It’s nearly 9,000 miles across the ocean from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Santa Rosa. But for Mimo Ahmed, moving to Sonoma County from the east African country was much like following a trail of breadcrumbs.
Make that cake crumbs. Because the young woman discovered a love for cooking in her homeland, built it further by a chance friendship with a visiting American who enjoyed baking, and solidified it after arriving in the culinary mecca that is Sonoma. She is now the pastry chef at Ari Weiswasser’s acclaimed Glen Ellen Star, and on the side, she’s gaining plenty of attention for her website and passion project, The Empty Plate.
At 27, and 12 years after arriving in Santa Rosa, Ahmed has packed in so much experience — and so many cups of flour and sugar — that she seems a bit surprised herself as she recounts her journey.
It started when she was a toddler, as she followed her grandmother around their kitchen in the small, rural village of Naqamtee/Nekemte, in the Oromo people’s traditional rhomeland. She watched her grandmother grind fresh-grown coffee beans, milk their cows, and harvest honey from their bees. She played with the dough as her grandmother baked the daily bread.
“My grandmother was always like, ‘Here, make something,’” says Ahmed. “I was just a baby, but I loved it. Okay, I fell in a giant pot of stew once — I felt like I was helping, even though now that I think about it, I probably gave her more work.”
Her grandmother passed away when Ahmed was six, and she was adopted by her aunt and uncle, who moved her to their home in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, a city of 4.8 million people. Schools there were much better, but even at her very young age, she yearned for the kitchen and the farm-to-table life.
“My aunt and uncle were more focused on education,” she recalls. “They were always more about the books, studying.”
Yet when she was 12, life changed again. Ahmed’s uncle worked for a nonprofit organization, and a coworker named Kristen came to live at the family house as part of a missionary program. While there, Kristen received care packages from the United States — unfamiliar things to Ahmed, like cookie, cake, and pie mixes.
“We would always bake together, so we made chocolate chip cookies, and apple pie,” Ahmed says. “One time we made brownies, and I was so confused, because I was like, ‘Is this a cake or a cookie? It can only be one or the other.’ The first time I tried them, I thought they were so gross, with the texture and density.”
Still, she began dreaming of desserts. And of visiting this interesting place, America.
Within three years, Ahmed had received a scholarship for her dedicated schoolwork. Kristen connected her with her own parents in Santa Rosa, who helped her enroll at the former Santa Rosa Christian School, where Ahmed aced the English proficiency exams required for international students.
“My aunt and uncle had wanted me to go to America to be a lawyer, or doctor or engineer, just like any African parents,” Ahmed says. So once she graduated high school, she attended Santa Rosa Junior College, studying psychology for two years, and began planning to enroll at Sonoma State.
Except that her host parents opened their kitchen to her, and she couldn’t stop baking cookies, cakes, and pies. In between studying, she read recipe books, and explored the often unforgiving science of baking.
“Then I really thought about it, and I figured, ‘I think I’m adult now, I can make my own decisions,’” she says. “I really wanted to go to culinary school, except I was too scared to tell my aunt and uncle. So I secretly signed up for the culinary school at Santa Rosa Junior College.”
She completed the school’s program in baking and pastry arts, studying under chef Shelly Kaldunski, who became a mentor and close friend. Ahmed also began learning to style food professionally and connected with several Bay Area photographers to capture her work.
“I finally decided to call my aunt and I said, ‘Hey, um, I changed my major, I’m going to culinary school,’ and I was terrified, because I thought I was going to get in so much trouble,” Ahmed says. “And then she said, ‘You know what? I knew this day was going to come. Just work hard, and be the best chef you can be.’”
Today, at Glen Ellen Star, Ahmed crafts delicious treats like house-baked sourdough boule and brown-butter fig cake. On her website, she encourages viewers to use her recipes for such treats as hot milk cake and shares gorgeous photos of delights such as flourless chocolate cake cradled in flaky, shattered meringue. Another standout is a black-bottom lemon tart of buttery sable crust and a thin layer of dark chocolate ganache topped with billows of lemon-orange curd, for a beautiful interplay between dark and light, bitter and sweet.
