Halloween is Janet Barron’s favorite holiday, and she isn’t even that big of a fan of sugar.
That might not be too surprising, except that Barron is an Austin baker and culinary teacher who recently competed as a sugar artist on the 10th season of Food Network’s "Halloween Wars."
Barron was part of a three-person team that made elaborate and spooky sugar sculptures as they competed for a $50,000 prize. Her team didn’t win the competition, but looking back on the past decade, the experience added another layer of confidence on Barron’s journey from medical school dropout to bakery business owner.
Eleven years ago, Barron says, she was a stay-at-home mom with two kids in an abusive marriage that took her years to leave. She was watching TV one day, and a culinary show caught her eye.
"I saw a chef on the Food Network blowing a swordfish out of sugar," she says. "I was like, ‘I want to do that.’ "
That chef was Ewald Notter, one of the world’s top confection artists. Barron started enrolling in pastry and sugar classes, and Notter ended up teaching one of Barron’s first classes on pulling sugar, a technique in which you heat sugar and blow and pull it like glass.
"He asked me how long I had been pulling sugar. I had just started, but he said it looked like I’d been doing it for five years," she says.
Her then-husband wasn’t supportive of her new interest, but that positive comment from an esteemed teacher stuck in her mind.
"All it takes is one or two people to believe in you," Barron says.
She continued to attend sugar arts classes and conferences and eventually started competing at them, often placing or winning categories, which further boosted her confidence.
"Sugar is the hardest medium to learn," she says. "It’s a million times harder than it looks."
After she got up the courage to leave her husband, they spent many years in a long legal battle over their children. The post-divorce drama left her exhausted and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, she says. She felt as if she had no power. She was homeless for a while and then lived above a friend’s garage.
Barron credits the difficulty of working with sugar in helping her stop thinking so much about the other problems in her life.
"With sugar work, it’s so dangerous. You’re boiling sugar to 380 degrees. You concentrate on that, and you don’t concentrate on your problems."
While her sons were in high school, she started working as a nanny, and she used food and cooking to teach geography, math and science during the school year and in at-home summer camps.
Earlier this year, her youngest son graduated from high school, which signaled the end of the multiyear custody battle and gave Barron a sense of relief that that violent chapter of her life was over. (Her sons are now both enrolled in college, where they are studying biomedicine and, fittingly, food science.)
Her mission now is to share her love of pastry and a message of empowerment to any others who might find themselves in an abusive family situation.
"I picked up a piping bag and started believing in myself," she says. "If I can save one woman, I want to say that you can find a job and get out. It’s worth saying that."
The cottage law in Texas allows bakers to sell products prepared in their home kitchens, which is one reason Barron has been able to start a business without the startup costs of a commercial kitchen or brick-and-mortar establishment.
Through her company, Barron’s Bakery, she sells custom baked goods and treats, but her favorite thing to do is teach kids’ cooking classes. She’s taught adults of all ages, from bachelorettes to senior citizens, but the young cooks have the most creativity when she pulls out a piping bag.
"I love pastry as much as I love kids," she says.
Many of the kids she has taught and nannied over the years joined her for a socially distanced party to celebrate the premiere of "Halloween Wars" in September.
It was a celebration that marked more than Barron’s debut on national television.
Barron says that when Food Network producers called her to ask if she wanted to compete on "Halloween Wars," she wanted to share both her skills and her story about leaving an abusive marriage with a national audience.
"If I walked away with anything, it was new friendships. But I also learned how to trust myself in new ways," she says. "Teamwork is very important, but I also learned how to use my voice."
The show was also a chance for her to claim her expertise.
"I used to be known as a stay-at-home mom at these things, and they’d call me Susie Homemaker, but now they call me chef."
Halloween decorating ideas
At a recent Halloween decorating session with some of the kids she nannies, Barron worked with the kids and their parents to make one-eyed, one-horned purple people eater cupcakes, a Frankenstein cake and a zombie unicorn. She shared some tips and ideas if you want to get creative at home this weekend.
• To make the Frankenstein cake, take a rectangle cake and cover it with buttercream icing and then spray with green edible paint. (Wilton’s makes one that is available at Make it Sweet and other crafting and baking supply stores.) Use a Wilton 48 tip, which is flat with a lined edge, to make the lines of hair and the mouth with buttercream tinted black with a gel-based food dye. The "bolts" are made from marshmallows coated in melted white chocolate peels and then rolled in silver sprinkles.
• To make a mummy cake, use an even flatter tip, such as a 1D, to make strips of white buttercream across your cupcake or cake surface. If you’d rather work with fondant, you can cut strips of "gauze" to wrap around the cake. (Use a little buttercream on the back of the fondant to make it stick. Water helps fondant stick to itself, if you’re going to get creative with it.)
• If you have some higher-level cake decorating skills, you could make a zombie-inspired green unicorn with gray or black hair.
• You can use waffle ice cream cones to make a unicorn horn or witches’ hats. To make the hat, Barron slices off the end of the cone and then re-attaches it at an angle to make the fold of the hat. She then coats the cone in melted chocolate and dusts the outside in black or purple sprinkles.
• One of the most useful decorating materials is melting chocolate, or chocolate peels, which you don’t have to temper and can be used to coat cookies, pretzels, ice cream cones or whatever else needs a thin layer of chocolate. Once you’ve dipped or drizzled the melting chocolate, you can decorate with sprinkles, jimmies or any kind of edible decoration. (NeonYolk.com is an Austin-based sprinkle company that sells festive sprinkle mixes for all seasons.)
• Make it Sweet in North Austin has edible candy eyeballs, and you can also draw them with an edible marker, such as those made by Gourmet Writer.
• If you want to make fake glass for a scary Halloween project, boil sugar to hard stage (295 to 309 degrees) and then pour onto a silicon-lined baking tray. Let cook and then crack.
• Barron uses Karo or corn syrup mixed with red food coloring to make the "blood." To get the consistency right, she heats corn syrup and food coloring and then sifts in a little cornstarch at a time to thicken it slightly. She pours it into a squeezable plastic bottle so she can drizzle on her project.
• Barron didn’t make one for this session, but she says haunted gingerbread houses are a fun group activity that you can make using whatever candies and decorations you already have.
• With egg whites, sugar and cream of tartar, you can make meringue ghosts to put on top of a cupcake or to live in your haunted house.