RAWLINS — The unmistakable strains of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” aren’t what most people would expect to hear at a cake-baking competition.
But this was the debut of Wyoming Cake Wars, where the unexpected becomes expected.
The song was chosen by audience members as a roadblock for the “Hot” Pink Bakers. Their competitor, the Baking Baddies, meanwhile, had to decorate strictly with their team colors, blue and black, for 10 minutes, regardless of whether that fit the theme of their Wyoming harvest cake creation.
That was just one of many surprises along the way in a competition that featured secret ingredients, a broken airbrush and a down-to-the-last-30-seconds finish. Two teams of seven bakers with various skill levels came together to bake the two epic cakes for charity.
As a debut event, the recent competition was small, but like its sister event the Taste of Wyoming Food Truck Festival, it attracted a surprisingly large crowd. The cake war’s organizers, Katie Friend and Elysha Mallcheck are already thinking about how to expand their event next year to include more bakers.
Something Small Can Lead To Something Big
Friend is no stranger to the idea that small beginnings can lead to much larger things.
When her father died in 2011, one of the treasures she took home with her was a Hobart commercial mixer.
“We were kind of cleaning out the items — his stash, I should say — of things that he had accumulated,” she recalled. “And my mom suggested that, you know, ‘Why don’t you take that? I bet there’s something you could do with that.’”
Friend thought about it for days. Up to then, she’d made occasional cakes for her children or co-workers. But now she suddenly had a commercial mixer worth thousands of dollars.
The fact that it had come from her dad, though, was the real kicker. She was inspired to dream big with such a family treasure.
“I thought for a while about what I could make in it, and I thought, you know, cinnamon rolls are something that people don’t always do,” she said. “And if they do, it’s a lot of work. Most people will do it once for Christmas, but they don’t do it year-round. So I bet if I make a really good cinnamon roll recipe, that would be something that people like.”
She spent months developing the perfect cinnamon roll recipe in her dad’s mixer. It had to be just right.
“I just worked really hard to make it have all of the best things that I love,” she said. “My dad taught me that. You know, to work really hard is one thing, but to do it with passion for others, that’s when you’ll be successful.”
Armed with that cinnamon roll recipe and her dad’s philosophy, Friend was inspired to start her business Katee’s Sweets in 2013. The cinnamon rolls inspired by her dad’s mixer were her signature item.
Her dad’s philosophy underpins a lot of things that Friend has done since, including the recent Wyoming Cake War in Rawlins.
“I think by calling it Wyoming, that enables us in the future to be able to encourage some, especially if they’re home-based, bakers who want to challenge themselves,” Friend said. “If we can get people from around the state to participate in this, that would be cool.”
Friend already has a celebrity judge in mind for next year’s competition, she added.
“I’m determined,” she said. “I’m going to get that celebrity judge.”
Her judges this time weren’t too shabby in that department though. They included Carbon County Sheriff Alex Bakken, as well a former Food Network “Cupcake Wars” contestant, Marie Kristen, who owns a sweet shop in Saratoga, and Tony Bauer and his wife, Jamie Chapman.
Bauer is well-known in the area as a chef, and the couple once owned Blake House. But Bauer also has something else he’s known for in the area. Once upon a time, he worked as a chef at a resort frequented by Oprah Winfrey. His oatmeal-blueberry cookie was something Winfrey insisted on having any time she visited that resort.
When Mallcheck approached Friend with the idea of doing a Wyoming Cake War, Friend didn’t have any question about getting on board to start something new and cool in Wyoming.
She might live in Rawlins, a place that some YouTubers might like to make fun of, but she and Mallcheck are just two more of the many people living there who are well-steeped in Wyoming’s can-do attitude. Plus, Friend knew a spectacular idea when she heard it.
“We both know what it feels like to constantly be asked by groups to donate, and, because we are such small businesses — we do really well for ourselves in Carbon County and we’re so grateful for our customers — but we are just a small, humble, home-run business,” Friend said. “But we always want to say yes, and we always want to do more.”
A cake war would let home-based Wyoming bakers do something big for selected charities, no matter how humble their business. It would also just be a fun exercise for their creativity, while bringing together great bakers with great ideas to learn from each other.
Friend and Mallcheck decided to model their event after reality television shows they’ve seen involving various baking and cooking competitions, with a few of their own twists thrown in.
One of those twists was an epic trophy for the winning team, designed by welding and woodworking classes at Carbon County Higher Education Center.
It features a giant mixing bowl with a whisk that turns around sitting on top of a giant metal slice of cake with a wooden rolling pin in front, all on top of a display box that says Wyoming Cake Wars 2023.
It is quite the trophy. In fact, if you Google for cake war trophies and the like, you’ll only find sad slices of plastic cake that look cheap, and not epic at all. That abysmal inventory didn’t match Friend’s vision, so that’s why she went to the students.
“I told them specifically that I’m not going to design it,” Friend said. “I just gave them some things I wanted it to say, and then I said, ‘You guys surprise me. Be creative.”
They were so creative, that when Friend first saw the trophy, her eyes teared up, and it was all she could do not to cry.
“It was so unbelievable to me what those kids did, and I only went to them like three weeks ago with this idea,” Friend said.
The school is now talking about making the cake war trophy an annual project in the curriculum, because it challenged the students to apply everything they were learning in new and creative ways.
Epic Cakes For An Epic Trophy
The Carbon County students weren’t the only ones going all out. Each of the two teams put their heads together to come up with truly epic cakes that would have been right at home on any super chef’s reality television baking show.
There were just two teams because of space restrictions, Friend told Cowboy State Daily. Plus, they could put less experienced bakers with more experienced bakers, as well as ensure that each team had all the necessary skill sets represented.
The challenge theme was Wyoming harvest, celebrating all the great things the Cowboy State has to offer, but beyond that, there were no restrictions. Their own imaginations and a short timeframe were their only limits.
The Baking Baddies put together a spice cake shaped like a basket that had a delicious ginger beer flavored filling. The icing on that cake was cream cheese buttercream, and the cake included an apple compote with cookie butter emulsion, along with some pumpkin spice, topped with toffee for a little crunch.
On top of that cake was another, smaller cake shaped like a pumpkin. That one was a chocolate Guinness cake with espresso dark chocolate filling.
The two cakes were situated in a rice crispy treat “wagon,” which sat on top of a remote-controlled car that moved.
The Baking Baddie’s secret ingredient was lavender, and that was incorporated into Dutch spice cookies they made called spekuloos, as well as a lavender-lemon sugar cookie.
The cookies were all in shapes that represented different aspects of Wyoming harvest. There was a gold-iced bullet-shaped cookie, for example, as well as a cookie painted to look like a trout. There were also hexagonal cookies with figures painted on them representing the railroad and the oil and gas industry. Their cake sold at the auction for $55.
The other team, meanwhile, had a three-layer cake, with a different flavor in each layer, decorated with scenes from Wyoming that were airbrushed onto the frosting.
The biggest layer at the bottom was a pumpkin spice flavor that incorporated their secret ingredient, cardamom. The layer was airbrushed with mountains and decorated with cutouts of leaves.
The next layer was a peach crumble flavored cake airbrushed to look like a circle of wood, while the top layer was a German chocolate cake airbrushed to look like a sunset, with silhouettes of Wyoming hunters.
On top of all that is a deer head made from pound cake and modeling chocolate. The whole cake includes edible “rocks” on each layer that were made out of Oreo cookie fudge, as well as sugar cookies shaped like fish, all on a wooden disk, cut out from a log as a rustic serving tray. Their cake sold at the auction for $120.
The event in all raised $600, which was split evenly between two charities in Carbon County.
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.