Vozzella: Young baker rattled after cream puffs go missing

When cream puffs go missing in a statewide baking competition, a young baker gets rattled – and second place

May 19, 2010

Cream puffs aren't all sweetness and light. Not when they go missing during a statewide high school baking competition.

It's unclear if it was a case of pastry misappropriation or simply a cooling-rack mix-up. But the talented young baker who made the cream puffs is still steamed.

Way back in March, Lindsey Arbogast and more than a dozen other regional baking champs were cracking eggs, measuring flour and butter, and stirring madly to create pate a choux, the pastry dough used to make the shells for cream puffs and éclairs.

They were at Baltimore International College for a statewide baking competition for high school culinary students. Arbogast, 17, of Millersville in Anne Arundel County had won first place in the regional SkillsUSA competition. She figured she had a good shot at winning the state competition and advancing to nationals, where she'd have a chance to win culinary school tuition.

And then, with minutes to go in the Maryland championships, the sort of pastry shells sometimes used for cream puff swans seemed to take flight.

"I ran over to the cooling rack to get my pate a choux off," she said. "And it was gone. I looked around to see who had them."

After a brief, frenzied search, another competitor spoke up and said she'd taken them by mistake. Lindsey was suspicious but tried go on with the rest of her tasks: filling pastry horns with cream, putting her cookies on a plate and decorating a cake. But she was rattled.

"I knew we had solved it, but I was so shaken up," she said. "It was hard for me to breath. I was shaking so bad I could barely even hold my [pastry] bag."

As a result, the icing she piped onto her square quarter-sheet cake came out wobbly. And she ran out of time before getting around to filling her cream horns.

The competition concluded, and Megan Vissari, Lindsey's instructor at the Center for Applied Technology North in Severn, filed a grievance within the hour with Maryland SkillsUSA, the nonprofit group that runs a wide variety of technical education competitions in conjunction with the state education department. (She has not responded to messages seeking comment.) The organization did not announce the winners at a ceremony that night as planned.

Lindsey said that Chuck Wallace, a Maryland State Department of Education official who serves as state competition director, told her that night they would redo the contest. Speaking on Wallace's behalf, Bill Reinhard, the department's spokesman, said it was not up to the state but to the competition judges to determine whether there was cause for a do-over.

"Officials for the competition studied the possibility but decided against it," he said.

About a week and a half later, the winners were announced. Amanda Glover, one of Lindsey's classmates, came in first. Lindsey came in second.

There was much more than culinary bragging rights at stake. The state champion advances to the national SkillsUSA competition, to be held June 21 in Kansas City, Mo. Top finishers there can receive four years of free tuition at certain culinary schools, including the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where Lindsey has been admitted.

The way Lindsey's father sees it, the cream puff snafu cost him $34,000 a year for four years — or at least a shot at that tuition money, the sort of dough the bricklaying single dad could use to put his daughter through school.

"This is a no-brainer," Merl Arbogast said. "It needs to be redone. Just too much went wrong."

Merl has been lobbying all the way to the governor's office for a do-over.

In a two-page letter to Merl last month, Assistant State Schools Superintendent Katharine Oliver said that Lindsey received full credit for her pate a choux. But she lost points for the unfilled cream horns and an under-baked puff pastry in the shape of a bow tie.

Oliver acknowledged that Lindsey had lost time over the pate a choux switcheroo, but she said the amount was "minimal .. estimated at one or two minutes."

But Lindsey and Merl continue to press their case with phone calls and letters to a state delegate and senator, Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold, even Gov. Martin O'Malley. Their hope is that the contest can be redone or that Maryland could be allowed to send her, along with Glover, to nationals.

Merl has managed to get Joe Bryce, O'Malley's chief legislative officer, on the phone for 90 minutes. Just last week, the Arbogasts had an audience with Del. James King of Anne Arundel County.

"I get all kinds of constituent situations," King said. "This is the first baking competition scandal I've had. … It really does seem like it was a disaster. They knew there were some issues and said, 'Look, we're going to do it again.' And then they changed their mind and decided, 'It is what it is.' "

King said he is working with Bryce to see if the governor's office can somehow do something.

Bryce, whose cooking skills run more to pit beef than pastry, told me he was looking into it.

"I don't even know what half these baked products are," he said. "I'm beyond unqualified to judge whether something went wrong and what the remedy should be. But I do think the people who are responsible for making those determinations should make them and explain them clearly. … I think we, in state government, have the responsibility to make sure people are treated fairly and feel like they're treated fairly regardless of the final outcome."

laura.vozzella@baltsun.com

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