Ski-U-Mah Life is a weekly feature from GopherSports.com that highlights some of the more than 700 Minnesota student-athletes outside of their athletic accomplishments. This week, redshirt freshman Hamza Ali of the men's cross country team is in the spotlight.
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"I was craving something at some point, and my mom didn't want to go buy it," Hamza Ali said. "So I was like, `I'll just look up how to make it and do it myself.'"
That was the start of Ali's baking career, at about age 10. Something that he began doing to fulfill an immediate purpose became a regular hobby.
"It's fun," Ali said. "It took up time. I had a lot of free time growing up. I was an indoor kid. I really hated being outside, so I was just inside trying to find things to do. It's a nice hobby to have."
Even as the "indoor kid" developed interest and talent in the outdoor sports of track and cross country, he continued to experiment in the kitchen. Baked goods Ali has produced include blondies, banana bread, cookies, cakes and more.
His specialty is coffee cake. Ali started with a recipe he found online, but he likes to add his own spin to the things he makes.
"That streusel on top is supposed to be really crumbly, but I make it more liquidy, so it just goes over and then becomes a shell when it bakes," he said.
Cinnamon is one of the key ingredients for this cake, but Ali also adds some coffee to give it a little extra flavor and color. He has made it so many times that the recipe is as familiar to him as a regular running route.
"You need exactly one cup of milk," Ali said. "And then you have to put kind of a lot of vanilla extract, then you have to just crack an egg into it. Then you mix that and put it into the batter."
As a student at Washburn High School in Minneapolis, Ali would bring his coffee cake to study sessions. Ali's physics teacher, Peter Grul, offered his review.
"It has a good mix of textures--moist and crunchy--and it's not too sweet," Grul said.
Making coffee cake is not exactly a common hobby among high school boys, and Ali's unique culinary skills earned appreciation from his teachers and peers.
"It's definitely cool, especially when I get to partake!" Grul said. "The class vibe would have really suffered if Hamza wasn't in it."
Ali's family has also reaped the benefits of his hobby. When his younger sister wanted a dinosaur birthday cake, he baked two cakes and cut them up, assembled them into a dinosaur shape and frosted them with green icing. Ali's attempt to level his slanted oven with a wedge didn't work, but his technique of turning pans 180 degrees halfway through baking evens out his cakes.
Not every baking endeavor of Ali's has been successful. He remembers his first try at banana bread turning out mushy. Once when baking at a friend's place, he used so much butter that the batch of sugar cookies flattened out.
"It tasted good," Ali said. "It was just really oily."
Ali still wants to try new things. He has yet to make pie and would like to try making a pecan or blueberry pie--with homemade crust, of course. He recently learned his brother makes crème brûlée, and Ali also wants to try that. He said he might like to make a soufflé if he had to get fancy, but he isn't sure it would turn out well.
The cross country and track teams have not had much chance to sample Ali's dessert creations. Perhaps they will at a future team meal, but they shouldn't expect chocolate chip cookies.
"I'm really picky," Ali said. "I hate strawberries and I don't really like chocolate. I'm not a huge brownie guy. I like oatmeal raisin cookies a lot, so I make those. Blondies are fun. I really like banana bread, too. I made a pineapple upside-down cake once. I liked that a lot."
Ali likes to watch baking and cooking shows like "Cake Boss," "Cupcake Wars" and "Cooks vs. Cons." He said he did not enjoy "Hell's Kitchen," a more intense cooking competition. His preference for more fun shows fits with the way he views baking in his own life.
"I think it's therapeutic," Ali said. "It's just quiet, or playing some music. Mixing. I don't really use blenders. I like doing hand mixing. So I get a workout, I guess. It's a nice way to de-stress and relax. That's what hobbies are."
Justine Buerkle is an assistant director of athletic communications at the University of Minnesota, and a contributing writer to GopherSports.com and Ski-U-Mah Magazine.