“Artisanal Mediterranean products with a twist”
(Somerville Wire) – Focaccia, pita, and savory pies abound at this Somerville business, where new tastes are introduced to the American palette. Ayham Haddad came from Jordan in 2012 and has been sharing his passion for baking since then, through the creation of his Mahalab Bakery. Here, he tells us about the origins of his creative cooking, the story of his immigration, and what makes his baked goods so special.
What is the story of how you learned to bake? What do you enjoy about it?
It all started when I was around 14. I came across a video of a baker training culinary students on how to make ciabatta. The video did not have a recipe, but I was intrigued. I looked at the final product and tried different mixes until I reached a satisfying result. Without a book or training, it took many tries, and still, I enjoyed the process. This process of learning, making mistakes, and trying to perfect a recipe has been a driving force for my passion and persists in my adult life.
You put a Mediterranean twist on the goods that you create. What are some examples of your favorite baked items, and how does your culture influence how they get made?
It is more like a twist to Mediterranean baked goods.
I grew up in Jordan with savory baked goods as the go-to after-school snack or for lunch breaks. I loved them; however, I personally felt it needed depth and new character beyond the simple standard style of making savory baked goods. As my taste palate continually evolved and I discovered new techniques and flavors beyond my heritage, I realized that no one culture perfected baking, and there is much to learn from others. And so I’ve taken the foundation of Middle Eastern savory baking style and fused it with techniques and flavors from Italy, Greece, France, and the US. I also decided to minimize the number of ingredients and focus on high-quality ingredients to make them shine. Prime examples are the country-style sourdough pita (French, Italian, and Middle-eastern influence), and the za’atar focaccia (Italian and Middle-eastern influence). I am proud of these two, and they will always be part of my product line.
What was it like to move to Massachusetts from Jordan? What made you want to immigrate here, and how have you brought some of Jordan with you to the Greater Boston area?
After finishing college in Jordan, I had to choose between a potential career in Jordan or moving to the US. I choose the latter to start a new path in life. It was not easy to leave my family behind, but I did have relatives in western Massachusetts who greatly helped me build my new life. I felt lost here for years, and I was not certain of my goals in life. But I never lost my passion for cooking and baking, and instead it grew, leading me to start my business. In my recipes, I included some of my family recipes; for example, in the way I make savory pie (fatayer) dough and incorporate mahleb (the cherry tree the business is named after) to it. I adapted what I learned from working in western bakeries to make it unique. My parents and aunt have all added a taste and a touch to my baked goods; so you can all thank them for the great taste!
You’ve described how the simple, flat patties you make can serve as a “vessel.” Do you see baking as an art form, and what is your philosophy or approach to this work?
It’s a vessel, and it is art, because the foundation (the pie’s dough) can function as a canvas on which your own taste and favorite flavors can be incorporated. It is also more than that. There is science to how I came up with these products, such as using different natural fermentation techniques and methods and their effect on the taste and our lives to have healthier food. My philosophy is simple. Baked goods don’t have to be sweet or unhealthy to taste great to all family members.
What do you like about being based in Somerville? Can people find you at farmers markets in Somerville?
Somerville has been an integral part of Mahalab Bakery from the very beginning, and it would be hard to imagine it without the support of the community. From farmers markets to local deliveries, it has been a pleasure to partner with the community in the success of our products. I currently live in Somerville and produce in a shared space in Woburn. Hopefully, one day, we will open an actual brick-and-mortar location in the Somerville area. Until then, this year in 2022, you can find us at the Somerville Winter, Davis Square, and Union Square farmers markets.
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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.