It is mid-morning, just hours before the College’s annual holiday party gets underway. Seasonal music flows from a relic Magnavox boom box that competes with a loud overhead exhaust fan inside the commercial kitchen in College Park Hall.
There, Serogeni Singh of Dining Services systematically squeezes out cream puff shells from a pastry bag to form neat rows on a baking sheet. She has been practicing her culinary craft since 5 a.m. By the time 300 faculty and staff arrive at 3 p.m. for the party just steps from the kitchen, they will be ready to sample the scrumptious treats created by Union’s head baker: 350 cream puffs, 450 chocolate-dipped strawberries, 80 cupcakes, 12 dozen sugar cookies and seven yule logs.
The event is the largest of the four holiday-themed parties that she bakes for over six days. She is not worried.
“I have become very structured,” says Singh as she carefully slides a tray of cream puff shells onto a tall metal holding rack before they go in the oven. “Years ago, I would have anxiety. I have more confidence now. I will get it done.”
For years, the unassuming Singh has catered to the sweet tooth of students, faculty and staff. Her cakes, pies and cookies are a delightful and delectable staple of campus life.
“The biggest satisfaction I get is from the happiness that I see comes out when they are eating something I have made,” she says.
Singh inherited much of her love of baking from her mother while growing up in Guyana’s capital, Georgetown. Her mother would cook each day for the family, which included Singh and her six siblings. One of her specialties was shortbread cookies that featured homemade butter cultivated from her husband’s cows. Singh adapted the recipe when she came to Union.
Though her parents were not keen on the idea, Singh, with financial support from her grandfather, attended culinary school in Guyana. She eventually married Eddie, and the couple had three daughters. A son, Abhay ’23, was born in the U.S.
The family emigrated to Bayside, Queens, in 2001. When Singh’s oldest daughter, Marina, chose Siena College, the family decided to move to Schenectady to be closer to her.
It was around the time when then-Mayor Al Jurczynski recruited Guyanese from New York City to buy and renovate rundown homes in some of Schenectady’s struggling neighborhoods.
Though the Singh family was not part of that specific wave, they felt comfortable in an unfamiliar city surrounded by other Guyanese.
Singh arrived at Union in November 2007, bringing with her the experience of baking as a side hustle while raising a family. She had also taken a few culinary classes at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan.
Singh began working in Dutch Hollow and the Starbucks café before shifting to the bakery in 2010. She rose to head baker in 2017. Most times, she is the only one in the kitchen, though students often help.
A typical day begins between 5 and 6 a.m. Singh prepares 40 dozen cookies each weekday for lunch in both Upper and West dining halls. Chocolate chip, sugar and oatmeal are the most popular. She also bakes a full sheet pan of brownies or bars, including her personal favorite, the shortbread bar. For dinner, she might bake 16 cakes or pies plus brownies or bars. She also fills catering orders from Union College Hospitality.
A half-dozen binders stuffed with recipes, many handwritten, rest on a table in the kitchen. They serve mostly as a safety net.
“I don’t look at them anymore,” she says, “because I have made all of them so many times.”
The reviews of her sweet and savory creations keep her inspired. A couple of years ago, Abhay, a biology major, was studying for finals in Schaffer Library. The College generally offers a dessert-filled cart during this intense period. He overheard students raving about his mother’s brownies. When he came home, he told her.
“It’s such a good feeling,” she says, getting emotional.
Singh rarely steps out of the kitchen, so she is not familiar with many faces on campus. Yet they know her. Once, while in line at a nearby Target, a group of students approached her. She was still wearing her Union baker’s coat with her name stitched on the front.
“‘Oh, we love your desserts’,” she says they told her. “I did not expect that.”
While her work in Union’s kitchen receives high praise, her creativity and talents shine vividly on her Instagram. It is filled with dozens of photographs of colorful and creative cakes she bakes for others at her home for weddings, birthdays and special occasions. People from Union are among her steady customers.
“We have traded services for years,” said Matt Milless, assistant vice president for Student Affairs and a freelance photographer. “I have photographed more than 50 of her cakes. She made my wedding cake. She has also made me cakes for birthdays, showers and other occasions. She is a talented person with an amazing gift. Her cakes look like something from a magazine. And they taste so good.”
When not baking, Singh enjoys gardening. She maintains a vegetable and a flower garden at her modest Schenectady home, a short drive from campus.
“I’m never not busy,” she says, laughing.
At this moment, she is finalizing the array of desserts for the employee holiday party. The day before, she prepared the desserts for a student celebration at the President’s House. Next are holiday parties for community leaders and senior staff.
“I look forward to the parties, even though it’s a lot of work condensed in less than a week,” she says. “I have nice memories of all the things I get to bake for everyone.”