IN 2017, lawyer-turned-baker Vallery Lomas was crowned winner on season three of the “Great American Baking Show,” becoming the first Black winner of the “Great British Bake Off” franchise. The victory was the culmination of a whirlwind production schedule in the U.K., with 16-hour filming days, nerve-fraying technical challenges, and the thrilling high of a Paul Hollywood handshake. Amazed to have made it to the finale, Lomas won with a three-tiered dessert tower. But she didn’t get to celebrate the achievement as expected. The reality show never aired in full; ABC pulled the season after accusations of sexual misconduct were leveled at one of its judges. Lomas’ dreams were dashed, but she approached the development with panache. In a blog post shortly after the announcement of the season’s cancellation, she wrote: “During the [show’s] challenges, I always gave my best, and it was enough. It was more than enough. I'm holding on to that same perseverance now. I’m making lemon curd from these lemons.”
That same tenacity can be felt in Lomas’ new cookbook, “Life Is What You Bake It,” a cheerful assemblage of memories, family stories, historical asides, and stellar recipes for sweets ranging from English muffins and croissants to tarts, tortes, cobblers, and a glorious array of cakes.
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Lomas hails from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but she now calls Harlem home, and posts under the handle @FoodieInNewYork. Between living in those two cities, she attended college in Los Angeles and spent a semester abroad in France. Culinary influences from all of these places inform “Life Is What You Bake It.” Lomas draws on her Louisianan roots in recipes for Crawfish Hand Pies, Beignet Fingers, Hushpuppies, Bourbon Pecan Pie, and her Granny’s Million Dollar Cake — a layered white cake with pineapple filling and cream cheese frosting. She includes recipes for NYC Bagels with a “crisp exterior that gives way to a wonderful chewy interior with each bite.” Her love of France comes through in her Canelés, Clafoutis, Crêpe Cake, and Lemon-Honey Madeleines, and she recalls experiencing the freshness of tart California raspberries for the first time in her Raspberry Coffee Cake recipe.
Though Lomas’ recipes draw on her personal history, she is keen to express her indebtedness to others’ histories as well. She writes in tribute to her grandmothers, Grandma Leona from Indianapolis and her Granny Willie Mae, who raised eight sons on a homestead in rural Louisiana. Both women, who began their adult lives working as “domestics” for white families, “exhibited absolute, unshakeable resilience,” and passed on their recipes and resolve to Lomas. “I am the manifestation of my grandmothers’ prayers, and their grandmothers’ prayers,” she writes, “as well as all their biggest, boldest, most daring hopes and dreams.”
She shares some of their stories throughout, and argues, for example, that home bakers should be let off the hook for relying on helpful shortcuts, using illustrative descriptions of her grandmothers’ lives during World War II. “The war may have liberated white women from their own homes, but it liberated Black women from white women’s homes.” Grandma Leona was able to get a job at a manufacturing company and never worked as a “domestic” again. While working and raising three children, Grandma Leona didn’t have much time to bake, so she relied on boxed cake mix to make dishes like her Punch Bowl Cake, a mouthwatering layered dessert whose ingredients (instant vanilla pudding, crushed canned pineapple, Cool Whip, maraschino cherries) read like an homage to the midcentury larder. “There is no shame in using cake mixes,” Lomas concludes.
“Life Is What You Bake It” is written for the ambitious but realistic home chef. Some recipes are straightforward and others may feel like a reach, but Lomas’ friendly, intimate tone serves as an encouraging guide. When extra effort is required, she makes it plain: In a recipe for “Sweet Potato Pecan Waffles,” she writes that the waffles’ “pillowy texture is thanks to egg whites whipped to stiff peaks. I wouldn’t ask you to whip and fold egg whites before noon unless it’s really worth it — and these waffles are definitely worth it!” But there are recipes here to suit any fancy, whether you’re waking up craving simple buttermilk pancakes or looking to impress at a dinner party with a meringue-topped passion fruit tart.
The back of this book contains a particularly helpful section called “Lagniappe,” which means “‘a little somethin’ extra’” in Louisiana, and it includes basic recipes for caramel, whipped cream, vanilla glaze, pastry cream, lemon curd, and more — the practical elements necessary to elevate home baking. It’s just one way that “Life Is What You Bake It” gives readers the sense that Lomas wants them to succeed, and has done the legwork to get them there.
If Lomas’ inherited grit helped her handle the unexpected disappointment of “The Great American Baking Show” and forge ahead to write this book, her training as an attorney may be what makes this volume such a thorough baking companion. The attention to detail and accounting for possible mishaps, frustrations, and worst-case scenarios makes this not just a collection of recipes and stories, but a real toolkit for any baker who wants to up their game. Add to that the joyful, vivid photography and Lomas’ warm recollections, and this cookbook will be dog-eared through and through in no time.
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Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a senior editor of Departures based in Oakland, California. She is the author of “Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.