Wisconsin baker featured in Food Network rivalry

Mike Tighe
La Crosse Tribune
In a Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017 photo, Jennifer Barney, owner of Meringue Bakery, dips cake pieces into chocolate to make cake truffles at her commercial kitchen at her home in rural Stoddard, Wis. Barney was chosen to be a contestant on the Food Network's Holiday Baking Championship which starts airing Monday, Nov. 6.

STODDARD - Jennifer Barney is sworn to secrecy about how she fares in the Food Network's "Holiday Baking Championship" next month, but she doesn't shy away from revealing one of her trade secrets.

"Cake shouldn't be a sweet slap in the face with sugar, but a journey," Barney declared during an interview in the professional kitchen of her Stoddard home, from which she operates her business, Meringue Bakery.

Mile markers on that journey are Barney's infusing her cakes and other creations with unique flavors, such as a combination of tangerine with Earl Grey tea and using uncommon ingredients such as passion fruit and dragon fruit to produce tropical flavors, Barney said.

"What makes me unique is the incredible flavors I use," she said.

What's more, Barney approaches each order as a work of art that customers can appreciate as they have their cake and eat it, too.

Barney, a graduate of the internationally acclaimed Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts when it had a campus in the Twin Cities, and eight other bakers will vie for the title of Holiday Baking Champion and a $50,000 pile of dough on the seven-week Food Network program, which begins Nov. 6.

Several attempts to bait the Chippewa Falls native into revealing the show's final outcome were as futile as it would be to pass off canned, store-bought frosting as her trademark meringue buttercream creations. Barney coyly flashed her characteristic smile but was mum about the competition's details.

The most she would disclose was that the competitors became like family "and the contestants all were like best friends."

Pressed about whether the competition was cutthroat enough to devolve into food fights, Barney dismissed the suggestion, saying, "There were just friendly jabs across the kitchen. It's nice — like a British baking show — not like Gordon Ramsay hollering at everybody.

"I'm excited for this," she said. "I'm really proud of what I did on the show."

The La Crosse Tribune reports that Barney, who formerly was head pastry chef at The Waterfront in La Crosse before setting out on her own, initially operated her bakery business from Pogreba Restaurant in La Crosse before she and her husband, Brian, added the professional kitchen to their home nestled among the forested hills of Stoddard.

At The Waterfront, the desserts "were plated, and the journey was to the customers," she said, while now, she sends her creations on journeys from her kitchen to provide memorable desserts to mark special occasions.

Having her own bakery business "always was the dream for me," she said. "I wanted a life with flexible hours, with some downtime from work and to make a family."

She and Brian, who works in environmental compliance at Chart Energy and Chemicals in La Crosse, have a 7-month-old daughter, Millie, and also foster a young boy.

As for the flexible hours, she confessed, "I work a lot more now," often starting her day in the kitchen at 3 a.m. and working until 7 p.m. By the same token, that leaves her free to respond if Millie seeks attention, for instance, at 7 a.m. and Brian isn't available.

"He does a fantastic job" in supporting her venture, she said.

Barney also depends on the talents of assistant Jennifer Miller, whose resume includes being a pastry chef at two of Disney World's top resorts in Orlando, Florida.

Miller said she would have stayed with Disney if not for the Sunshine State's heat and traffic — as well as a hint that a pinch of love also propelled her move.

"I'm so lucky to have her, another Cordon Bleu grad," Barney said.

Meringue features online ordering, as well as the ability to order cakes at Bean Juice Coffee Roasters in Jackson Plaza in La Crosse, which also offers an assortment of her pastries, such as muffins, croissants, scones, oatmeal cranberry walnut cookies, ginger molasses cookies and other treats. Patrons also can order small cakes for delivery to Bean Juice.

Barney opted to name her business Meringue not to indicate the traditional image of the whipped topping with brown tufts atop a lemon pie but rather to reflect the evolution of meringue.

"When you're in a bakery, meringue is less of a pie topping than a baking technique, a building block" for many items, she said. "It's classy."

Barney didn't seek a spot in the Food Network contest but rather, "They contacted me," she said. "I never would have thought to apply."

The network has scouts, which is how she assumes it located her.

"How do you turn that down? You would have to be a fool to turn down the opportunity," she said.

A native of Chippewa Falls, Barney didn't have a cooking background while growing up in a family of eight children.

Her parents, Ron and Karen Haas, operate Martino's Restaurante in Stanley, about 25 miles from Chippewa Falls. But that began after she left home, as Ron's retirement project, she said.

However, she confesses that, when she was in middle school and classmates were poring over toy catalogs before Christmas, "I bought holiday cooking magazines, like Martha Stewart. When people dreamed about what they wanted for Christmas, I dreamed about what I could bake.

"It was bizarre, weird, but it worked for me," she said.

And she's insistent on describing herself as a baker rather than a cook — because there is a difference.

"They are two different types — chefs have to have an ego and can be very controlling. Bakers are usually nice and have a life outside," she said with a smile as sweet as buttercream meringue.

Asked her approach to the culinary arts when it comes to holiday meals for Thanksgiving and Christmas, she said Thanksgiving doesn't revolve around turkeys. With men in the family preoccupied with hunting, the women enjoy a laid-back day, she said.

Christmas is different, when she gets jazzed for personal and professional baking.

"If sales end on Christmas Eve, I'm always exhausted and grateful when it's done," she said. "It's what I wanted."

By the same token, she acknowledged that she doesn't besiege Brian with treats, which results in razzing from workmates who try to cajole him into bringing office treats.

As for herself, she said with a grin, "I appreciate a DQ dessert — a frozen treat from the Dairy Queen, because I don't have to make it."