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Guest Chef: Baking Team Takes the Cake

Guest Chef: Baking Team Takes the Cake

Husband and wife team oversee bakery production at the University of Idaho.

The University of Idaho in Moscow has a real two-fer team in its bake shop. Dennis Dionne and Wilma Zeller are a married couple who share a passion for the art of baking, as well as the full production responsibility for turning out baked goods for the Sodexo operation at the school.

Favorite dishes:
Hood Canal Stew (similar
to a bouillabaisse) and
cabbage rolls with
baked-in sauerkraut

scalloped potatoes with

Favorite cookbooks:
1950 Pillsbury cookbook,

Chef Paul Prudhomme's
Louisiana Kitchen

Wilton Cake Decorating

Chef heroes:
Paul Prudhomme,
Emeril Lagasse;

Gordon Ramsey

Favorite meals at home:
casseroles, soups

Favorite restaurants:
Applebee's and Tucci's in
Moscow, Chinese Gardens
and Red Lobster in

When FM spoke with Dionne and Zeller in mid-February, they were hard at work making Valentine's Day cookies — 40 dozen of them — for sale in the college's various retail and dining venues. But that's nothing compared to Christmas, when 300 dozen hand-decorated cookies are turned out.

Their regular duties entail preparing donuts, pastries and quickbreads for breakfast and desserts for the lunch and dinner dayparts in the residential dining program, as well as a late-night snack dessert.

On a typical day that might mean some 240 donuts, a couple dozen pastry danish, four or five quickbreads, four sheet pans of brownies or Rice Krispies squares, or 500 cookies, some 350 servings of cake or pie and a couple hundred cookies or bars for the late-night. There is no cycle — it's all “bakers choice.”

In addition, the team bakes items to sell in the campus' eight retail outlets: muffins, cookies, cakes, eight different types of scones, four of biscotti, five of bread. They turn out some 150 loaves a week and nine dozen scones a day.

They also bake for catered functions, the biggest of which revolve around the university's Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival, which typically brings some 10,000 visitors to Moscow each February.

What are the student favorites?

Dionne: “They love anything with chocolate. They also love cream pies. They can go through 40 cream pies for dinner.”

Is there an item you are particularly known for on campus?

Dionne: “We make an orgasmic brownie! At least that's what the students call it.”

What makes them so great?

Dionne: “Probably the cream cheese icing on top.”

Zeller: “They also love the cheesecake. We make four varieties: New York, Oreo, huckleberry and pumpkin.”

Dennis Dionne.

Above: Dennis Dionne and Wilma Zeller with a couple of Wilma’s cake creations

You make quite a lot of things. What's your normal schedule?

Dionne: “We start at 2 am and go until we're done.”

How did you get into baking?

Dionne: “I grew up in Spokane, about 90 miles north of here. My dad was a baker for 45 years and he had his own shop. I worked for him. When he retired and closed the shop, I went to work for Rosauers Supermarkets for two years. Later, I completed the residence course at the American Institute of Baking.”

Zeller: “I grew up in Moscow and went to work with Rosauers after graduating from high school. I worked my way up from sales clerk to bakery manager. I always liked art and creating things and so I learned how to sculpt cakes.”

How did you meet?

Dionne: “I met Wilma here in Moscow when I managed the Rosauers in town. When I had to move back to Spokane because my dad was ailing, Wilma and I corresponded for four years as friends before we decided it was more than friendship. We got married in Las Vegas and I moved back here in 2005. Sodexo had an opening in the university's bakery department and I've been here ever since.”

What was it like when you joined?

Dionne: “They were doing probably 60-80 percent bake-off. Since Wilma joined me, it's been reversed and now around 80 percent scratch.”

How did Wilma get to U. of Idaho?

Dionne: “They wanted her because she was already doing 20 cakes for the university for Jazz Fest and graduation and the university was paying Rosauers's markeup. They figured, why not get the baker here and eliminate the middle man? Also, they were looking to upgrade the quality and variety available from the bakery operation here.”

What's it like working together?

Dionne: “She's the pack leader. I do what she tells me.”

Who bakes at home?

Dionne: “Mostly I do. I like doing it and she lets me.”

What do you make?

Dionne: “Dill bread is a favorite, also rye bread, baguettes — depends on what's for dinner.”

No sweets?

Zeller: “Actually, we try to stay away from too much of that…”

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