A Wisconsin woman won a Food Network holiday baking contest Monday night with a gingerbread cake with eggnog buttercream.

Jen Barney, who owns Meringue Bakery in Stoddard, just outside of La Crosse, beat out two other finalists to become the “Holiday Baking Champion.”

More than 12,000 people set out to compete in the “Holiday Baking Championship.” The program started airing in early November with nine contestants. The seven episodes were filmed in June in New Orleans.

Barney, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Minneapolis, is known for her elegant, uniquely flavored wedding cakes, and Monday evening’s final challenge came down to baking a cake.

The finale was called “Twelve Days of Christmas,” and in the main heat, the bakers had to create “a show-stopping ‘12 Days of Christmas’ dessert” that illustrated a line from the famous song, according to press materials.

Barney went with her favorite cake recipe, from pastry chef, author and blogger David Lebovitz, formerly of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. Barney decorated the cake with the song’s “six geese a laying.”

In an interview with the State Journal last week, Barney said if she won the $50,000 prize, it could serve as seed money for the next phase of Meringue.

Even though her bakery is fully licensed and looks like a restaurant kitchen, it’s in the basement of her home. Barney said she’d eventually like to have a shop in downtown La Crosse.

While thousands of bakers applied to be on the show, Barney was discovered by Food Network scouts. She thinks they found her after she posted a cake video on Facebook that was later shared by the International Cake Exploration Society.

Still, the casting process was rigorous, and involved many phone calls and Skype interviews.

Until Monday night, only Barney and her husband, Brian Barney, who is her partner in the bakery, knew she’d won.

The viewers included dozens of fans who went to the historic Stanley Theater her parents, Ron and Karen Haas, who operate Martino’s Restaurante in Stanley about 25 miles from Chippewa Falls, had rented to view the finale — win or lose.

“I’m the holiday baking champion,” Barney 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.”

The La Crosse Tribune contributed to this report.

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Wisconsin State Journal food writer Samara Kalk Derby brings you the latest news on the Madison area's eclectic restaurant scene.