren’t eating to a wire cooling rack in a single layer. Don’t stack them, as it will get soggy and allow them to cool completely. Wrap them individually in clingfilm or pack them into ziplock bags and store them in the freezer for a day.
6. When you’re ready to eat them, take one out as desired and toast until heated through and re-crisped on the outside. Serve with your favourite toppings – sweet or savoury!