Advanced bakers meet ‘Chopped’-style challenge, emerge victorious

by Jamie Gonzales  |   

Culinary Arts finals

Chopping strawberries, one of six mystery ingredients in the 'Chopped'-style practical final for Chef Vern's advanced bakers. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

There's always something tasty baking in Chef Vern Wolfram's kitchen here on campus — chocolate truffles, croissants, layer cakes or fresh baked rolls. Visit Lucy's restaurant on the right day and you just might catch the dessert buffet, courtesy of UAA's bakers in training. But it still caught me by surprise when the good chef's students were able to create masterful pastries from a box of six mystery ingredients that included goat cheese and Dr. Pepper.

The six advanced baking students still face a written final during UAA's finals week, but they can dust the flour off their hands and high five, because — stick a fork in it — their practical final is done.

The ingredients

Chef Vern

Chef Vern Wolfram talks mystery ingredients during his advanced baking practical final. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

The mystery ingredient challenge is nothing new for Chef Vern. He's been testing his apprentices this way for years. The only difference from semester to semester? The ingredients.

"In the past I've done gummi bears, Little Debbie snack cakes, coconut milk, pickled beets and what else?" Chef Vern mused as he rolled out fresh pizza dough (he promised his hard-working students a tasty lunch once they finished their final). "Oh yeah, grits, phyllo dough, fruit roll-ups. For my Monday beginner's class I'll have Fritos, Kraft caramels and know I've never done donuts. Maybe I'll do donuts!"

Culinary Arts final

Joy Weaver assembles her peach, date and goat cheese melba during the advanced baking practical final. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

Knowing their instructor's penchant for curveball ingredients, this semester's advanced bakers opened their cardboard boxes with trepidation. Inside they found goat cheese, dried dates, animal crackers, a jar of strawberries in syrup, a packet of hot cocoa and a can of Dr. Pepper. The Dr. Pepper won for "Most Raised Eyebrows" in the kitchen.

Just like the Food Network show Chopped, the UAA bakers were allowed to use any other ingredients on hand in the kitchen to supplement their six challenge ingredients. After a quick flip through the recipes in their textbooks, students were quickstepping to grab flour, sugar, cream cheese, eggs, butter and spices.

Culinary Arts final

Jordan Ness tends to her dessert's sauce during the advanced baking final. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

Animal crackers were smashed up for a buttery crust at one work station, strawberries and Dr. Pepper went into pots on the stovetop to simmer and reduce into sweet, red sauces and goat cheese met cream cheese, sugar, the contents of the hot cocoa packet and a few other choice ingredients in stainless steel mixing bowls.

The grades

At the end of the 90-minute time limit, Chef Vern and his assistant, Patricia Massey, were ready to analyze each student's performance and dessert based on five criteria.

Culinary Arts finals

Chef Vern Wolfram, left, and his assistant, Patricia Massey, right, critique Joe Kaufman, far right, on his dessert. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

"We're looking at product utilization, sanitation and safety — how well they clean as they go, basically — the appearance of their finished product, the taste of the final product and time management," he said.

As the clocked ticked closer to the end of their 90 minutes, students hurried to pull cakes from the oven, finish sauces and whip cream for their final plated presentations.

"I'll give you five extra minutes. You never see the guy in Chopped giving them extra minutes. That's how generous I am," said Chef Vern, smiling.

The desserts

Each student plated two servings of their dessert-one for Chef Vern and Patricia to taste and one to share among their classmates (and a very lucky UAA staff writer and photographer).

First to be tasted was a chocolate cheesecake with animal cracker crust and a Dr. Pepper and strawberry sauce from student Joe Kaufman. Chef Vern praised the taste and offered a couple critiques.

"The sauce needs a little more acidity and you might think about plating a little more," he said. "The shells came out good. I like the crust."

Next up was a strawberry cocoa trifle by Daniel Morrison. He got high marks for presentation and time management, but was dinged for leaving a little bit of a mess at his work station.

"It could use a little more flavor, but I think this is really well done," Chef Vern said. "I think you embraced the challenge."

Culinary Arts final

Chef Vern Wolfram judges desserts at the end of his advanced baking class mystery ingredient final. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

Heather Adams' chocolate goat cheese tart followed. The crust was made from animal crackers, dates and, of course, butter.

"I like that filling. I want to eat the plastic spoon," said the chef. "You'd never know there's goat cheese there. I think your crust could have been a little crunchier, but I like it."

Joy Weaver's peach and date melba with goat cheese came next. She'd kicked up her Dr. Pepper sauce with a bit of Gran Marnier.

"She used puff pastry in this, which is good," Chef Vern said. "I like your presentation. It's different than everybody else. I think a scoop of ice cream on top would be wonderful. And a sprig of mint. Oh, you've already got a sprig of mint."

The last two desserts were a little later to the table, but still earned praise for being ambitious and unique. Jordan Ness presented Chef Vern with her fresh-from-the-oven chocolate, goat cheese and date tart smothered in strawberry Dr. Pepper sauce.

"I normally never eat warm cheesecakes, but I like this. It's a delicious warm cheesecake," he said. "You guys have to try this."

Miranda Zweigle ran the anchor leg of the dessert relay with a chocolate Dr. Pepper cake parfait with goat cheese strawberry walnut cream.

"This is what I like that I haven't seen on anyone else's yet. It has a crunch to it from the animal crackers," said Chef Vern. "Really you're not transforming the animal crackers, but that crunch works in there. I like that, it has a good flavor."

With the chef's final proclamation on the challenge desserts, it was open season on what remained.

"If you guys make desserts like this the rest of next week, we're home free," he said. "I'm really impressed with how you all did." But everyone was too busy tasting to respond.

Written by Jamie Gonzales, UAA Office of University Advancement

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