By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
Laramie High School students Kinley Wade, Brooklyn McKinney and Rylee Otte have been preparing for the Pro-Start cake-baking competition since September.
The girls met every Wednesday, practicing to make an eye-popping emerald green cake with blackberry-lavender filling, adjusting and tweaking both the recipe and their method to get it just right.
The trio was one of several teams that prepared for months ahead of the annual ProStart culinary competition, which this year was part of the Emerald Gala on Monday night at the Wyoming Governor’s Hospitality and Tourism Conference in Cheyenne.
The students, who were invited from schools across the state, were all quite visible during the day of the conference in neat little white chef uniforms, complete with aprons and hats.
The hallway was filled with delicious smells from their three-course meals and too-beautiful-to-eat cakes.
For a time, however, it seemed the Laramie students might be among the schools that would have to cancel. Mother Nature complicated things a bit by dumping snow across much of Wyoming.
Then there were major pileups on Interstate 80 involving more than 40 vehicles. One person was killed and authorities shut down the interstate between Laramie and Cheyenne for the better part of the weekend and into Monday.
After some discussion with the Wyoming Highway Patrol and Department of Transportation, school officials decided the Laramie students could go to the event after all. They would travel the night before the competition rather than that morning, so there would be no semitrailers sharing the road with their bus.
“We had a police escort,” Otte told Cowboy State Daily.
Practice Made Perfect
For their cake, the girls decided they wanted something to evoke a fresh mountain scene. That seemed like what would go best with the competition’s required emerald green theme.
“You know, it’s like when you’re out in the mountains in Wyoming and you’re like, ‘Oh,’” Wade said. “We wanted our cake to taste like that.
“So, by mixing (blackberry and lavender) it really creates that fresh taste in your mouth.”
It was crucial that the taste of the filling be neither too sweet or too tart, Otte said. That took several formulations before they had it just right.
“The first time we did it, it just had lavender,” McKinney said. “It wasn’t enough flavor.”
Their inspiration was to add some Earl Grey tea. It was better, but what really made it special was patience. It took time for the exact right flavor to develop between the marriage of tea and lavender. It wasn’t something that could be hurried.
Their cake recipe also took several iterations.
“The first time our cake was so dry,” Otte said. “We had to make adjustments on the ingredients we used.”
Even the tiny, little buffalo decoration at the top of the cake took a mountain of effort.
“I think we had to use three different types of chocolate to figure out what chocolate would work best,” Otte said.
In addition to a great-tasting and great-looking cake though, the girls also had to support their project with math. They had to calculate the cost of each layer of cake and of each slice of cake. That was a full 25 percent of their points as well.
Much More Than A Cake
All three of the girls were beaming when their cake was awarded first place in the baking competition. They took home a nice trophy and banner, as well as chef knives and bragging rights to go with those big smiles.
But they learned so much more than just how to make an exceptional cake through the ProStart program, which is the whole point.
ProStart brings together classroom training with hands-on practice to give students lifelong skills for hospitality, or any career they choose after high school.
Patience was the biggest lesson Wade said she learned.
“It takes a lot of patience to make this cake because there’s so many steps,” she said. “There’s so many times where you just have to wait and relax.”
Cake layers especially, while they may look inviting when they come out the oven warm and fragrant, are delicate creatures. Touch them too soon and they may very well fall to pieces.
McKinney, meanwhile, said she’s learned that practice is the key to doing anything well.
“Knowing exactly the setup and like what we need to do, and then just practicing,” she said. “And if we wouldn’t have been practicing together, we wouldn’t have known each other’s strengths and weaknesses. I think that was a big part of it too.”
For Otte, it was more than just teamwork. It was learning accountability to each other and how to deal with reminders from the group.
“Like in telling people, ‘Hey, don’t miss this step, it wasn’t like we were telling them what to do,” she said. “More like just reminding and like, we never got on each other about it.
“We’ve learned to take that and use it, make sure we didn’t miss a step because some of those steps are so crucial.”