Lomas’ recipes are sprinkled with food memories of growing up in Baton Rouge, from meeting friends for beignets at Coffee Call to eating hushpuppies at Ralph & Kacoo’s every Sunday after church. Photo by Linda Xiao

Lawyer turned baker Vallery Lomas is writing her own recipe for success in New York City

In 2009, during her final year of law school, Vallery Lomas started a baking blog that would change the course of her life. 

It began as an outlet for creative expression while she pursued higher education, and it was the first hint that baking could one day become her livelihood. Up until then, it had never been on her radar, says Lomas, a Baton Rouge native who went on to win the third season of The Great American Baking Show, the stateside spinoff of the phenomenally popular British series.

But her historic win—Lomas is the first Black winner of the entire franchise—never aired: ABC abruptly canceled the show in December of 2017 (after broadcasting just two episodes), when major misconduct allegations surfaced against one of the judges, robbing Lomas of her hard-earned triumph and the inevitable success that would have followed.

Now, nearly four years later, she is proof-positive of living by her mantra: “When life gives you lemons, make lemon curd.” As a result of this adaptability, Lomas just debuted her first cookbook, Life Is What You Bake It, last month. Design brand West Elm launched a collaboration with her over the summer as part of its tastemaker series. She frequently contributes to The New York Times, appears on television shows like Today and Live with Kelly & Ryan, answers baking questions on Food Network and, through it all, continues to run her baking blog of more than a decade, Foodie in New York.

Her love of baking and all things food runs deep—especially growing up in the South. Baton Rouge has such a rich and distinct culinary culture, notes Lomas, who was raised amidst generations of talented family bakers, home cooks and prolific farmers. “That’s the thing about food and cultures where food is prevalent—in Louisiana, we love crawfish, but is it really about just the crawfish? No, it’s about sharing it with people in the community.”

In addition to sharing dozens of indulgent recipes, Lomas devotes precious pages in her book to dishing secrets from her prize-winning run on The Great American Baking Show—everything from the stress of grueling 16-hour filming days to barely finishing her final bake before time was called. Courtesy Vallery Lomas

Especially influential in guiding her baking interests were her grandmothers Leona, who lived in Indianapolis, and Willie Mae, in Prairieville. Life lessons were imparted through baking (frosting three-layer cakes, using milk to make eggs fluffier) and by sharing their lived experiences, which Lomas pays tribute to in her cookbook.

“This book is an homage to my grandmothers, my mother, to so many other Black women who didn’t get to tell their story,” says Lomas. “I feel privileged and honored to share a little bit about who they were, how they lived and what they instilled in me—which I carry with me every day. They gave me much more than recipes.”

Charming vignettes from her own life are also woven throughout Life Is What You Bake It: Forming a long-distance bread club to try new recipes with her mother after attending a bread-making class together in Paris. Discovering her love of French culture (and pastry) as a teenager during a trip to the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. Taking weekend drives to pick blueberries at a farm in East Feliciana Parish.

Lomas moved to California for college and then stayed on for law school. By her third year, the Great Recession had hit, so rather than endlessly job hunting, Lomas went into baker mode, launching her blog and baking new recipes daily. After passing the bar, she decided to spend a year in France, visiting museums, spending weekends in Bordeaux and exploring pastry shops. 

In 2011, Lomas landed in New York City, where she still lives today, eventually finding a job as an attorney. She practiced law full time for eight years, satisfying her passion for baking on the weekends and even running her own macaron business for a time. 

In the summer of 2017, a casting agent for The Great American Baking Show reached out after coming across Lomas’ Instagram account. A whirlwind audition trip to Los Angeles (with baked goods in tow) led to Lomas being cast. Filming the show, over four hectic weeks in London, was equal parts exhilarating and exhausting.

“Getting that praise and feedback as a home baker,” recalls Lomas, “and to have Paul Hollywood tell me that my doughnuts were some of the best he’s ever had—it was one of those experiences where the highs were really high.” 

Even though her impressive win was later reduced to a 90-second video reveal on Facebook, the press took notice—subsequently landing her coverage by major outlets from CNN to Food & Wine, an invitation to present at the James Beard Awards and, ultimately, her first book deal. The next few months will be filled with holiday appearances to showcase recipes from Life Is What You Bake It, virtual events, more blogging—and, deservedly, reclaiming the successes she had been destined for all along.

[caption id="attachment_103250" align="aligncenter" width="682"] Reprinted from Life is What You Bake It. Copyright © 2021 by Vallery Lomas. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Random House. Photo by Linda Xiao[/caption]

Zulu Babka

The Krewe of Zulu was always my favorite Mardi Gras Day parade. The Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, the largest predominantly Black Carnival organization, commissioned a signature king cake from my neighborhood bakery in Baton Rouge, Ambrosia Bakery. Ambrosia’s Zulu King Cake is filled with cream cheese, chocolate, and coconut. This babka is inspired by that king cake, and this delectable blend of ingredients is irresistible!

1/2 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
All-purpose flour
1 (8-oz.) package (1 cup) cream cheese, room temperature
2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
Dough for Challah (recipe follows)
8oz. semisweet chocolate chips (preferably mini chocolate chips)
1 large egg
2 oz. dark chocolate, melted (optional) 
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line each of 2 (9 x 5-in.) loaf pans with a strip of parchment paper, leaving some overhang so you can easily lift loaves from pans.
Spread coconut flakes on a baking sheet in a single layer and toast in oven until lightly browned, 5 to 7 minutes. 
In a small bowl, stir cream cheese and confectioner’s sugar together until combined.
Use a rolling pin to gently roll risen Challah dough into a 16 x 8-in. rectangle on a lightly floured surface. Dough is supple and requires only a gentle touch. Use a rubber spatula to spread cream cheese mixture over dough in an even layer, leaving a 1-in. border around edges. Sprinkle with chocolate chips and half of coconut flakes (save remaining to sprinkle on top). Tightly roll dough lengthwise, starting from bottom, until it is a tight cylinder. Brush a little water along top edge and press it to close the cylinder; the water is like glue and will seal edge. Cut cylinder in half crosswise so you have 2 shorter pieces. Cut each piece in half lengthwise through center, exposing filling. Twist the 2 halves together and transfer a twist to each prepared loaf pan. Let dough proof, covered with plastic or a dish towel, until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and place a rack in middle of oven.
Whisk egg in a small bowl. Brush loaves with egg wash and bake until nicely browned, about 30 minutes. Let pans cool on a wire rack until loaves are cooled to room temperature. Remove loaves from pans, drizzle tops with melted chocolate (if desired), and sprinkle with remaining coconut before serving.
Store covered at room temperature for up to 3 days. (It will keep longer in refrigerator or freezer.)
Makes 2 loaves.

Ingredients for Challa dough:
1 cup warm water
3 large eggs, room temperature, divided
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 (¼-oz.) pkgs. instant dry yeast
4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
1 ½ tsp. kosher salt
5 Tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature
Softened butter or vegetable oil for bowl
Grated zest of 3 lemons (preferably organic)
Add warm water and 2 eggs to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook. Add sugar, yeast, flour, salt, butter and lemon zest. Knead on low speed until ingredients have come together, about 2 minutes. Increase mixer speed to medium and knead until dough becomes smooth and elastic, and gluten develops, 8 to 10 more minutes. You’ll know it’s ready when a single ball forms on dough hook and thwacks the side of the bowl as hook moves.
Remove bowl from mixer and shape dough into a ball. Transfer to a lightly oiled large bowl. Cover bowl with plastic or a clean damp towel and let rise until it doubles in size, about 1 hour.