Ice cream on a hot summer day, apple pie with grandpa on the porch, fresh-baked cookies and hot cocoa after building a snowman, sweets form some of our fondest memories and Albany County is brimming with memorable opportunities.
When it comes to dessert, I’m more of a double-stuffed-Oreo-and-coffee type of guy. I rarely order dessert after a meal, and often chide my children for dipping into the candy bowl first thing on a Saturday morning.
One might even call me a confectionary curmudgeon. So, I knew I needed some help touring Laramie Valley’s bakeries, and luckily, Sweets Cakes & Pastry founder Jessica Brauer offered to be my guide.
“I feel like baked goods are the great equalizer,” Jessica confided. “People always come together around sweets. Whether it’s at home, work or school, they seem to erase whatever was going on and become a unifying force.”
Jessica has since left her baking days behind, selling the business to Kodi Davis and focusing on providing marketing services around Laramie, but she never lost her sweet tooth.
Our tour began with a nostalgic visit to Jessica’s former bakery, where Kodi greeted us with a smile and armful of delectable goodies.
“We’ve got two eclairs, chocolate raspberry and banana creme for you guys today, and a personal favorite — a caramel pecan sticky roll,” Kodi explained.
Tucked into a corner store at 211 E. Grand Ave., Sweets is the embodiment of a downtown bakery. The clean, warm reception area is home to a single table for people to enjoy their goodies or rest their feet while they wait. A glass case next to the register displays several decadent treats resplendent with glazes, fruits and creme, and with an open door to the kitchen, customers can watch as Kodi and her staff bustle to produce the day’s specials.
“Creme puffs were kind of my dad’s thing,” Kodi explained. “That’s what got me started baking, and eclairs are kind of a rendition of that.”
Both the banana creme and chocolate raspberry eclairs burst with flavor, but it was the fresh raspberry swimming in rich, chocolate creme that won over my tastebuds.
While I devoured the dainty treats, Jessica eyed the sticky roll.
“I think the best desserts are the ugliest,” she said, poking at the caramel-coated bun. “In particular, I think cinnamon rolls are tied to everyone’s childhood. My great aunt Bev made amazing cinnamon rolls our family would actually fight over every Christmas.”
The roll’s still-warm crust melted in my mouth, mingling with the hardened caramel coating and nutty undertones of the pecans. It felt wrong to eat a cinnamon roll sans a bowl of chili, but the dessert stood alone triumphantly.
Perhaps one of Laramie’s best kept secrets, Sweet Melissa Cafe is hidden in a storefront facing the railroad tracks at 213 S. First St.
Providing the area with vegetarian fare, I would have never thought to check the cafe for sweets, but Jessica assured me I wouldn’t be disappointed.
“I can’t eat dairy,” she said, a fork-load of vegan chocolate cake in hand patiently waiting for her to complete the thought. “And Melissa’s caters to several dietary restrictions, so I guess it was just a natural discovery.”
I never balked at eating my broccoli as a child, but I never enjoyed it enough to become a vegetarian. I couldn’t explain the difference between vegetarian and vegan, but what I can say is vegan chocolate cake is a world apart from any I’d eaten before. Cafe owner, Melissa Murphy, brought us a plate of vegan peanut butter pie next, and I was skeptical the dish could outdo the first.
“Wow, just wow,” I murmured, wiping the crumbs from my mouth.
Growing up poor, peanut butter was the closest thing to chocolate spread we ever stored in our pantry. More often than not, a PB&J was lunch, snack and dessert rolled into one. Suffice to say, I’ve eaten a lot of peanut butter throughout my life, but nothing like this. It was creamy, but not sticky. Sweet, but not overly so. And the crust was a perfect mix of crumbly and crunchy.
“Sweet Melissa’s is a place where you establish a relationship with a dessert menu item,” Jessica said. “It’s like with me and the chocolate cake, I know I could sit here and eat this chocolate cake all by myself all day long.”
The hardwood floor, simple tables and chairs and saloon-style bar created an old-western environment. The occasional train rolling by just outside the cafe’s picture windows added to the historic ambience as Melissa brought out our final course, fried banana bread topped with ice cream.
“This one is all you,” Jessica said, a hint of disappointment in her eyes as she pushed the plate my way. “I can’t eat ice cream at all.”
Fresh from the oven, a stream of melted vanilla drizzled down the sides of the sweet bread. Banana bread is a simple staple, but Melissa’s recipe elevated the treat to new levels. The trio of deserts left me with a healthy respect for vegetarian cuisine, and I grabbed one more bite of the peanut butter pie before Jessica and I headed out to our last stop.
One of Albany County’s most famous, and certainly its largest, attractions is the Snowy Range Mountains about 40 miles west of Laramie.
While the range can be accessed from both Wyoming Highway 230 and 130, the latter offers an added bonus — the Golden Prairie Bakery, 26 B W J Rd.
A little red house on the prairie between Laramie and Centennial, the bakery is owned by Jennifer Small, a pastry chef from the east coast with an eye for high-quality ingredients and experimental morsels.
“It’s peaceful out here,” Jennifer said, presenting us with a platter of samples. “I put a lot of love into my baking, and I think the solace out here allows me to channel that.”
Because of zoning restrictions, Jennifer and her husband built Golden Prairie without an eating area, relying instead on a to-go menu. But, the pastry chef pulled out a couple stools and sat with Jessica and I in the bakery’s waiting area, which offered an excellent view of the Snowies.
“I normally make a white velvet cake with Bavarian creme and fresh berries, but this time I made it a little more like a sponge cake,” Jennifer said, dishing us each a slice of the alabaster delight.
With eyes wide, Jessica tried a bite of the cake, smiling as she set down her fork.
“I just have to say, it makes me so excited you used Swiss butter creme in the frosting,” she squealed.
It’s no easy task to track the conversation between two professionals when your understanding of the topic begins at Little Debbie and ends somewhere near packaged cookie dough, but I was able to pick up on the fact the ingredients were not commonplace in the Laramie Valley.
“Some people say, ‘Oh, it’s just frosting,’” Jennifer said. “But, it’s not. It’s so much more. To me, it tastes more like a little layer of ice cream.”
Stabbing another bite of the vanilla goodness, I smiled, nodding in agreement. My palette may not be refined enough to pick out the individual ingredients, but there was no doubt these treats were a cut above what I was used to.
We tried pumpkin cranberry bread, cinnamon rolls, chocolate Devil’s food cake made with Belgian chocolate, chocolate rum pecan pie and just when I thought I might burst, Jennifer brought out a delicacy resembling a nut-coated doughnut hole.
“This is a golden carrot nugget,” she said, splitting the pastry in half to reveal a rich, orange center. “It’s basically our carrot cake coated in Belgian white chocolate and toasted coconut.”
Jennifer explained she’d created the treat as an experiment with some left over ingredients. Initially, she offered the first batch to a few customers as a gesture of appreciation for stopping in, but soon, Jennifer said she was receiving requests left and right to put the golden nuggets on the menu.
“People just couldn’t get enough of them,” she explained.
I understand why. The pastry reminded me of a truffle if you were to replace the chocolate center with spongey cake. The flavors blended so well, I momentarily forgot my distaste for coconut.
Filled with some of Albany County’s finest sweets and hopped up on sugar, Jessica and I headed back into Laramie — our tour complete.
“I think desserts create heartfelt moments,” Jessica offered. “It’s a unique way to share an experience, rather than over a sandwich or a beer. Something about dessert inspires nostalgic conversations.”
I couldn’t have agreed more, and deep down, I knew I would remember this experience as the time I ate too many sweets and loved every minute of it.