TRAVERSE CITY — She's only 12, but Hayley Masserang-Sosenko is already an award-winning cook.
The Cadillac sixth-grader has taken first, second and third prizes in the Manton Area Chamber of Commerce annual Chili Cook-Off and Pie Contest, with three different pies.
"I enjoy making the pies because we don't buy the crust. Everything is from scratch," said Hayley, a student at Mackinaw Trail Middle School. "Probably one of my favorites is my (first-prize) winning raspberry pie. It's simple and it's fun to put the designs on — and to eat it."
Hayley was 3 or 4 when she first stood at the counter in her great-grandmother's kitchen, part of a 114-acre farm in Manton that has been in the family since 1902.
"She had a little stool," said Eleanor Sosenko, a retired banker and director of the Manton Senior Center. "I just started her making simple little things. My goal was to make sure she can cook from scratch instead of eating out of the box when she grows up. It's healthier, it's cheaper, it's better for you."
Since then, the two have gotten together at least one weekend a month for foodie fun, from gardening and canning to cooking and baking. Over the years, Hayley has progressed from simple treats like the cookies and candy — think white chocolate-dipped pretzels — she often gives away for Christmas, to meals like wet burritos and cheesy potato soup.
She also helps out at home, preparing dinner with stepdad Chris Montague about four days a week and pitching in with breakfast on weekends. Staple dishes include tacos, hamburgers, Tater Tot casserole, spaghetti, eggs and cinnamon rolls — a favorite of her sister, 13, and brother, 7.
"She's actually taught me quite a bit, to be honest with you," said mom Jessica Montague. "She gave me her granny's enchilada recipe and she made some vegetable-hamburger soup the other night that was really good."
Learning to cook "outside the box" paid off when Hayley was 9. That's when she won first place in the pie contest for her Raspberry Ribbon Pie — fresh raspberries, cream cheese and whipping cream in a vanilla wafer crust. At 8, she took third place with her Peanut Butter Pie (peanut butter, cream cheese and Cool Whip, folded into a Graham cracker crust) and second place at 10 with her Toffee Apple Pie (apples, pecans and toffee bits in a traditional crust).
"She had to learn how to do it by herself because I told her if I had to help her and she won, she would have to share the trophy, which she didn't want to do," said Sosenko, a contest winner herself.
Hayley cooks on a gas stove. Her go-to kitchen tools include a stand mixer, glass measuring cups and special tubes for decorator frosting. For recipes, she relies on Sosenko's extensive cookbook collection or experiments to replicate dishes the pair have seen or tasted.
At Christmas, in lieu of candy and cookie trays, the young cook made each family member a cookbook called "Hayley's Favorite Recipes."
"We took all my favorite, favorite, favorite recipes I've ever had experience with and put them together," said Hayley, who often receives cooking-related gifts herself, including a hand-powered chopper and a pair of pig-shaped oven mitts.
An A-student who likes to ski and play volleyball, she said cooking is another form of recreation.
"I really enjoy it. It just takes my mind off things and it's fun," she said.
To try next: Oreo Bon-Bons — crushed-cookie and cream-cheese balls dipped in white chocolate — and her first two-crust pie.
"I want to try a blueberry pie," Hayley said, already looking forward to the next pie contest. "You can use frozen blueberries. They don't taste as good, obviously, but they still work."