A Wisconsin woman has made it to the finals of a Food Network holiday baking program, and her parents are just a little bit excited.

Jen Barney’s family has rented the theater in her hometown of Stanley, near Eau Claire, to watch the “Holiday Baking Championship” Monday night.

“I come from this huge family and they are so proud of me,” Barney said after the episode with her advancing to the finals aired last week.

Within one day, her parents secured the theater and took out an ad in the local paper inviting the whole town to watch.

“Isn’t that so sweet?” said Barney, 33, who, with her husband, Brian Barney, owns Meringue Bakery in Stoddard, just outside of La Crosse.

Her family runs a pizza restaurant in Stanley, so the party will have pizza. And, of course, Barney has to bring dessert. On the show, Barney wears a pink apron, so her mother went out and bought 74 pink aprons for her relatives to wear. “It’s going to be a blast,” Barney said.

Scouts for the Food Network discovered the small-town baker, whose state-of-the-art, industrial bakery is in the basement of her home. They made the initial contacts, but Barney still had to go through the show’s full application process.

The seven episodes were filmed in June in New Orleans. There were nine contestants at the start, with the field now narrowed down to three.

Every episode has two challenges. In the first episode, Barney got to use cranberries, replicated a cranberry mint julep, and got great remarks from the judges. For the second challenge, she did a three-layer pudding for the final heat and won that challenge.

In the last episode, she made a cake with a red dairy barn on it. “It was a really special moment for me because I paid homage to my heritage,” Barney said.

She told a story on the show about never having a traditional Christmas morning where children come out in their jammies to see what Santa Claus has left under the tree.

“When you live on a dairy farm you have to wait until the evening when all the chores are done. And I think that’s a pretty typical thing for most dairy farmers. But for a child, that’s just agony,” Barney said.

The barn cake gave her an important connection with judge Nancy Fuller, who lives in a 17th-century farmhouse in New York’s Hudson Valley and hosts a Food Network show called “Farmhouse Rules.”

Barney said they were both crying during the episode. “I felt really proud and I felt really good about it,” Barney said.

The finale is called “Twelve Days of Christmas,” and the idea is for the final three bakers to “grab two last-minute holiday gifts and combine them into one impressive dessert,” according to press materials.

Then, in the main heat, the bakers must create “a show-stopping ‘12 Days of Christmas’ dessert that illustrates a line from the famous song.” The winner comes away with $50,000.

The prize, should Barney win, could serve as seed money for the next phase of Meringue. Even though her bakery is fully licensed and looks like a restaurant kitchen, Barney said she’d eventually like to have a shop in downtown La Crosse.

Barney first went to college to become an art teacher, but got sidetracked and spent three years as a corrections officer in two Wisconsin prisons.

Still, she always knew that she wanted to do something creative, and one day she saw a TV commercial with pastry chefs making beautiful desserts. “I had never known that you could combine art and food before.”

Until that time, Barney only knew what was available at her grocery store bakery. She immediately switched gears, and within six months she was enrolled in culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis.

For the show’s taping, Barney had to spend 2½ weeks away from her two small children. Her daughter was only 3 months old at the time.

While she’s enjoyed the experience, it was “a really hard competition,” said Barney, noting that she has nothing but admiration for her two competitors who’ve made it with her to the finale. “It’s been a struggle for me to make it that far because they are just so fantastic in what they are able to do.”

Ever since the show wrapped, the contestants have formed a texting group where they text each other almost every day.

“We’re best friends,” Barney said. “It was just a crazy bonding experience. I can’t explain. We’re just connected and it’s a beautiful thing. That might be the most important thing that happened on the show.”

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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.