If I click my heels three times, do you think I can go back to Kansas? I would do it in a heartbeat, especially to “The Little Apple” AKA Manhattan, Kansas, site of the National Festival of Breads contest sponsored by the Kansas Wheat Commission, King Arthur Flour, and Fleischmann’s Yeast. All involved in this contest are some of the nicest people you will ever meet from the heart of America. Not only were we honored to meet such wonderful people, but I learned more about wheat than I ever learned in school.
The first wheat crop in Kansas was grown in 1839 near what is now Kansas City. Settlers mostly used varieties they brought from the Eastern U.S. or Western Europe. The settlers learned to grow numerous kinds of wheat by trial and error and suffered many years of crop failure. Today’s Kansas farmers have modern methods and are true environmentalists. Wheat is the most important crop in Kansas and it supports farmers, their communities, and industry, along with feeding millions of people around the world. Wheat is America’s most consumed grain and is grown on 64 million acres throughout the country. Grain foods are a premier source of energy, providing complex carbohydrates, and good sources of fiber, the major B vitamins, and iron. We need to honor our hard-working wheat farmers every single day.
Sponsor King Arthur Flour was founded in 1790. The company was born because high-quality flour was hard to find when our country began. Now they offer many varieties of flour including unbleached all-purpose, enriched unbleached self-rising, unbleached white whole wheat, premium 100% whole wheat, unbleached bread, and specialty flours of Italian-style and gluten-free multi-purpose. They also have some great cookbooks! Sponsor Fleischmann’s yeast was our country’s first commercial yeast founded more than 140 years ago. Their yeast products include instant, active dry, industrial fresh block, cream yeast, and the newest pizza crust yeast.
All of the sponsors offered baking demonstrations throughout the contest. The contest events were open to the public and many of Manhattan’s citizens joined in the fun. There was a special area for kids to make a bread masterpiece, and I observed many children proudly walking around with their own homemade rolls shaped like a teddy bear. Outside the ballroom area were tables and tables of sponsors, where one could enter a raffle to win prizes or buy beautiful jewelry made from wheat. Aren’t the earrings lovely?
As you can see, the Kansas Wheat Commission goes all out for this contest. It was started in 1990 and was designed to celebrate the art of baking and to recognize the Kansas wheat and milling industries. A biennial contest, the National Festival of Breads remains the only national contest to honor the art of bread baking with contestants from around the country. Eight finalists are carefully chosen out of hundreds of entries to compete.
When my daughter Kristina and I arrived the evening before, we started taking photos before the contest festivities began. Kristina was especially excited as she was asked to be a judge at the contest and she couldn’t wait to see the gorgeous set-up. We went to the ballroom where the contest would take place the next morning. At no other contest will one ever be greeted by the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Lion, from the Wizard of Oz. We are in Kansas, after all.
The ballroom was breath-taking. I can’t imagine the hours and hours it took to set up the room, the stage, and all the cooking stations for the contestants. No detail was missed.
The stage where the demos would take place had displays of vintage kitchen equipment, quilts, and cookbooks. It looked like a country store or someone’s cozy kitchen, and charming beyond words.
Each cooking station for the contestants had a different theme and color with their own Kitchen Aid stand mixer to match and a personalized apron for each. Each set-up was carefully color coordinated with such care down to the dish towels! The contestants each had personalized recipe cards that the public could take home, with their recipe, picture, and bio. If you want to see all the recipes go to www.americasbreadbasket.com
After our photographing, it was time for dinner at the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center, to meet the sponsors, volunteers, and contestants. The contestants were the guests of honor and had their own special table just like a wedding party. Each table in the room had a basket of beautiful homemade rolls.
The test kitchen was attached to our dining area, so of course I had to go check out their cookbooks!
After a lovely evening, we headed back to the hotel anticipating the events to come. The next morning we had to find our way to breakfast. It wasn’t hard – just follow the Yellow Brick Road!
Following breakfast, the contestants departed for a wheat harvest tour, where they would have the opportunity for a hands-on experience to see how wheat goes from the field to the table. There was even a ride on a combine, which thankfully was air-conditioned. It was very hot in the Little Apple!
The evening buffet dinner was again delicious, and we had a great time with our table mates, but the centerpieces were the star of the show.
The next morning it was time for the contest to begin. The crowds began arriving and were greeted by the aroma of baking bread. Is there a better fragrance in the world than that of fresh bread? Imagine smelling it all day. If the contestants were nervous, they certainly didn’t show it. As I walked around visiting all eight of their kitchen areas, everyone seemed focused but calm. Everything looked beautiful and tempting.
Gloria Piantek’s “Pennsylvania Dutch Pretzel Slider Buns” seen here through the oven door were gorgeous!
Merry Graham busy making her “Light and Fluffy Chia Whole Wheat Rolls.” They were carefully formed and gorgeous!
The contestants all looked happy and their entries looked perfect!
While the contestants baked their bread, the stage area was busy all day with baking demonstrations from King Arthur Flour and others, along with a baking question and answer panel from Fleischmann’s Yeast, the Home Baking Association, the Kansas Wheat Commission, and King Arthur Flour. The judges then had a tough job to do- taste all of the breads and pick a winner. It’s never as easy as it sounds. The judges tasted and tasted, and tasted again before coming to a conclusion.
At the awards dinner, you could feel the excitement in the air. Someone was about to win $2,000 and a trip to Vermont to visit the King Arthur Flour facilities. The eager contestants all lined up and were introduced one by one and interviewed about their entry. When the time came to announce the winner, every eye was settled on the breadbox next to the contestants, with the shining trophy just waiting to be claimed. The breadbox contained the winning entry.
And the winner is……
Rosemary Leicht for her easy and trendy “Onion Parmesan Cracker Bread.” It was delicious! We were able to taste all the winners entries at dinner, and I can see how it can be so difficult to select just one winner. They were all so good.
Rosemary’s cracker bread included both all-purpose and rye King Arthur Flour, parmesan, onion, and a touch of honey. I’m telling you, it is addictive! Not only that, each very large piece has eight servings with only 37 calories per serving!
But the night was not over yet. Each contestant’s entry was placed in special boxes and auctioned off with proceeds to benefit the “Share Our Strength” organization. I had never seen that done at a contest before, with over $2,000 being raised.
I hope all you bread bakers out there will consider entering this contest. Be sure and check out the website for more information. The Tin Man, Scarecrow, Lion, Dorothy, and Toto are all waiting for you.
Here is a list of the winners and their entry:
Judi Berman-Yamada: Red Apple-Golden Cheddar Challah
Marilyn Blankschien: Red Velvet Cinnamon Rolls with a Twist
Jane Hinrichsen: Rich Italian Bread
Merry Graham: Light and Fluffy Chia Whole Wheat Rolls
Rosemary Leicht: Onion Parmesan Cracker Bread
Rita Lutz: Two Grain Cranberry and Walnut Bread
Gloria Piantek: Pennsylvania Dutch Pretzel Slider Buns
Elke Roby: German Streusel Cranberry Bagels
Mardi Traskowsky (Youth Category Winner): Family Italian Bread
Another winner not at the contest, but winner of the Raisin Award: Deborah Biggs