There are options for every kind of appetite inside the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Cather Dining Center, but the newest addition — a large dessert display case — is mouth-wateringly irresistible to the eyes and the stomach.
Cheesecake marbled with blueberry puree sits next to a frosted three-layer German chocolate cake. Cookie crumbles and chocolate swirls adorn an Oreo cream pie. Dark chocolate embellishments are an alluring contrast to the top of a mocha chocolate cheesecake. Nearby, a pastel rainbow of macaroons is nestled next to petit fours dipped in icing. On any given day, Nebraska students can choose from more than two dozen delectable desserts like these.
Each piece in the tantalizing variety of confections resembles a work of art. That’s largely due to the efforts of desserts team leader Diemhong “Hong” Tran, who does nearly all of the baking, in-house, from scratch.
Tran’s desserts have always been popular with students, but the new display case has upped the ante, allowing her to get even more creative with the finishing touches she employs on each recipe.
David Annis, director of dining services, has been making showcase additions to dining centers across the university to punch up the value for students who purchase meal plans.
“We’re working on making each dining center a destination,” Annis said. “If you want really great desserts, you come to Cather. If you want gelato, you go to Abel, where we now have 12 flavors every day. We started a new sushi offering at our C-stores, which has been really popular.”
The eye-catching creations are playing an additional, very important role.
“The display cases are beautiful and draw students in, but more importantly, they create intentional interactions,” he said. “Students have to request a dessert now, and it gives our staff an opportunity to talk with each student, to check in with them and ask how they’re doing or how their day is going. We can really engage our students over something fun like desserts or gelato.”
Having Tran to fill the new dessert case at Cather was the proverbial icing on the cake.
“A talented baker like Hong, making these in-house, tells a story to our students about the dedication of our staff to the students,” Annis said. “And the students get to have something fun and exciting. There are very few places in Lincoln where they’ll find a display case like this, and it’s definitely not included with their meal anywhere else.”
Tran is dedicated to her craft. She starts each day in the industrial kitchen below the Cather Dining Center at 5:30 a.m. with a cup of coffee, a chat with her coworkers and a peek at the latest pictures of her grandson.
“That makes my whole day,” she said.
She reviews the day’s recipes and gets started. By 9:30 one morning, Tran had already created a dozen German chocolate cakes, eight pans of brownies and more than a hundred frosted cupcakes, with fresh granola baking in the ovens. Hong moved on to readying eight chocolate mocha cheesecakes, whipping 12 pounds of cream cheese with two dozen eggs.
“I do six or seven recipes every day,” Tran said.
With the holidays approaching, she is also prepping additional desserts for upcoming campus celebrations.
Last year for Thanksgiving, Tran baked 70 pumpkin pies, 70 pecan pies and 70 caramel apple pies.
Tran said she isn’t a big fan of sweets herself, but her husband and three children were. She first honed her baking skills as a young newlywed and quickly fell in love with the process of creating food. When her kids were little, she typically spent Sunday mornings making homemade donuts with them.
Eventually, she started using her talents at local restaurants, including the one she and her husband ran for about six years. Then, seven years ago, Tran came to Nebraska, where students have feasted on her sweets and treats ever since.
As a child growing up in Vietnam, Tran never imagined being a baker of all things delicious.
“The way I grew up, we didn’t have sugar in the house,” she said. “That was the culture. If we had dessert, there was less sugar. Once, I made a Vietnamese cake recipe for my husband, and he said, ‘Honey, you forgot sugar.’”
Tran is a fervent reader of cookbooks and recipe websites, but she’s not afraid to put her own spin on recipes, like the chocolate cheesecake she recently modified by adding instant coffee, similar to tiramisu, to create a mocha chocolate cheesecake.
“I make a lot of different cheesecakes right now, because the students eat them a lot,” she said. “I find new recipes all the time, give them to my boss, and he says, ‘Do it,’ and he orders the ingredients.”