Barney works on cake

Jen Barney works on a cake Tuesday in the commercial kitchen that is headquarters for her Meringue Bakery in her home. Barney, who won the “Holiday Baking Championship” on the Food Network episode Monday night, may put the cake heart-shaped cake with a rose on top on her Valentine's Day menu.

Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune

STODDARD — It may have looked as though Stoddard baker Jennifer Barney was on her own when she outsmarted eight rivals to win the Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship, but she credits a host of enablers with helping her achieve the sugar high.

“It takes a village. I’m very lucky,” Barney said of the helping hands of her husband, Brian; her parents and in-laws; and a friend who handled much of her bakery business, among others, who freed her up to spend 2½ weeks in New Orleans in June to film the seven-week series that concluded with her victory over two other bakers in the finale Monday night.

“I remember when this first started, and I said, ‘Are you crazy?’” Brian said Tuesday as the two reminisced in their Meringue Bakery, an industrial kitchen they installed in the lower level of their home.

Jen’s accomplishment in winning the $50,000 winner-take-all prize was all the more remarkable because she had given birth to their daughter, Lillie, only about a month before the Food Network approached her with the idea of appearing on the show. The couple also is fostering a young boy.

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Jen Barney's winning cake

Jennifer Barney won the finale of the Food Network's "Holiday Baking Championship" with her artistic rendition of "six geese a-laying" from the "12 Days of Christmas."

Reputation snags an invite

Even the fact that the 33-year-old entrepreneur was invited to compete was unusual. Roughly 12,000 wannabe contestants applied to be on the series, while the network invited Jen by virtue of her reputation as a cake savant.

Factoring into the should-I-or-shouldn’t-I decision dilemma was that fact Jen was scheduled to produce showpiece cakes for two weddings during the time she would be gone.

“One bride was unhappy that I wouldn’t be here,” said Jen, a graduate of the internationally acclaimed Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. “That was hard on me — but she was one of my bigger supporters on the show.”

It helped that the wedding went off without a hitch — other than that between the bride and the groom.

The Food Network didn’t nail down Jen’s slot, with the final trim from 13 contestants to nine, until a few weeks before the filming. That made it hard to set plans for the family and the bakery, she said.

“We had Plan A and Plan B and even Plan C, if I were voted off right away,” she said. “That would have super sucked.”

Plan A sufficed, because Jen left her kitchen in the capable hands of Jill Peterson, head pastry chef at the Waterfront Restaurant and Tavern in La Crosse. The two had become good friends when Jen was the Waterfront’s head pastry chef.

“That woman is a fantastic baker,” Jen said.

Peterson’s feelings toward Jen are mutual, with Peterson saying, “I thought going into it she had a chance, and anything with a cake, she would blow them away, because that’s one of her main strengths.

“I’m super excited for her — everyone at the Waterfront is,” Peterson said. “It’s always nice to see a hometown girl do well.”

As for filling in for Jen, Peterson said, “It went well. It was stressful, but we managed.”

One of the stressors was baking and delivering a five-tier cake for an outdoor wedding on a blistering and blustery June day, she said. Those conditions can wreak havoc on a cake’s decorations, she said.

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Pre-heat challenge

Jen Barney crafted a chocolate and pinot noir sandwich cookie for the Pre-Heat challenge, the run-up to the Main Heat in the finale, which she won.

Husband helps hold fort — and cake

Brian performed yeoman support work that day, using royal icing — the equivalent of a baker’s glue — to help Peterson attach the decorations because buttercream frosting is too vulnerable to heat.

“I learned some things” during Jen’s absence, he said, confessing that still has much to learn.

Brian said he enjoys helping in the background, although he said, “It’s her business.”

“It’s very much our business,” Jen said, although she laughingly advised her husband not to give up his day job in environmental compliance at Chart Energy and Chemicals in La Crosse.

“You’re too meticulous and slow,” she remarked, softening the blow with a smile as she said, “I love you, but you kill me sometimes.”

A previous Tribune report that described Jen as “a sweet, polite Chippewa Falls native for whom saying ‘darn’ is as close to being a nasty woman as she ever gets” appears to have been a bit off the mark. On Tuesday, she admitted that her language can heat up as fast as an oven and confessed to being a “closet curser.”

Brian jokingly said he sometimes fears what might slip out as Lillie’s first word.

Despite that acknowledgment of the dark chocolate side of Jen’s personality, she steadfastly refuses to talk smack about her rivals on the show.

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Joshua's drummers

Joshua Livesy produced a combo of a drum and a nutcracker for his attempt to win the finale, but judges faulted him especially for mistakes with petit fours that accompanied it.

