An ambitious student baker who was already stimulating palates with delicious cookies and cakes at family gatherings has turned the dedication to her craft into an assistant teaching position and a business.
Laura Duarte, who completed the Wilton Method of Cake Decoration course in the Holtville Unified School District's adult education program, was promoted last fall from class member to assistant instructor by her teacher, Lupita Miranda.
Speaking in Spanish with her comments relayed by a translator, Duarte recalled she advanced quickly because of Miranda's patient teaching and the story Miranda shared about her own struggles as a single mother striving to become a professional baker.
"Lupita was a mentor, inspired me, and the class was a kind of trust she would hand over to me," said Duarte. "The class made a bigger bond between us and I looked up to Lupita. She thought of me as her own daughter (she has only sons) and that made learning all the different baking techniques more stimulating."
Cake decoration is part of a culinary arts pathway grant co-authored by Fernanda Ledezma, Holtville schools coordinator for adult education. She works from an office at Finley Elementary School where she translated for Duarte who is learning English as a second language as part of the program.
Funding is from a Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act grant to California from the U.S. Labor Department.
There are 130 adults ages 18-70 enrolled, and they do independent study as work schedules allow throughout the academic year, continuing until they receive a diploma.
Even though Duarte showed promise as a baker, it was an unforeseen chance that thrust her into the role of instructor.
"One day, Lupita couldn't make it to class so I had to do her Tuesday and Thursday class," recalled Duarte. "Like it or not, I thought this is the moment. I had to step in. It gave me the confidence to focus on my own (baking) technique. We have a different way of teaching, but I still look up to Lupita for advice and collaboration."
Ledezma recalled Duarte was generous with her time to the students taking the class in which she was once enrolled.
"She always gave her own personal tips on what works for her," said Ledezma. "I think she'll definitely succeed in business. She has the potential to start up her own culinary class if she wanted to."
It was another fortuitous chance that propelled Duarte to initially get serious about baking. When a godchild was approaching her quinceanera (celebrating her 15th birthday) and she wanted to provide a cake but they are very expensive. Since Duarte already had initial experience she decided to rise to the challenge.
One of the stunning cakes Duarte completed she brought with her to Finley for her interview. It was modestly called a naked chocolate cake with white frosting and adorned with yellow flowers on top. She also showed off baseball-themed cookies in startling replicas of a baseball, cap, bat and glove she prepared for her son, Alan, a fourth grader at McKinley Elementary School in El Centro, who shared the treats with his baseball teammates.
Besides baking, among the grant program’s goals is relaying skills enabling the students to start their own businesses, explained Ledezma. Duarte is a success in that regard as well. She is now operating Laura's Cakes, which sells cakes, cookies and cupcakes through a Facebook page.
Because of the many weddings, birthdays, baptisms and first communions she has already catered, word-of-mouth has spread about her growing business. She also has customers in Mexicali where her cakes are popular.
One of Duarte's favorites is Mexican Cocoflan Impossible Cake. It is a dense, rich chocolate cake stacked with creamy vanilla flan, dripping with a delicate layer of cajeta, a caramel sauce made with goat milk.
Duarte said she plans to continue as an assistant instructor for Miranda in the fall of 2019, though she has ambitions to expand her business.
"I want to learn all aspects of baking. While learning, I realized there are certain items in demand at different times of the year," she said. "Cookies are more popular at Christmas, Easter or Mother's Day. I'm baking every week--whatever the customer wants."
She plans to have business cards printed and would like to sell her baked goods at events around the county, including the Carrot Festival.
Reflecting on her path, Duarte said professional baking has changed her life even though she never expected to start a business or earn a profit.
"Baking does relax me but it also inspires me to make it as perfect as I can," said Duarte. "I want to expand more on cookie preparation because I only had a basic course."