Welcome to The Pioneer Woman Cookbook Club! This month, we’re featuring Vallery Lomas, baker, lawyer, winner of The Great American Baking Show, and cookbook author of Life Is What You Bake It. Read on to learn her favorite baking tips, how she made the leap to change careers, and grab a delicious cake recipe just in time for potluck season.
Vallery Lomas’ mother knew one thing for certain: Family recipes get lost if the one person who knows them passes before teaching someone else. Like any good mama, she recognized Vallery’s early passion for baking and wisely insisted she visit her Granny Willie Mae to learn how to make her famed Million Dollar Cake—a moist, multi-layered type of cake with a fruity filling and fluffy cream cheese frosting. The dessert was quite simply, “on the money.”
That’s how all this baking business got started, in a little rural town, about fifteen miles east of Baton Rouge. The collection of Southern comfort food recipes in Vallery’s book Life Is What You Bake It are inspired by her journey from her native Louisiana, to being a practicing attorney in New York, to her beloved food blog, Foodie in New York, and eventually following her passion on The Great American Baking Show (which she won!).
“With this cake, I had a hands-on interactive lesson with my grandma guiding each step along the way,” Vallery says. “I recorded it in the recipe book my mom purchased for me when I was just seven.” The handwritten note inside the front cover says: “To Vallery, Love Mom, 1992.” In many ways, that was her first foray into writing a cookbook.
One of Vallery’s top baking tips is “practice bakes perfect.” She embraces mistakes in the kitchen as learning experiences. “I want people to be excited about baking,” she says. “Baking for me has been a sanctuary. A happy place.” You don’t have to run out and quit your job to pursue your passion, either: “You can do your passion on the weekends or do it in the evenings. It’s about taking the baby steps.”
Many of the dishes in Vallery’s book are family recipes that have been tweaked and adjusted over the years to become the straightforward perfection her long-time fans have come to rely on. The book showcases the ingredients Vallery grew up experimenting with: Crawfish (or shrimp when she’s not down South), pecans (which grew in abundance along the road home), and the fresh fruit that her grandmother raised on her land. “All of my initial encounters with these ingredients was just experiencing them at their prime. So, in the end, it’s really a matter of getting things at their best and ripest.”
If you want the real secret to her “million dollar” cake recipe, Vallery has you covered: it’s all about simplicity. She calls her Granny’s recipe a “1-2-3-4 cake”: 1 cup of butter, 2 cups of sugar, 3 cups of flour, and 4 eggs. In the process of developing the instructions for outsiders, Vallery added her own ABCs: Aromatics (1 teaspoon each vanilla and almond extract), Baking powder (1 tablespoon), and “cow’s juice” (1 cup milk). If you stick to the 1-2-3-4 ABCs, eventually you won’t even need a recipe to make it! The best part is that this cake, like many of Vallery’s recipes, lends itself to easy substitutions. No canned pineapple? Her Granny would sometimes fill the cake with apple jelly, which also allows it to work nicely as a fall dessert.
Whether you’re looking for a simple cake for a summer cookout or a stress-free dessert for your next dinner party, you can’t go wrong with Granny’s Million Dollar Cake. You can also check out the book for her other biscuits, cookies, and pie recipes. No matter what you choose, half of the fun is reading each delicious home-grown origin story.
Reprinted from Life Is What You Bake It. Copyright © 2021 by Vallery Lomas. Photographs copyright © 2021 by Linda Xiao. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Random House.
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