Meet the Unlikely In-House Baker of UCSF's Dental School
Any kind of snack food is a potential new cookie idea under Roger Mraz’s philosophy: what if?
Roger Mraz doesn’t consider himself a scientist, but every Sunday he experiments with cookies.
On the Sunday I speak to him, he’s making inception cookies, encasing Dark Chocolate Oreos in Godiva’s White Chocolate Cookie mix.
It sounds strange to work with a cookie that’s already been baked, but Mraz has perfected it. For him, Oreos and other snack foods are a perfect vehicle for exploring new flavors, particularly tastes you can’t get commercially-made extract for. “I decided to look for novelty or limited-edition products that are sort of exploring flavors and trying to incorporate those with existing cookie ideas,” Mraz says.
Take, for example, a peanut butter and jelly cookie. “Jelly doesn’t bake well, it just doesn’t,” Mraz says. “But I learned that baking with peanut butter and, say, a blueberry Pop-Tart, gets a peanut butter and jelly cookie in one.”
Watch: How to Make the Ultimate Salted Chocolate Chunk Cookies
Every time he goes to the grocery store, on top of just getting the food he needs, “I always explore the bakery aisles and the snack food aisles to see what things come up,” Mraz says. He also scours international markets around San Francisco, where he lives, and wherever he travels, for inspiration. Any kind of snack food is a potential new cookie idea under Mraz’s philosophy: what if?
Mraz started baking in 2007 in search of a new hobby and way to challenge himself. After some less-than-successful attempts with cakes, he switched to cookies.
“You learn very quickly how long things need to stay in the oven and how much flour you want to use to get the cookie you want,” he says. “You really do have trial and error.”
Initially, Mraz baked for his friends, and today he thanks them for their patience. In 2009, Mraz started working as the program administrator at the University of California at San Francisco’s School of Dentistry’s Office of Graduate and Research Affairs and gained a new audience: students.
On Sunday afternoons, Mraz transports whatever he’s just baked to his office, where he’ll distribute cookies throughout the coming week. At UCSF, everyone knows Mraz and his cookies, especially since he dedicates his batches to birthdays and students who “need a little bit or sugar or something good and want to stop and chat.”
Students with upcoming birthdays often put in requests, though most of them just go with whatever Mraz concocts. He sticks to what he knows (adding minor tweaks for experimentation) but also tries to surprise his audience, like when he incorporated horchata powder into cookies for a Mexican-American student.
Sometimes, though, things don’t turn out well .. One student requested healthy cookies made with coconut flour and artificial sugar to less-than-satisfactory results. “That thing was so dry that people were gagging,” Mraz says. “They were choking in my office on a cookie that was meant to be healthy but was absolutely inedible, and I’m like, ‘I’m never doing that again.’ Let people in scientific labs come up with a healthy cookie. I’m going for goodness.”
Mraz isn’t one to turn down a challenge, and the more difficult it sounds, the harder it is to resist. Once a student walked into his office with a durian, which is infamous for its smell, and dared him to incorporate it into a cookie. Mraz accepted, and did his research before baking. “[The smell] was not pleasant. Compared to what people called it, though, it was not that bad,” he says. “The cookies themselves were delicious – I used a good amount of dough and I used the durian fresh, and I think I got a really good result.”
Even if a cookie turns out awful, though, the experimental baking is still fun. For Mraz, baking isn’t just a stress reliever and fun activity, but also an incentive for sharing, whether it’s through posting photos on social media or giving physical cookies to students. “I’ve gone off the deep end sometimes. One day someone dared me to put kimchi in a cookie and I did that,” he says. “Nobody ate it, but you know, I gave it a shot.”
Baking is bound to involve mistakes, especially when you’re a beginner or prone to experimentation. You’ve got to be willing to accept failure. “Be comfortable with not getting it right the first any number of times,” Mraz advises. Recipes and techniques take time to master, and experimental ingredients don’t always work. Certain candies, like Milk Duds and gummies, melt. But you learn, sometimes with a big, gooey mess in the middle of your baking sheet.
“You learn and just laugh it off,” he says. “Take a photo, show everyone, epic fail, and that’s it.”
And for Mraz, cookies have done much more than teach him how to laugh mistakes off.
“Part of getting older has been being able to maintain a sense of surprise and curiosity. I think that’s good for me,” Mraz says. “I didn’t think that I would think about ideas for baking as much as I do, but I certainly do and I don’t reject it.”