When it comes to construction, moist air and gingerbread are a dicey mix. Florida's recent tropical balm, in fact, has presented a real challenge for students creating a winter wonderland in Bob Wright's culinary classroom at Anclote High.
"The humidity is killing us," Wright said, as he pointed to the caving rooftops, buckled walls and glistening sheen covering colored fondant and piping in the candied landscapes surrounding him. "Every day I'm watching the humidity report on the news and hoping we won't have any major collapses."
His students have been working against the weather to create a gingerbread village — with 35 varied designs ranging from houses and churches to a towering castle. The tasty town will earn each student a grade and serve as a backdrop for the annual faculty holiday party.
Still, the droopy gingerbread is challenging even for Wright's star pupil, Brooke Dobbyn, 17.
"Everything is extremely flimsy," she said, noting that for the first time ever, she had to use a pencil to reinforce the roof of her brown castle, which is flanked with towering turrets and a green fondant dragon perched on the chocolate-covered landscape.
Not to worry.
Wright is confident Brooke will master her castle. In fact, he sees a future for her creating sweet concoctions in her own specialty shop, like the fictional character Caroline Clairmont from the 2000 movie Chocolat.
"She has what it takes," Wright said. "She's multi-talented, extremely creative, self motivated — always on track. She's an all 'A' student, too. One of those kids you don't have to worry about."
As the youngest of four in her family, Brooke has long felt a place in the kitchen.
"It really just stems from helping out," she said.
It was her desire for a specialty dessert called Pavlova that fueled her desire to bake. The light and airy meringue dessert, named for a Russian ballerina, comes drenched in chocolate and fruit and is a favored treat in her home country of Australia, where the independent bakery is a neighborhood staple.
But after moving with her family to the United States as a fifth-grader, she discovered she would have to make it herself. So she did, then moved on to other recipes, mixing an innate artistic talent with cups of sifted flour and sugar, sticks of butter and the essential vanilla to create to-die-for treats for family and friends.
She's known for whipping up scores of sugar cookies for every holiday. There's the custom cakes such as the sculptured Apollo landing she created for her dad's 52nd birthday; the white polar bear topping a mint buttercream cake; the frosted rendition of a gray pet schnauzer named Dexter for a cake she baked for a neighborhood party. Add to that raspberry and chocolate mousse, peppermint bark and an untraditional tiramisu she creates when the mood strikes.
In January, Brooke and teammate Burgandy Mills vied against 12 teams of other local students to win Cinderella's Favorite Dessert Contest sponsored by the Pasco Education Foundation Inc. Each girl earned a $75 scholarship for "The Prince's Golden Mocha Layer Cake" along with the honor of having their dessert served at the Foundation's Cinderella Ball fundraiser, which provides formal attire for students who might not otherwise be able to attend their senior prom.
"It's just amazing what she does," said Brooke's mom, Dee Dobbyn, 51. "She spends hours upon hours making things. She's just very artistic so when she makes the cakes, she uses that as her artistic outlet."
"She come up with all these different combinations and flavors — things you would never think would go together, but do," said her dad, James Dobbyn, 53. "We're very proud of her. She could start up her own bakery tomorrow. Hopefully, she will."
With just months to her high school graduation, Brooke fears that dream might be unmet.
The all "A" student has already racked up college credits through dual enrollment classes through Pasco-Hernando Community College. But she has experienced difficulty with standardized tests and fears that might hold her back, along with the cost of tuition to culinary school.
She might opt instead for a career that would meld her fine writing skills with cooking.
"I'd like to write for a cooking magazine," she said.
Either way, she will continue to work her confectionery magic in the kitchen.
"I'd love to do this for a career," she said. "But if I can't, I'll just do this for fun and for other people because you don't just bake for yourself."