Somewhere between the "Red Velvet & Strawberry Trifle'' and the "Deconstructed Tiramisu,'' my mind turned to mush. I could only imagine the four other judges felt the same.
Then along came Brooke Dobbyn and Burgandy Mills and their "Prince's Golden Mocha Layer Cake.'' The Anclote High student chefs stood before us in white aprons stained from a 41/2-hour project that seemed doomed in this competition.
Eleven desserts had come and gone. These girls had the misfortune of being last to present their creation about the time I had silently pledged to never, ever eat another sweet thing as long as I live.
But duty called. I swallowed a glass of water and pinched off a chunk. Brooke, 16, and Burgandy, 18, patiently answered questions and heard observations from judges much like you would see on the Food Network show Chopped.
Moments later, after all the judges' scorecards had been evaluated, organizer Kathryn Starkey announced the results. This time the best had been indeed saved for last. Brooke and Burgandy collected $75 each from the Pasco Education Foundation and the honor of providing their cake as dessert for the annual Cinderella Ball on March 3. It's the premier fundraiser for the education foundation and promotes the Cinderella Project, which provides formal attire for students who may not otherwise be able to attend their senior prom.
This marked the second year for Cinderella's Favorite Dessert, a friendly but intense competition that attracted teams from five high schools. Aside from the obvious treats, the event showcased the Academy of Culinary Arts, which opened this year at Land O'Lakes High. It's part of the school district's innovative effort to create career academies such as auto mechanics (Wesley Chapel), engineering (River Ridge) and construction (Pasco High).
Economic development leaders have hailed the programs for their real-world approach to learning. Graduates will be more apt to find jobs because they'll be better prepared for them.
That philosophy was clearly on display Thursday evening at the culinary arts facility. As the students prepared their desserts, we took a tour of the five ultramodern kitchens and a 60-seat classroom that with tile, granite and flatscreen TVs rivals the most modern university.
Students learn a variety of skills they would need whether cooking at Beef O'Brady's or on a cruise ship. They create meals and learn to work with a team, but they also must know how to control supply inventory. And as the program goes forward, it will integrate more with the agriculture science department. Large pieces of land have already been cleared for crops. A greenhouse is planned, and students will learn about hydroponics and organics.
All students in these programs, of course, must take standard courses and pass the FCAT. But as they worked in the kitchen preparing for the competition, Land O'Lakes students Benjamin Herndon, 17, and Joe Burger, 16, didn't think much about all that. They displayed a chocolate cupcake with mint chocolate ganache, its middle stuffed with mint butter cream.
Oh, and some squiggly, colorful goop on the plate created with, as they said, "molecular gastronomy.''
Sounds exotic, but a few feet away a teacher had written lessons on a chalkboard for the third period class: "Organize pantry. Put dishes away. Clean sinks. Organize produce bins.''