Though more than 100 people streamed into the historic Stanley Theatre on Monday night, you could have heard a rolling pin drop while three Food Network judges deliberated over a trio of cakes.
When the judges finally announced that Jennifer Barney, a Chippewa Falls native and Stoddard baker, had won the “Holiday Baking Championship,” shouts and screams filled the theater and the crowd — dressed in bright pink aprons in solidarity with Barney — came to its feet.
The viewers included family, friends and community members who trekked to the Stanley Theater her parents, Ron and Karen Haas, who operate Martino’s Restaurante in Stanley, about 25 miles from Chippewa Falls, had rented and invited the town to view the finale — win or lose.
“She wouldn’t give it up,” said Barney’s aunt, Claire Weyenberg. “The only person who knew was her husband. ... We were holding hands, and when they said ‘Jen’, we all just screamed and screamed.”
“She had us all fooled,” Ron Haas confirmed.
Barney was well on her way to whipping up her signature Gingerbread Eggnog Cake in the finale of “The Holiday Baking Championship” Monday night when the host tossed a curve at her and her two rivals.
Barney, who operates her Meringue Bakery out of the industrial kitchen she has in her home, stood firm at the dessert plate. She knocked the cake out of the park — and her rivals — to pocket the $50,000 prize that may help fulfill her dream of a bricks-and-mortar bakery in La Crosse.
In addition to the Main Heat challenge of creating a cake inspired by one line from the “12 Days of Christmas” in five hours, host Jesse Palmer added a side dessert about three hours into the assignment.
The extra, surprise chore on this episode of the Food Network show, which started Nov. 6 with nine bakers whittled from 12,000 contest wannabes, was to make a dozen petit fours shaped like presents — also within the original time limit.
“Please tell me that is a joke,” Barney said, with only a slight touch of exasperation.
On camera, the Chippewa Falls native with an ever-present smile, muttered, “Bah, humbug” and goosed herself with a pep talk to “suck it up,” make the petit fours and worry later about how to decorate them.
Barney didn’t get to pick the “12 Days” line for her inspiration but rather, was saddled with the cast-off from opponent Stephany Buswell, who had gained an advantage from winning the Pre-Heat challenge. The edge was picking lines first from a blind set of numbers and passing any she didn’t like to Barney or the third finalist, Joshua Livsey.
(Back in Stanley, Livsey was considered one of Barney’s toughest rivals, her friends and family said. “It was between her and Josh,” said Weyenberger. “He’s been right out there every Monday.”)
Buswell passed the “six geese a-laying” to Barney and opted to keep her final pick, “eight maids a-milking,” for herself. Oddly enough, chances are Barney would have been able to craft a masterpiece on a milking theme, drawing from her experiences on her grandparents’ dairy farm and her dedication to promoting Wisconsin products whenever she could.
“All I can think of is geese dropping out eggs,” was Barney’s immediate reaction, although she quickly eschewed any notion of trying to portray that on a cake.
Instead, she used the three-layer cake as her palette — just like she does in her specialty of wedding and other cakes — to bring her concept of a storybook tale to life. She attributed that secondary inspiration to the books she and her husband, Brian, read to their 10-month-old daughter, Millie, and a foster child.
She created the geese with an artistic flair, with two kissing, two hanging garland atop the first layer, another decorating a three-D frosting Christmas tree she put on the second layer and the sixth, placing presents around the tree. White frosting strategically placed around the bottom served as snow.
Barney, the former head pastry chef at The Waterfront in La Crosse, put the finishing touch of a sparkling Christmas star on the side of the top layer.
Livesy, executive pastry chef of Harvest Restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., and the contestant many considered the boy wonder and odds-on favorite, produced a festive cake based on “12 drummers drumming.” Although the judges praised his colorful rendition of a combination of a drum and nutcracker, they docked him on a couple of points, including the fact that his petit fours used the same cake with red frosting drizzled over them.
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.
Of course, the judges disagreed with each other about this and that in Barney’s cake and presentation, as they are wont to do, but overall, her geese took the cake.
“The story jumps off the page,” said judge Nancy Fuller, who also described the cake as “divine, delicious.”
Lorraine Pascale, a British chef who came off as the most critical judge — toward all the bakers — throughout the series, complained that she didn’t catch enough of an eggnog taste. Fuller countered that she had found the eggnog element, which Barney created with a combination of nutmeg and brandy in her buttercream frosting, perfectly pleasing.
Duff “Ace of Cakes” Goldman assessed Barney’s cake as “phenomenal.”
The judges praised the whimsical, storybook flair to the cake and were pleased with the fact that Barney had whipped up another cake flavor for her chocolate petit fours with bows on top to appear as presents.
During the interim between the judges’ comments and their huddling to decide the winner and the announcement, Barney said, “I really feel like I have a shot at this.”
At that point, the TV viewing public found out what she had told only her husband, Brian, before the show.
“I’m the holiday baking champion,” she said. “I’m grateful, and I’m happy and I’m tired — it’s been a stressful day.”
Before the episode aired, the 33-year-old former correctional officer in a men’s prison had said that winning would be the highlight of her career.
“Even though I had spent most of the competition under the radar, I felt confident going into the finale — not because I considered myself the best, but because I was pretty sure the final challenge would be to create a showpiece cake,” she said. “And that’s what I do for brides all year long.”
In Stanley on Monday night, dozens of fans lined up to hug and pose for a picture with Barney. “What are we going to do on Monday nights now?” said Jean Burns of Cadott, a friend of Barney’s family. “They’re going to be boring again.”