Great American Baking Show winner Vallery Lomas stays connected to the South with sweets

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen
Vallery Lomas is a lawyer turned baker.

Vallery Lomas is giving away her family secrets.

"I keep expecting to get interesting emails from some cousins, but that hasn't happened yet," she said, laughing. 

Lomas is the Great American Baking Show champion who never got to publicly celebrate her win. That's because ABC pulled the show off the air after a competition judge was accused of sexual harassment.

The incident had nothing to do with Lomas, an avid supporter of the #metoo moment. Still, the loss of her big moment stung. 

"My historic achievement as the first Black person to win a full season of any iteration of this successful international franchise suddenly seemed like collateral damage," she wrote in her recently released cookbook, Life is What You Bake It. "My victory, like so many accomplishments of Black women who came before me, had been effectively erased."

But Lomas is wise in the ways of the pivot. The former lawyer turned baker parlayed her game-winning flavors, including those in her Lemon Surprise Tart, into her colorful new cookbook. 

It was, after all, a last-minute pivot that helped her win The Great American Baking Show. In the finale, Lomas decided to tweak one of her recipes, adding bits of candied ginger to lemon curd filling for cream puffs, a decision that paid off in dividends.

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The experience taught her to rely on her baking instincts, she said. "After being on the show and winning, I realized everything doesn't have to be just perfect," she said.

"Perfectionism is something that holds us back."

Life is What You Bake It features recipes from Lomas' family matriarchs, turning a spotlight on the work of her ancestors.

"It's amazing and really special that I can share these recipes and actually get to do it in a way that credits the amazing women who created these recipes and kept them alive in the family," Lomas said. 

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The family legacy recipes include Granny's Million Dollar Cake, an heirloom from Lomas' grandmother Willie Mae. It's a riff on jelly cake, a Southern classic that predates Willie Mae.

Traditionally, jelly cake is made by layering jam between cake layers in such luxurious amounts it drips down the side. Willie Mae instead iced hers on the top and sides with classic cream cheese frosting. 

"She liked to keep things tidy," Lomas explained. 

These classic rolls will disappear at your next dinner party.

Willie Mae still lives in Prairieville, Louisiana. Lomas, originally from Baton Rouge, has lived in Harlem for seven years. Recipes like her grandmother's cake keep her tied to her Southern roots. 

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It's the same for a classic dinner roll recipe from a family matriarch known as Aunt Hester, who lost her husband to suicide during the Great Depression. Aunt Hester kept baking and passing along food traditions, and her memory survives in those recipes, Lomas said. 

When she shares a recipe once kept secret, Lomas said she believes she's honoring the contributions of her ancestors in a way that's long overdue. 

Aunt Hester was born in 1918, 50 years removed from a time of slavery — a time when white women would take the credit for food the Black women in their kitchen were cooking.

"Black women, who have contributed so much to American food culture, rarely receive credit," Lomas said. "To be able to share recipes and talk about my great-great-aunt and share insight into her life and how beloved this recipe was, and see people make these recipes, is the coolest thing." 

Cook the book

Old-School Dinner Rolls

Granny's Million Dollar Cake

Lemon Surprise Tart

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Mackensy Lunsford covers food policy, restaurants, agriculture and other food-related topics for the USA TODAY Network's South Region. She's the editor of Southern Kitchen and correspondent for The American South. Sign up for my newsletter here.

Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com