And she has fun with her Instagram posts. During the long months of the pandemic, Ahmed has spent much of her time honing her design skills, planning to delve even more deeply into food styling and recipe development in the future. Typical of these new explorations is an elegant chocolate cake filled with crunchy hazelnut flakes, smoothed in chocolate frosting, and then whimsically adorned with tiny figurines of a deer, rabbit, squirrel, fox, and fawn — animals she barely knew as a child in Ethiopia.
“This was really not a plan,” Ahmed reflects. “But now, I feel like I’m exactly where I should be.”
Mimo Ahmed’s Apple-Almond Tart
Pastry chef Mimo Ahmed’s stunning, intensely flavored tart makes for an exquisite finish to a holiday meal. It has a sweet crust that is assembled and par-baked in advance, and a flavorful almond filling that rises up to surround apple slices fanned out in pretty shapes.
For the best results at home, Ahmed prefers to use a food processor and weigh ingredients with a kitchen scale.
The tart is made in stages, starting with the crust, then preparing the almond filling and apple slices, and finally assembling and baking the tart. To finish the presentation, try a light dusting of powdered sugar. It’s best served warm from the oven.
Makes one 9-inch crust.
• 203g all-purpose flour
• 60g powdered sugar
• 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
• 128g cold unsalted butter, cubed
• 1 egg yolk
• 1 tsp. ice-cold water
• 1 tsp. vanilla extract
In a food processor, pulse the flour, sugar, and salt for a few seconds until combined. Add the cold, cubed butter and pulse until the mixture becomes crumbly and resembles coarse meal, about 10 pulses. Beat the egg yolk with vanilla extract and water. Add to dry ingredients and keep pulsing until the dough is no longer dry and starts to clump together, about 10-15 seconds. Do not process to the point that a large ball of dough is formed; the dough should be quite crumbly with large clumps.
Another way to check if it’s done is to take a piece of dough and press it between your thumbs — the dough should stick without feeling dry or crumbly. Gather the dough into ball; flatten into disc. Wrap in plastic; chill until firm, at least 1 hour.
Take dough out of the fridge and let it sit on the counter for a few minutes to soften slightly for easy rolling. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out into an 11-inch circle, then place gently into a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and place in the freezer until firm, about 30 minutes. Frozen dough is less prone to shrinking while baking.
To bake the crust: Preheat oven to 375 degrees and place a rack in the center. Press parchment paper or aluminum foil tightly against the crust, covering the edges to prevent them from burning. Fill with pie weights, dried beans, or uncooked rice, making sure the weights are fully distributed over the entire surface of the crust. Bake the crust for 20 minutes at 375 degrees. To cool, transfer the crust to a wire rack and remove the weights and foil.
Almond filling and apple slices
Makes 2 cups, enough for one 9-inch tart.
• 4 ounces raw whole almonds
• 4 ounces butter, unsalted, room temperature
• 3 ½ ounces sugar
• 2 eggs • 1 tsp. lemon zest
• 1/2 tsp. almond extract
• 3 medium-size Golden Delicious apples
• 1/2 ounce sliced almonds
In a food processor, pulse the raw whole almonds and the sugar until the almonds are finely ground, then add the butter and process again until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, followed by the lemon zest and almond extract and process once more until the filling is thoroughly mixed.
Just before assembling the tart, peel, core, and thinly slice the apples and set aside.
Assembling and baking the tart: When the tart crust is done par-baking, remove it from the oven and allow to cool. Then, whisk an egg and use a pastry brush to coat a thin layer of whisked egg all over the crust. Spread the prepared almond filling into the crust and then arrange the apple slices and sliced almonds on top. I like to take small sections of apples, fan them while in my hand, and then place them gently where I like, covering about half of the top of the tart. The almond filling will puff while baking, so there is no need to press the apples in deeply. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 30-45 minutes, or until the crust and filling have bronzed. Allow to cool slightly before dusting with powdered sugar, if desired.