Amanda Saab, owner of Butter Bear Shop in Livonia, uses her platform to raise awareness, one dinner at a time.
By Dorothy Hernandez
Photography by Viviana Pernot
For Amanda Saab, age 16 was a pivotal year. It was when she decided to wear a hijab. It was also when she decided she had to have a KitchenAid mixer because that’s what all the chefs had on Food Network.
As the daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Saab’s love of food goes back beyond that. Her grandparents owned a grocery store in Dearborn, and as a young child she would stand on a milk crate and ring people up. She says she would chat up the customers and learned a lot about fruits and vegetables.
“People would buy tomatillos, and I was like, ‘Oh, what are you gonna make with that?’ And they’d say, ‘salsa verde.’ And then I would go home and try and do it.”
Her passion for baking led her to establish Butter Bear Shop in 2018 in Livonia, as well as use food as a bridge to connect people and raise awareness about the Muslim community. But it was a path she didn’t follow until much later after getting that first stand mixer.
Her parents wanted her to go to college and not go into food as a career, so Saab, 30, who grew up in Dearborn, studied social work at Wayne State University. She then moved to Seattle, where she worked as a hospital social worker, and to decompress after an emotionally draining day, she would bake. She’d post the photos on Instagram, and people would ask for the recipes. She decided to start a blog, Amanda’s Plate, to share recipes and archive her family’s recipes.
She began to feel burnout from her job, and while watching an episode of Fox’s “MasterChef,” her husband, Hussein, suggested she try out.
While she didn’t win the 2015 season (she was ironically sent home for a raw cake she baked on her birthday, the “perfect midseason heartbreak” made for reality TV, she says), the experience gave her a platform. Saab says she received a lot of positive press, including an Eater article that highlighted her as the first Muslim woman to wear a hijab on a primetime American cooking show. It also brought out the internet trolls, which surprised her.
She says she would see “crazy things” online such as, “Oh, did her husband force her to wear that? Is she allowed to be in the kitchen by herself without a male guardian?”
The attention from the show was unexpected, but it also raised awareness about American Muslim women doing what they love, Saab says.
“MasterChef” wasn’t the last TV opportunity for Saab. She filmed a pilot with a Singapore-based company for a show called “Chef in Hijab,” which took Saab to Japan for some of the best meals of her life, she says. The show now is being pitched to U.S. outlets.
Closer to home, Saab uses cooking to dispel misconceptions about the Muslim community, which goes back to when President Trump’s Muslim ban went into effect in early 2017. Instead of getting angry, Saab, who was back in Michigan, invited people over for dinner, and Dinner with Your Muslim Neighbor was born.
She and Hussein held the first dinner in the clubhouse of their condo development. They had 17 colleagues, friends and internet friends come together at the table, sharing traditional dishes such as kefta, tabbouleh and hummus as well as roasted Brussels sprouts. During the dinner they focused on their similarities — not their differences. Since then, they’ve had 20 dinners, and Saab plans to release a toolkit soon so others can host similar dinners in their homes.
To get the conversation going, she’ll offer prompts such as, “One thing I wish people knew about me is” or “A time I felt people were judging me.”
The conversations can be tough, but have helped at least one person open her mind. Saab recalls one woman whose Islamophobia was so great that her fear kept her from leaving her house because she was afraid refugees would harm her and her children.
“She had never met a Muslim before,” Saab says. Through friends of friends, the woman found out about Saab’s dinners and came. She walked into her house and uttered, “Whoa, your house looks so normal.”
Hussein replied, “No, the camels are tied out in back,” Saab recalls with a laugh. “But she opened up later and that dinner went really long. It went into like 2 a.m., and everyone stayed just talking. And it was a great conversation. She didn’t really talk much throughout the dinner, but towards the end of the dinner, she said, ‘I had seen you on ‘MasterChef’ on TV and thought, ‘One of those people is on an American cooking show.’ ”
The woman felt safe enough to share her vulnerability, and that’s the point of the dinners, Saab says. “(The dinners give) people an opportunity to talk about things that we don’t do openly.”
Mini Baklava Cheesecakes
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
4 packages (8 ounces each) cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon rose water
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamon
Pinch of salt
1 cup walnut pieces
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
12 sheets phyllo dough, thawed if frozen
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 cup pomegranate juice
1/4 cup granulated sugar
Mint leaves for garnish, optional
Candled kumquats for garnish, optional
Preheat the oven to 350 F. While the oven is preheating, fill a baking dish with water and place it on the bottom rack of the oven. This will create steam in the oven, which will keep the cheesecakes from cracking.
For the crust: In a bowl stir together the graham cracker crumbs, sugar and melted butter until evenly moistened. The texture should look like wet sand.
Line a 12-cup mini cheesecake pan with paper liners. Divide the crumbs evenly among the muffin wells, and press a spoonful of the mixture into each bottom. Set aside.
For the filling: In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the cream cheese and sugar on low speed until smooth. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Mix in the flour, rose water, cardamom and salt. Pour the batter into the graham cracker crust in each round.
For the baklava topping: In a blender (preferably a high-speed blender), combine the walnuts, sugar and cinnamon and process until finely ground; set aside.
Cut the phyllo sheets into 3-inch rounds and cover with a damp kitchen towel until ready to use.
Place 1 phyllo round down on your work surface and brush with melted butter. Place a second sheet of phyllo on top of the first and brush with melted butter. Repeat until you have a stack of six sheets of phyllo.
Spread the walnut filling over the top. Cover with another sheet of phyllo and brush with melted butter. Repeat until you have a stack of six more sheets. Repeat to create baklava toppings for the remaining 11 mini cheesecakes.
Carefully place the baklava over the top of each mini cheesecake, making sure to place it in the center.
Bake the mini cheesecakes on the middle rack above the pan of water until the center is no longer liquid, about 25 minutes. Let cool in the oven, with the oven door open, for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, let cool, then cover and refrigerate for 8 hours before serving.
For the pomegranate reduction: In a small pot, heat the pomegranate juice and sugar over medium heat until the mixture thickens, about 10 minutes. To serve, garnish the cheesecake with mint leaves and candied kumquats (if using), and dot some pomegranate reduction on each serving plate.
Butter Bear Shop
33825 Five Mile Road, Livonia