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Staff Spotlight: Christina Zeek Wins Back-to-Back ‘Best of Show’ Baking Awards at OC Fair

Christina Zeek
Christina Zeek

Did you know that in February 2022, an award-winning baker joined the staff of the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS)? Christina Zeek is not only the new purchasing and disbursement coordinator in ICS, but also the 2022 and 2021 “Best of Show” winner of the OC Fair’s Yeast and Quick Breads competition! Her baking is more of a science than art; you’ll never find her decorating cupcakes. But she has a passion for old-school bread baking, and her panettone bread earned her this year’s top prize at the fair! Learn more about this OC native as she talks about her baking skills, role in ICS and other favorite pastimes.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I was born and raised here in Orange County and spent most of my childhood in San Clemente. In fact, I was born at UCI Medical Center and even graduated from UCI with my B.A. in art history and a minor in classical civilizations, so OC and UCI are very much a part of my life!

Growing up, my dad was an avid rock climber, so I spent a lot of time as a kid in our local mountains and deserts, camping and getting dirty with my siblings and cousins. I’m a proud Californian, but at various points in life I have also been a resident of Alaska, Colorado and Pennsylvania.

How did you end up at UCI, and what do you do in your role in ICS?
I started my career at UCI in the Medical School and then moved over to the School of Education before ending up here in ICS in February 2022. Prior to UCI, I worked at a museum in Los Angeles, and I was looking for a way to end my long commute and expand my career options. UCI made perfect sense due to its location and the variety of career paths available.

My role in ICS is in the business office as the purchasing and disbursements coordinator. It’s a busy role, where I am able to interact with all sorts of folks throughout ICS and spend a lot of time in KFS [UCI’s Kuali Financial System]!

What do you like best about working at UCI?
I like that my work helps keep ICS moving smoothly for the students, faculty and staff. I like seeing the bulletin boards for the talks and events, noting all of the interesting things the faculty and students are researching and sharing (even when the topics are way over my head!). I like the innovation I am a part of as a member of ICS.

Also, if I am being honest, I love the ZotBot food delivery robots that cruise around campus. I think they are absolutely adorable.

Speaking of food, how did you get into baking?
I know it’s cliché to say, but I’ve always liked to bake! I recall baking simple things when I was growing up, like sheet-pan cakes and banana bread. In fact, there is this one vegan banana bread recipe that I got out of an old punk rock fanzine from the ’90s that I made so many times as a teen! I still use the recipe from time to time, because it’s so easy and tasty. So baking has been a thing in my life for as long as I have been allowed to use the oven unsupervised.

But I think the pandemic became the catalyst to the type of baking I do now, which is almost exclusively sourdough based. Most people who find out that I like to bake are probably bummed when they learn that I am fascinated by the science and history behind sourdough bread baking and that you’ll never find me decorating cupcakes!

However, the great thing about a sourdough starter is that it can make things that are NOT sour, like chocolate babkascroissants and brioche. The technique of using a sourdough starter to make bread is how our ancestors made bread before industrial yeast existed, so this is old-school bread baking at its finest and it is so interesting to me.

You won this year with your panettone bread entry. Can you tell us more about it?
Panettone is a sweet Italian bread eaten around the winter holidays. It usually has orange zest, candied orange and lemon peel, nuts, and sultanas (or raisins). It is very light and must be hung upside down to cool after it is baked or it will collapse in on itself. Italians like to eat it with coffee, and Italian-Americans know it makes delicious French toast!

Panettone is considered an advanced bread, and I certainly had some failures in the beginning. At first, I thought that maybe I had no business taking on such a difficult project, since I am an amateur with no training, but my obsession with making a successful panettone took over and forced me to research my errors and keep trying. After some truly abysmal failures, including one loaf that fell apart completely when I turned it upside down to cool and another that was totally inedible and went right into the trash, I finally churned out a loaf that I knew had a real chance to win.

Christina Zeek’s award-winning panettone!

So what’s the secret to your panettone?
The secret is not much of a secret: you need an active sourdough starter! Traditional panettone, like the one I entered into this year’s competition, contains no store-bought yeast. It is risen with a sourdough starter that has been “fed” on a certain schedule to reduce bacteria and increase yeast activity. This is how the bread can rise without taking on any sour notes!

I did a lot of research to learn about how sourdough starters work and how to maintain one so that it is always active and ready to raise your bread.

When was the first time you entered a competition?
I am not a competitive person by nature and prefer to stay out of the limelight, so I never enter these kinds of things. However, when I went to the Minnesota State Fair a few years ago and saw all their art and food competition winners on display, I knew that I wanted to be a part of something like that locally. I found out that the OC Fair had something similar and decided in 2021 to enter the “Yeast and Quick Breads” competition for the fun of it. I figured that at the very least I would receive some good feedback from the judges on how to improve my baking.

It was my first time entering a competition since grade school and I was so nervous to see the results! I remember thinking, “if I even get third in my class or a compliment from a judge, I will be so happy!” Then I won Best in Show with a French pastry (from Brittany) called a kouign-amann, which is like a dense croissant with a caramelized bottom.

So imagine my surprise when I won again in 2022 with my traditional panettone — and this year with just one entry! Some people enter multiple baked goods at a time, but I had COVID right before the competition and was feeling very out of sorts, so I only had the energy for one good submission. I am glad that one was enough!

Anything else you want people to know about the experience?
First, the folks in OC are talented — you’d be blown away at some of the art, food and projects they’ve submitted to the fair for judging. Seriously, the woodwork alone is worth peeking at!

Second, anyone who can bake a cookie can join the competitions, and I highly suggest you do. The entry fee is a mere $5 to submit a baked good and it’s such a fun event to be a part of. You get a free ticket to the fair with your entry and a cool ribbon you can hang in your office to show you participated.

What else do you do in your free time?
I spend a lot of time at home working on sourdough bread and other fermentation projects, as you can tell! I do some volunteer work on weekends with a local cat rescue and I try to keep my carnivorous plants alive. I also listen to a lot of podcasts on topics from marketing to outdoor adventures to movie reviews, as I am always trying to learn something new about the world. And I still use my library card!

When I leave OC, you can usually find me in a desert somewhere enjoying strange art or a nice sunset view, or visiting family in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

And last but not least, when are you bringing in some of your award-winning bread?
I will absolutely bring in some bread for you all to try! Panettone takes three to five days to make, so there’s planning involved, but I will certainly make it happen. Most people have only had a store bought panettone, which is nothing compared to a homemade version, so I would love to turn some panettone naysayers into believers!

— Shani Murray