Stroll into a dining hall to grab a sweet treat anytime between November and February, and you’re likely to find an array of desserts meant to give a taste of wintertime in Vermont: maple mousse, maple-walnut brownies, maple cheesecake, and other treats featuring Vermonters’ favorite winter flavor.
Using seasonal ingredients to liven up the dining halls’ dessert selection is one of head college baker Ashley LaDuke’s favorite strategies when it comes to keeping hungry students happy. But although the wintertime gives her plenty of opportunities to experiment with Vermont’s signature flavor, her favorite season to be in the bake shop is the time when normal classes come to a close and language schools begin.
“The summer is by far my favorite season because I’m a huge berry fan,” LaDuke said. “I’m a berry-holic. And It’s very easy for us to get in tons of fresh blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and for me to play up lighter fare desserts that incorporate those fresh fruits.”
Fall offers its own array of delectable seasonal ingredients, while winter presents the baking staff more of a challenge.
“If it’s fall, I’m going to try to highlight things that are growing here at that time of year and are being harvested,” she said. “Apples, pumpkins, squash, things of that nature. This time of year I’m trying to think more of warm, savory notes that I can fit into our desserts, focusing more on maple, chocolates, caramel, coffee, some flavors of that nature.”
On days when she doesn’t need to drop her daughter off at daycare, LaDuke’s morning in the bake shop usually starts at around 5:00 a.m. — an hour she describes as her favorite time of day. The early morning team in the bake shop, which is located below Proctor Dining Hall, usually consists of LaDuke and baker Peter Halpin, who has worked there for the past ten years (with 21 years’ experience on the college’s dining staff prior to that).
The pair begins their mornings by mixing bread dough for the day, then moves on to making cake batter, garnishing pastries and scaling out dessert portions for lunch and dinner. They are joined later in the morning by two to three more bakers, one of whom is usually a student worker.
On a typical day in the college bake shop, LaDuke’s team uses up to 50 pounds of sugar and 75 pounds of flour in order to produce desserts for three dining halls and over 2,500 students. Her crew bakes bread in an oven that can hold up to 16 loaves at a time. For a pastry chef or baker, that scale is enormous; a 2010 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, LaDuke noticed immediately upon arriving at Middlebury that working as head baker at a small college would bring a set of challenges that differ starkly from those of smaller-scale restaurant work.
“In restaurant life you’re worried about producing enough desserts for, on a busy night, 150 to 200 people,” LaDuke said. “To go from that level to now producing desserts daily for over 2000 students is definitely challenging…but it’s been a great opportunity.”
A native New Yorker, LaDuke worked as a pastry chef at Shelburne Farms beginning five years ago, then spent time at Bristol Bakery prior to earning the position of head baker at the college in June 2017. Though the scale of her work at Middlebury differentiates the college bake shop from her earlier jobs, she finds that the creative process involved in dessert making has been a common thread in her work, one that drew her to baking in the first place.
“I might have a little bit of ADD and I get bored very easily,” she said. “I’m always looking to create something new, create something interesting, so I’m constantly researching when I’m in the office aside from just doing emails and things of that nature.”
Interactions with the students since she began work at the college have been rewarding, LaDuke said. She pointed to improved student conduct in the dining halls after discussions around last year’s 10 o’clock Ross fiasco as an example. One area in which students can continue to improve their relationship with the dining staff, she said, is feedback forms.
“We don’t get as much feedback as I’d like, which makes it challenging because we don’t necessarily know how well received the dessert was” LaDuke said. “I think if students took maybe a little more time to just let us know what we’re doing right or not doing right, because at the end of the day we want to put things out that you guys enjoy.”
Students can give the dining staff feedback on meal and dessert selections at go.middlebury.edu/dining?comment.
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