Standing at the demo kitchen's island in the Culinary Arts Center at Henry Ford Community College, Jaclyn Moore pours a thick sheen of chocolate ganache over a rising curlicue of French butter cream sitting atop a bite-size chunk of brownie. Her 4-year-old son, Braydon, watches with rapt, wide-eyed attention.
"A culinary student in the making," she says of him.
Although it sounds like a fairly normal dessert, the key ingredient that makes it unique is hidden in brownie batter: Girl Scout cookies.
Moore, 34, is a student of the culinary program at HFCC, and the dessert she and a handful of other students have devised will be competing in the third annual Cookie Gala. She and her team will be representing Fifty-One O One, HFCC's restaurant, which is run by the students and staff of the college's Hospitality Studies Program.
The Cookie Gala, which will be held on Wednesday, March 30, at Detroit's Atheneum Suite Hotel, is a celebration of the coveted cookies and is hosted by the Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan. Chefs from 14 local restaurants–including Andiamo Detroit Riverfront, the Roostertail and Holiday Market–have been invited to compete in transforming their assigned cookies into creative, gourmet desserts and appetizers.
Moore and her group are guided by advanced pastry instructor Chef Mary Denning, a short, energetic blonde who is soft-spoken, quick with a smile and in love with the art of pastry.
"I thought I wanted to be a nurse," Denning said. "I really did. But then I was working at a hospital and a little kid died. I knew that wasn't for me."
She found her true passion creating sweets and started making cakes out of her home before working at several bakeries.
"I learned a lot from the chefs that I worked with," she said. After enrolling for a class at HFCC, "they saw that I knew as much as the teacher and he asked me if I would teach his class and they got me certified. That was 22 years ago. I've owned my own bakery in Westland for 19 years."
Moore, who has a degree in child development, runs her own pastry business, which she started following a divorce.
"I started my business because of my kid," Moore said. "I started making cakes after I got divorced because I couldn't afford to pay for them and I've always been creative.
"I've always had a crafty side, so I started making cakes, and friends started coming up to me and asking me to make their cakes," she added. "For one whole year I gave away everything I made. That was four years ago, so for three years I've been running my business and taking orders."
She returned to school because she wanted to learn more about the detail work that goes into creating wedding cakes and using fondants, a firm icing made from confectioner's sugar and gelatin that can be molded or cut into shapes to decorate cake.
Moore is an experienced hand at the Cookie Gala, having competed last year using a recipe with Tagalongs, a chocolate and peanut butter cookie.
"We had a blast last year," she said. "We did an Elvis-inspired deep-fried cookie. We thought for sure we were going to win, but we didn't."
"We got sabotaged last year," said Denning. "A lot of people were using the electricity and kept blowing fuses. We had a fryer and we had taken the cookie and wrapped it in fondant with some peanut butter cream and fried it. It was so good.
"But when the heat (of the fryer) would go down it got soggy, so half the judges liked it and half didn't because the ones that got the soggy ones didn't taste good."
The year prior to their Fat Elvis failure, Denning and her team of student bakers won over Gala judges with their riff on Thin Mints–one of the Girl Scouts' most popular brands–by creating a chocolate-mint brownie garnished with fried mint leaves.
"I think the fun part is seeing the savory," Moore said, who was impressed by a quesadilla appetizer utilizing Samoa's at least year's gala. Denning fondly recalls a Thai shrimp dish that was made with the Girl Scout cookie, too.
"It gives us ideas of just so many things you can do with the cookie, savory and sweet," Moore said.
After rounds of brainstorming, they decided to return to a bit of the basics this year. The students developed the Chocolate Peanut Butter Kiss, which is built from Do-Si-Dos, crunchy oatmeal cookies sandwiched around a peanut butter filling.
"We got to taste the cookie and we sat and talked about what we tasted in it and how we can take it apart," said Moore. "Some of us wanted to do another cookie or a pie, just throwing out ideas. But then when you throw out the idea, it's how are you going to serve it, because it's got to be bite-sized. How are we going to transport them; do they need to be cold? It's going through step-by-step and figuring out every little step."
"It's got a lot of chocolate in it," Denning said, "and that cookie crunch and an icing but with peanut butter."
The end result is a rich dessert sure to satisfy any chocoholic. The ganache is silky smooth, parting to make way for the French butter cream, which is laced with notes of peanut butter. The brownie is dark and moist, nicely complemented by the crunch of the Do-Si-Dos that were ground into the batter.
It's a decadent, euphoria-inducing morsel, and Denning is betting on the well-loved pairing of chocolate and peanut butter to secure them their second victory as best of 2011.