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UB's signature confection reaches star status

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published April 15, 2016

“The UB cookie reminds me of the famous ‘Seinfeld’ black-and-white-cookie episode in which Jerry Seinfeld wisely proclaims: ‘If people would only look to the cookie, all our problems would be solved.’”
Dave Hill, staff writer
University Communications

In the ranks of what really matters among all things UB, there are those who insist few UB experiences surpass the reputation and identity of the renowned, celebrated and hand-crafted UB cookie.

Those passionate followers who swear allegiance to the UB cookie — and there are many — will understand. The UB cookie is the oversized sugar cookie in the shape of the interlocking UB logo.

Covering each cookie is a hand-applied layer of white frosting. On top of that — also applied by hand, which eyewitnesses to this story can corroborate — is a thin, artistic outline of that interlocking UB, etched in a shade of blue that perfectly matches what is known throughout the sprawling UB campus and expansive community as “UB blue.”

Firsthand accounts of the taste will come soon enough. As will the secret ingredient, which will be discussed but not divulged. And the history. And the chef who perfected the recipe. And the group of Campus Dining & Shops (CDS) bakers who craft them every day.

For now, what’s important to know is this: Those cookies have inspired a cult, both on campus and beyond — sometimes far beyond. And for those unfamiliar with their notoriety, consider the ardor of University Communications staff writer Dave Hill. Hill’s love for the UB cookie has inspired him to come forward, not only allowing his name to be used but revealing the lengths he has gone through to get them.

Listen to what Hill calls his “affinity and knowledge” for the UB cookie. His testament is essential before reading on.

“They always say you remember your first, and I certainly do,” Hill says. “I’m talking about UB cookies, of course.

Students enjoy the UB cookie.

“A co-worker brought a few back from a meeting she attended. When I saw them out on display, I first thought they were some kind of ceramic ornament — they looked so pristine and sturdy. Then another co-worker bit into one and I could see immediately the joy that swept across her face. I had to try one.”

Hill was hooked. And he hadn’t even tasted one fresh out of the ovens at the Statler Commissary, where thousands of them are made every month.

“My hopes going into meetings haven’t been the same since I discovered these cookies,” Hill says. “Every time I attend a big meeting or special event around campus, I find myself scanning the room to see if the UB cookies are present. Nine times out of 10, I’m sorely disappointed. But there have been a few occasions during which they’ve been available.”

When that happens, the room chemistry changes for Hill.

“A co-worker and I may have also — crashed isn’t really the right word for it — but we definitely attended a retirement party for someone in our building — someone neither of us knew at all — simply because we spotted UB cookies when we walked past the party. That’s how magnetic these things are. And they definitely have a following. I’ve had conversations about the UB cookies with other employees and students.”

The UB cookie, Hill says, “reminds me of the famous ‘Seinfeld’ black-and-white-cookie episode in which Jerry Seinfeld wisely proclaims: ‘If people would only look to the cookie, all our problems would be solved.’”

CDS does not lack in star power. It brought hundreds of college and university food services workers to Buffalo last month for a conference and persuaded Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly to be the keynote speaker.

CDS Executive Director Jeff Brady thought UB should have a food truck. Now the university has two. Its chefs regularly appear on local news programs. CDS boasts a long list of honors, among them a National Grand Prize Award for Residential Dining Concept (Crossroads Culinary Center) and a National Grand Prize Award for Catering Menu (Three Pillars Catering).

And for these purposes, consider the notoriety and popularity of the UB cookie as one more example of CDS’ success.

Brady says the idea for the cookie came during the administration of President William Greiner, who led UB from 1991 to 2003. The recipe has evolved since then. But the challenges remain the same.

The dough is refrigerated for several hours — depending on the weather — to make it more manageable.

“Our bakery supervisor was able to come up with the dough,” says Brady. “Her next challenge was to get the right die, or cookie cutter. They’re all cut by hand. We had to go through four of them before we got the perfect one.

“Now we had the UB logo, the cutter and we knew how to bake them. The next challenge was the frosting. The outside white frosting is piped with blue frosting. And the blue frosting kept bleeding into the white.”

Attention to detail paid off. Brady says it took three different frosting recipes to find the perfect mix. And now the UB cookie is in great demand at UB gatherings, far and near.

UB cookies were served alongside a presidential cake when President Obama spoke at Alumni Arena in 2013. CDS has shipped UB cookies to alumni gatherings, holiday parties and social and sporting events as far away as California and Florida.

They’re consistently available at Perks in the Ellicott Food Court on the North Campus and at the new Whispers Café in Abbott Hall on the South Campus. When colleges, schools or departments have staff gatherings, the UB cookie is in a position of culinary honor. Just ask Dave Hill.

Preliminaries aside, here are some FAQs about the UB cookie:

The taste

Grace Peters, a bakery supervisor at the Statler Commissary, says she changed the recipe about six months ago to make the cookies softer and taste fresher.

Like a self-actualizing person, the UB cookie has evolved. Grace Peters, a bakery supervisor at the Statler Commissary, says she changed the recipe about six months ago. The cookies now are softer and taste fresher, and are less apt to break apart when eaten, according to one neutral observer. Peters agrees they’re softer, but not too soft. “The texture is more cookie,” she says.

