Winner of Food Network baking show found niche

Kristine M. Kierzek
Special to Journal Sentinel

When Jen Barney got a call asking her to audition for a Food Network show, she wasn’t sure what to think. Barney grew up as one of eight children on the family’s farm. She baked every chance she got, but she never saw baking as a career. 

Jen Barney of Meringue Bakery in Stoddard, won Food Network's 'Holiday Baking Championship' in an episode that aired in December.

Instead, she became a correctional officer, working in Milwaukee and her hometown of Stanley. Three years in, she knew it wasn’t for her.  

A commercial for a culinary school helped her shift gears to studying pastry at Le Cordon Bleu in Minnesota. 

Working out of an industrial kitchen built in her basement in Stoddard, Barney created her own niche with Meringue Bakery. She makes wedding cakes plus specialty baked goods for businesses in the La Crosse area.

When Food Network called, she had a 1-month-old daughter, and she wasn’t sure about upending her life for a competition. A few long talks with her husband, and she headed to New Orleans to compete in “Holiday Baking Championship,” and then spent six months waiting for the show to air. 

Finally, in December, Barney was able to spill the beans and tell the world she won the competition and a $50,000 prize with her cake featuring an interpretation of the holiday song lyrics “six geese a-laying.” 

Looking ahead, Barney anticipates expanding her wedding cake business with a goal of 200 cakes this year. Her wedding cakes start at $500, while 6-inch cakes are $35; both are sold only locally. Additional baked goods are available for shipping, and she envisions expanding with a storefront bakery in downtown La Crosse in 2019. 

Barney and her husband, Brian, are active foster parents and live in Stoddard with their daughter, Millie, who turns 1 in February. 

Her roots

I grew up in Stanley, Wis. Both of my grandparents were farmers. My parents built their home on my mom’s parents’ land. I had this fantastic childhood of running through corn fields and milking calves.

My grandma was a phenomenal cook, and she had a homemade meal with homemade bread and the whole shebang all the time. We ate very well. She had this one cookbook, “Celebrating Jell-O 100 Years.” I’d never seen a cookbook with beautiful pictures of desserts. I remember paging through it and dreaming about the layered desserts I’d make. 

Her path

After my first year in college I wasn’t quite feeling the art school, thought I’d take some time off. I went into corrections. There was a prison being built in my hometown, and my mom actually filled out my application for me and sent it in. It paid $13 an hour and I was 19.

I was at the Milwaukee secure detention facility for one year, then transferred to my hometown for two years. Being a correctional officer is a good job for a lot of people, but it wasn’t me. 

I saw a commercial on TV. There were pastry chefs with white hats and their chef coats. Within six months I was in culinary school. I knew that was what I was supposed to do. 

Finding Food Network

They called me. I guess they have scouts that look for people who have potential talent. I never would have thought to apply. The person who called me was named Myrtle. I looked her up after she called me because I thought it was a scam. The audition process was like a part-time job.

Know your strengths

I met the other candidates and went back to the hotel room, then online to see Instagram. It was a huge shock to see the professionalism in the competitors. Of the nine, there was only one that was not a professional baker.

These people are good. I’m from Stoddard, Wisconsin. How far can that get me? But you just have to be better than one person every episode.

Baking basic

Most people overmix batters. They don’t know when to stop.

Word to the wise

For anyone thinking about going into a business like this, one of the first things we did was learn to take great pictures of our work. People eat with their eyes, and it is probably one of the things that got me on the show. It is not enough to be a good baker, you’ve got to be a good businessperson.

Lesson learned

I made a wedding cake and it started to lean. They had a band practicing while I was setting up the cake, and the vibrations affected the cake. I learned, and I have it in my contract now, to avoid putting your cake next to the band.

Meanwhile, at home

In real life when you’re a baker, the husband gets the scraps. I call them cake tacos. When you level a cake there’s always that upper circle. You can crunch them up into a taco and fill them with frosting. That’s as fancy as it gets for my husband. For my birthday, we have Dairy Queen ice cream cake, no joke.

Trends in taste

The client I attract is somebody who cares about incorporating local ingredients. This summer we had a client who wanted a lavender blackberry cake. We ground lavender in the sugar, then baked the blackberries into the cake. Those flavors, it is not typical. What I don’t see happening any more — people don’t want white cake with white frosting.

Favorite tools

It makes me feel good to have beautiful teaspoons. I bought a set in New Orleans. When I won, the other contestants and I split up the set. I have the quarter and the half. 

In her kitchen

I’m a very emotional baker. I have a rule in the kitchen that nobody can be in a bad mood. I’m very sensitive, and I think it plays out in the food.