On a recent Friday morning, 11 intermediate-level students were hard at work in the commercial kitchen at The Baker’s Workshop in downtown River-head, mixing and shaping hefty rounds of dough to make chocolate babka, an Eastern European sweet bread.
The aspiring bakers, all enrolled in Suffolk County Community College’s culinary arts program, scraped strips of dough from the sides of large mixing bowls as their instructor, associate professor Richard Amster, surveyed their work.
After pointing out the difference between babka dough and other types, Mr. Amster cautioned, “The trick here is scraping it down to allow everything to mix.”
Culinary arts is SCCC’s most popular major overall, said Richard Freilich, director of the school’s culinary arts and hospitality program. And within that program, Mr. Amster’s Baking II class — a sophomore-level course that teaches students to make breads and pastries — is part of SCCC’s increasingly popular baking concentration, through which students can earn an associate degree or certifi cate in baking and pastry arts.
Enrollment in the baking program stands at 150 students and is expected to increase by 30 percent this fall.
Mr. Freilich attributes the explosion in the would-be baker population to the infl uence of TV celebrity chefs who have made baking “cool,” like “Cake Boss” star Buddy Valastro and “Ace of Cakes” host Duff Goldman.
“We have four major baking classes and we’re currently running 11 sections of baking,” he said. “We’re getting students coming in from other schools now who can’t afford where they were going to school. We also have people retraining for the industry. Then we have students coming out of high school.”
Eighteen-year-old Victoria Pyzynski of Farmingdale is one student who enrolled at SCCC’s baking program straight out of high school.
Now in her second semester of college, she is working toward her associate degree and hopes to open her own bakery one day.
“I just like to bake,” Ms. Pyzynski said while using an industrial-sized mixer to combine flour, eggs, sugar, butter and vanilla. “It’s fun for me.”
Nearby, 20-year-old Jessica Loschke said she never envisioned herself as a baker. In fact, she said, she doesn’t even like sweets.
But the Farmingville resident, who earned her cosmetology license after high school, realized she didn’t want to pursue a career as a stylist.
“I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would,” she said while covering a lump of dough in plastic wrap. A wrist injury didn’t help matters. “I had to have surgery so when I move my hand a certain way I’m in a decent amount of pain,” she said.
While recuperating at home for six months, Ms. Loschke began baking out of boredom, then quickly discovered she had an affinity for it.
“I was making food and throwing everything in the fridge,” she said. “Wouldn’t even eat it. My family would come home and whatever they wanted would be in there.”
When she earns her associate degree, Ms. Loschke said, she plans to move to South Carolina and open a bakery with her boyfriend, who is also a culinary arts student.
“We’ll do a healthy spin on baked goods,” she said.
As Ms. Loschke spoke about plans for her future, the smells of yeast, sugar and butter began permeating the air. Students set their rounds of dough aside to let the yeast ferment and headed over to the kitchen’s stainless steel sinks to wash their mixing bowls and spoons.
Mr. Amster said that if their chocolate babkas make the cut — and they often do — the pastries will be sold at The Baker’s Workshop Café, a student-run retail shop fronting East Main Street.
“You show them the fundamentals, the basics,” he said. “When you let them go and do their thing they do beautiful work. It never fails to surprise and amaze me what they can do.”
“We give them the quality education,” Mr. Freilich added. “We have the facility. I think we’re in a good position to really give excellent training to new students coming in.”