Jen Barney's Top Ten Cupcake Tips from WXOW

Photograph Courtesy of Dustin Luecke

Photograph Courtesy of Dustin Luecke

La Crosse, WI (WXOW) – Cabin fever got you down? Two-time Food Network Holiday Baking Champion Jen Barney of Meringue Bakery has the sweet treat to boost your spirit.

Barney recently won the Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship Christmas Eve “Homecoming Special” episode, which saw former baking winners paired up for a one-off winner-takes-all competition. She and her partner, Jordan Pilarski, wowed the judges with a cake that blended the pair’s modern and traditional styles featuring a spur-of-the-moment “snow globe” feature that Barney thinks put them over the top. She called her pairing a “dream team.”

When it comes to baking at home, she said it’s not too hard for even novice bakers to make their creations look professional. Barney shared some of her best tips exclusively with News 19 Daybreak.

1. Easy equipment

First, she said all of the equipment needed can be picked up at a local shop. There’s no need to special order any state-of-the-art tools to make the most of your cakes. Standard piping bags, large tip round and star-shaped nozzles, a basic butter knife, stand-mixer and an ice-cream scoop are keys to success.

2. Give it time

When it comes to the frosting, she suggests completely filling to the top the mixing bowl with your favorite buttercream frosting recipe and letting it mix with a paddle attachment for at least 10-15 minutes. Barney said that gets all of the air pockets out and makes for a smooth, velvety frosting.

3. Finding balance

For the cupcake itself, Barney said it’s important to make sure each liner is filled enough, and it might take some practice to find the perfect balance. She said it’s best to have a small mound over the top of the liner when its baked. That way, you have an easy surface to work with and a good cake to frosting ratio.

4. Flavor and flair

If you want to add a pop of color and flavor, she said to find some fruit powder instead of a jam, preserve or food coloring. The powder shouldn’t change the consistency of the frosting.

5. Get the scoop

An ice cream scoop is a great substitute for piping the frosting onto the cupcake. Barney said simply scoop up some frosting, top the cake and smooth it out with a knife or spatula to create a smooth top with which to work.


6. Piping like a pro

For those who go the piping route, using a large round tip, Barney said start from the outside around the edge and work your way in to create that ice-cream cone effect. When making rosettes, do the opposite! She said start from the inside and work your way out to make a beautiful flower.

7. “Handy” solution for sprinkles

Barney’s pro-tip for decorating the cakes with sprinkles? Put a fair amount in the palm of your hand and dab the cupcake around the edges, turning it to pick up the sprinkles from your palm. Don’t forget to place a box underneath to catch the sprinkles.

8. Brighten up the berries

When topping with fruit, like raspberries, Barney said make a simple glaze. She used an apricot preserve with a small amount of pineapple liquor, heated to create a smooth, yet slightly thick texture. She then “painted” the berries with the glaze using a basic paint brush (used for food only!) creating a shiny, beautiful topper.


9. Handmade hearts

You could top the cakes with the chalky, candy hearts that are everywhere around Valentine’s Day, but why not make one of your own? Barney suggested getting some colorful packs of fondant, a heart-shaped cookie cutter and edible markers to create a special message for that special someone.

10. Finishing touch

Bottom line, Barney said, when all else fails, put your cake creations in a beautiful box and wrap it with a ribbon. That, she said, can fix even the messiest of cakes!

Episode 1: Just Put One Foot in Front of the Other

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Episode 1: Just Put One Foot in Front of the Other

One day, not so long ago, a representative from Food Network called me to see if I would ever be interested in applying for a Food Network show. The audition and application process was long and demanding. It is not enough to be a qualified baker:  I was tested on my personality, how I react on camera, and what makes me a unique person. As a mother, foster mom, wife, and business owner, throwing another log on the fire seemed daunting at times. It was so much work to physically leave. I left my husband with a calendar of where the kids would be on each day, the bakery work was taken over by my dear and trusted friend Jill, and with a lot of hard work I was able to jump on a plane.

Arriving to the studio on the first day felt a lot like a first date: I had overanalyzed my entire wardrobe, I was curious to find out who I would compete with, and I was totally open to the unexpected. Standing in a room with all of my competitors for the first time felt awkward for only moments. We quickly realized that we have a lot in common as we shared stories. One gentleman quit his job because they would not give him time off to be on the show. It made me feel silly for complaining about how hard it was to organize my business and home in order to be able to leave for the show. This guy did not have a job to go back to. When one of the producers told us that there had been thousands of applicants for the show, I felt the enormity of how lucky I was to be there.

The staff treated us really well and our group quickly became friends with Isaac, our “keeper.” He circled us like a mother hen making sure we had everything we needed, often asking “Do you need a snack?”