UB cookies taste like a high-quality sugar cookie, but more substantial. And the synergy of the frosting and dough shows why the cookie/frosting pairing has lasted throughout the ages. They’re big and thick. Each could fill the sweet tooth of more than one person. And for anyone lucky enough to eat one fresh out of the Statler ovens, it’s a brave new cookie world.

The genealogy

Some clues remain, but details remain a mystery. The UB cookie clearly rose out of the need for a new logo during the Greiner administration, according to Dennis R. Black, vice president for university life and services. Greiner was at a NCAA Final Four tournament and went through what Black calls “an identity crisis.” Most people at the tournament confused the silver-haired Greiner with University of Arizona basketball coach Lute Olsen. More disturbing to Greiner was the similarity between the University of Kentucky logo and UB’s.

“Since he could not do much about the ‘body double’ issue,” Black says, “Bill concentrated on the creation of a much more distinctive UB logo. The interlocking logo we still use today came out of that experience and response.”

Just how the new logo made its way to UB bakeries is not totally clear. Anthony Berrafato, former associate director for campus dining, believes the cookies debuted when Greiner Hall opened, which would make sense given Greiner’s push for the new logo. Once the new logo won approval, things started to appear in its image, Black remembers.

“Things like the first-ever, campus-wide building and directional signage program, development of uniform stationery and business cards, the University AT Buffalo name and even the cookies were among the most visible outcomes of the initial branding effort,” Black says.

Secret ingredient

The cookies are made with a basic “1-2-3 cookie dough” of soft butter, room-temperature eggs and flour.

Peters, former assistant pastry chef at Oliver’s restaurant, generously shares basic information about the dough recipe. It’s a basic “1-2-3 cookie dough” with soft butter, room-temperature eggs, flour — the usual. She refrigerates the dough for several hours — depending on the weather — to make it more manageable. The made-from-scratch frosting is organic in that the bakers making it get the right consistency by regulating the sugar and flour. The blue frosting used for the UB piping has to be just right: It must hold its form, but not be too firm, she says.

Peters isn’t shy about dropping the “secret ingredient” phrase. There is one, she says. But just try to get her to say anything else. Running a bakery cultivates steely resolve. She’s stronger than you.

A passionate following

It’s near and far, people. Near and far.

Carmella Marinaccio, staff assistant to the associate vice president for student affairs, knows the UB cookie phenomenon very well. She channeled her inner journalism reporting skills — her father wanted her to go into journalism — and asked around. All for the love of the cookie. The answers were what she expected.

“You better get ‘em before everyone else does,” says Arlene Kaukus, director of career services.

“The UB cookies are great!” says Cheryl Incorvia, assistant to the vice president of university life and services. “Whenever my daughter, Angelina, knows they are around, I have to bring her home some. She gives them ‘two thumbs up.’”

“I always like to order the UB cookies for every event, just to watch the excitement on everyone’s face,” says Barbara Ricotta, associate vice president for student affairs.

Jessica Russell, sustainability engagement coordinator for UB Sustainability, admits to holding out on a complete endorsement. She’s very particular about her sweets. Nevertheless, what impresses her is the campus cookie’s street cred. The original idea in this story of the cookies having a “reputation” and “identity” came from Russell.

“My enthusiasm had to do with the fact I had heard so much about those cookies from others,” she says. “It’s more the myth and mystery that surrounds those cookies that is so intriguing. The thrill was to finally be at an event where these cookies were.”

Peters says the UB cookie fan base away from campus matches the enthusiasm on campus.

“In every event in the entire UB community, they have to have UB cookies,” says Peters. “It’s a signature for the event. It’s a signature cookie.”

Students often buy cookies to take home. Parents visiting campus also buy cookies to take home.

“They want to buy UB cookies to give to their friends,” she says. “They say ‘I go to UB and here is a cookie.’ Instead of wearing a T-shirt, you eat a cookie.”

The bakers

The cookies are hand-cut with a special "UB logo" cutter and then piped with white and "UB blue" frosting.

One thing becomes clear to anyone fortunate enough to watch UB cookies being made, especially if you’re close enough to smell and touch them: The integrity of the cookie is only as strong as the bakers actually putting them together.

“You don’t want the cookie dough to be too thin or too thick,” says Amber Southerns, a Statler Commissary baker who hand-cuts the UB-logo shape. “You have to get it to the point where I can roll it out.”

Southerns has worked in the bakery for four years, cutting out UB cookies “from Day One.”

“We make so many of them,” she says, with more pride than weariness. “Thousands easily.”

Kelly Bartlett frosts them. She applies the white frosting evenly and carefully, making sure the icing doesn’t spill off the UB cookie sidewall.

“I’m trying to be very neat,” she says.

The UB piping follows. Her hands must be steady. She can’t drink too much coffee, even if she has to be at the bakery early, she says. She’s been decorating cookies since she came to UB three years ago. Bartlett admits her colleagues look to the break room for cookies that may not have been up to standard.

“Keep messing up,” they tell her.

But Bartlett’s hands are steady. She lines that interlocking UB logo while she answers a visitor’s questions. The break room gets none of these.

 “If you don’t use it,” she says, “you lose it.”

Nutritional information

Raymond Kohl, marketing manager who patiently endured all questions for this article, never flinched. Leave it to CDS to be ready for this one, too.

 “We do not have nutritional information on the cookie,” says Kohl. “They are working on getting all bakery recipes into the new nutritional program, but that is not scheduled to be completed until the fall.”

So until that day, just pass the milk.