She won’t take bait to slam rivals

Although home audiences might have detected an air of superiority around Joshua Livesy, executive pastry chef of Harvest Restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., Jen would have none of that.

“I just love that kid. He’s a good guy,” said Jen, who noted that the competition was physically draining, with go-go-go baking for a total of 24 hours during the 2½ weeks being hard on one’s shoulders.

Many contestants and viewers alike considered Livesy a boy wonder and odds-on favorite, an assessment he shared shamelessly.

During filming of the finale, he confidently announced to the camera, “When I win this …”

“I feel like that kid is going places,” Jen said.

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Stephany's maids a milking

Stephany Buswell produced a cake based on "eight maids a-milking," but judges penalized her for several design flaws.

She was equally complimentary toward Stephany Buswell, a pastry arts instructor at the International Culinary Center in Santa Cruz, Calif., and the only Master Baker among the contestants.

The rivals became almost like family in a short time and readily shared ideas and tips, Jen said.

In the end, Jen took Livesy and Buswell to school in the finale’s Main Heat challenge, in which they were given five hours to create a cake, drawing their inspiration from a single line from the “12 Days of Christmas.”

Barney’s draw was “six geese a-laying,” a concept that initially laid an egg for her.

“All I can think of is geese dropping out eggs,” was Barney’s immediate reaction, although she eschewed any notion of trying to portray that scene.

Instead, she used the three-layer cake as her palette to develop her concept of a storybook tale, like the stories she and Brian read to Lillie and the boy they are fostering.

She created the geese with an artistic flair, with two kissing, two hanging garland atop the bottom layer, another decorating a 3-D frosting Christmas tree she put on the second layer, and the sixth placing ornaments around the tree. White frosting strategically placed around the bottom served as snow, and a large white star and several little ones adorned the top tier.

Livesy was a strong challenger on “12 drummers drumming,” for which he crafted a 12-layer cake formed as a drum at the bottom and a nutcracker on the top.

Buswell milked her “eight maids a-milking” for all it was worth, although the judges docked her for technicalities on appearance.

On the other hand, the judges were as pleased with the appearance of Barney’s cake as they had been with the dairy-farm inspired cake from the previous episode that earned her a spot in the finale.

“The story jumps off the page,” said judge Nancy Fuller, who described the cake as “divine, delicious.”

Duff “Ace of Cakes” Goldman lauded Barney’s cake as “phenomenal.”

The judges praised the cake’s whimsical appearance and the fact that Barney had whipped up another cake batter for the surprise challenge added midway of making a dozen petit fours decorated to appear as presents.

They applauded Jen’s chocolate petit fours, which she decorated with pink bows, but they criticized Livesy for using leftover batter from his first cake and a flawed job for his frosting.

Ever humble, Barney suggested that she might not have won under a different scenario.

“I was in the shadows” during the competition, she said. “If the challenge had been for plated desserts, it would have been neck and neck between Stephany and Josh — and Josh probably would have won.”

Brian was the only person besides those involved with the show who knew that Barney won before the finale aired.

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Jennifer Barney theater

Residents of Stanley sport pink aprons in solidarity with Stoddard baker Jennifer Barney, who wore a pink apron during her appearance on the Food Network's "Holiday Baking Championship," which she won. Barney, a hometown girl, is front and center in the theater, which her parents rented and invited the town to watch the show.

Big hometown turnout for theater show

But a slew of hometown fans saw the final episode in the historic Stanley Theater, which her parents, Ron and Karen Haas, rented and invited the town to watch on the big screen.

The Haases operate Martino’s Restaurante in Stanley, and her dad learned the disadvantage of promising pizza for everybody before finding out how many might come. Brian estimated that the fans who jammed the theater devoured 50 pizzas.

As for the $50,000 in dough, Jen said some of it will pay bills. The windfall also may help bring her dream of a bricks-and-mortar bakery in downtown La Crosse closer, but she’s not leaping from the mixing bowl into the oven just yet.

“I’m taking a breather,” she said. “I want at least one year of great books and profit.”

Asked what she enjoyed most about being on the show, Jen said, “My dad. My parents have always been proud of me and supported me. They lift me up when I fall.

“And my dad — he just gloats. He stops people he doesn’t even know on the street and tells them about it,” she said, laughing at his antics.

“He’s kind of like the self-proclaimed king of the town,” Brian said, chuckling.

“I wanted this for Dad. I don’t want to discredit us,” she said, motioning toward Brian.

“He’s a good guy, with a good heart,” Jen said of her father — and Brian.


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Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

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