Let’s talk about the kitchen. It was huge!  My estimations say that the kitchen studio was the size of a large high school gym, perhaps even larger. The space was broken down into kitchen pods and there was a lot of space for cameras and staff to move around the floor. There were so many cameras! The equipment was high-end and I was so awestruck by the enormity of the production that I had little time to feel nervous. I remember feeling ready and I just wanted the timer to start so I could start doing what I do best: baking.

My first challenge was to make a holiday-inspired dessert using a sour cherry candy cane as my inspiration. Let me tell you—it was hard to be inspired by that candy cane! The artificial flavoring was harsh, but I felt like I could replicate the sour notes.

Before I even set foot into the kitchen, my strategy for the first challenge was to have a cupcake be my vessel. A cupcake is easy and versatile. When the clock started ticking, I immediately started playing around with the idea of a sour cherry chocolate cupcake. The cake recipe I chose is a staple recipe at Meringue Bakery. In the pantry I find Amarena cherries, a true Italian delicacy. They have a very bold cherry flavor and the syrup it is canned in is rich and sour. I was lucky to find the cherries because they became the vehicle for the sour cherry flavor. As the clock kept ticking, I had a very hard time with my edible paper garnish. Originally my plan was to make the wafer paper (a medium that looks like a piece of paper) into a pink Christmas tree. However, I made the mistake of spray painting it with too much pink color, which began to dissolve the paper. It was a hot mess. I spent about 15 minutes trying to make it work, but in the end my Christmas tree had become pink tinsel. Every second matters when competing and before I knew it, two hours had flown by!

At last, I am in front of the judges. On TV they show each contestant being critiqued for 30 seconds. In reality it can be upwards of 10 minutes per person. The first judge, Nancy, thought pink is not a holiday color. The second judge, Duff, loved my cupcakes. The third and final judge, Lorraine, thought the chocolate cake was “just a little boring” and she did not like my chocolate frosting. As I turned to leave Duff told me I made a solid first dessert. I let out a sigh of relief as I exited the kitchen.

In between challenges I had time to think about how to do better next time. I immediately changed the location of my microphone pack. For the first challenge I clipped it to the top of my leggings. The weight of the microphone kept pulling my pants down. I am sure I made a great first impression with the camera men, me yanking my pants up all of the time!  I had a sound technician cut a hole in my apron and we managed to hide the microphone in the apron pocket. I was so relieved to be rid of that problem.

One of the hardest obstacles was physically working in a new kitchen space. Each of our kitchen pods contained the basics utilities, but the contestants had to share a lot of items, like cookie cutters. During the first round I felt like one of Isaac’s little chickens, running around with my head cut off!  Before the next challenge I visualized where all of the equipment and ingredients are.

In between challenges, I had time to talk with Josh “Ganache,” a fellow competitor, who gave me sage advice. “You only need to be better than ONE person.” It became my mantra and it helped calm my nerves during stressful moments.

For the second challenge, I needed to make a dessert that tastes like a Cranberry Mint Julep. To be honest, I have never had a julep of any sort!  However, cranberries, mint, and bourbon sound like a great pairing. Another strategy I had pre-planned is to stay true to what I know. I felt like this is not the platform to be trying techniques for the first time. I thought about a dessert I used to make when I was a restaurant pastry chef. It involved a nut tuile with frozen mousse and a sauce. I turn that familiar formula into a mint-infused mousse that was served with a bourbon soaked sponge cake and garnished with boozy cranberries and a peanut tuile. It did not air, but the peanut tuiles kept breaking and I had to serve one of the judges a broken cookie.

When I stood in front of the judges, I had mixed feelings about their reviews. Lorraine said the plate was messy and I understood her point of view. Duff told me I know my way around a cranberry!  He and I had a quick conversation about the different flavors of cranberries as well as Wisconsin’s love for the fruit. I felt proud to be representing Wisconsin with my dessert. Nancy’s critique was that the dessert needed more bourbon. I totally disagreed with her because by my estimations, each plated dessert had a full shot of bourbon in it!  I could tell that Nancy seemed to be my toughest critique.

As soon as I had a chance to sneak a peek at what the other contestants had produced in the first round, I had another reality check: this competition was going to be a lot harder than I originally thought.  Most of the contestants produced high-end restaurant plated desserts. I was proud of my Cranberry Mint Julip dessert, but my plating was dated and not as clean as my competitors’ plates.

When I came onto the show I had four goals in mind:

#1 Do not be the first one to be voted off.

#2 Make it more than half way of the competition.

#3 Make it to the finale.

#4 Win $50,000 and the title of Holiday Baking Champion.

My favorite holiday song is “Put One Foot in Front of the Other” from the movie Santa Claus is Coming to Town. I just needed to put one foot in front of the other and just keep plugging away. “I just need to better than one person.” Goal #1: Check!