Irish Blessing

Irish Blessing

Friday, June 23, 2017

Rising to the Occasion: National Festival of Breads

Ronna Farley and her Seeded Corn and Onion Bubble Loaf.
Ronna Farley had a big smile on her face when I visited her kitchen at the Festival of Breads competition last Saturday. Her first attempt at baking her Seeded Corn and Onion Bubble Loaf had come out of the pan cleanly. If you've ever made anything in a Bundt pan, you know there's no guarantee: Part could end up on the cooling rack while some is stuck in the pan.
But after carefully inching her way around each crook and crevice with an ice pick, the bubble loaf was out in one piece, looking evenly browned and with that unmistakable fragrance of freshly-baked yeast bread combined with an undertone of onion.

She had more reasons to smile that evening. Her Seeded Corn and Onion Bubble Loaf won the grand prize at the 5th biennial National Festival of Breads.

She and seven other finalists spent the time from 7 AM Saturday morning until 2:45 or so that afternoon making their recipes three different times. By 3, each had delivered her best effort to a judge's room for evaluation.

Farley traveled to Kansas from her home in Rockville, Maryland, where she works as a cashier in a grocery store. She gets inspiration for developing original recipes based on the ingredients she rings up for customers as they empty their carts onto the supermarket conveyor belt.
I especially love seeing what people from other countries are buying and the different ideas of ingredients I should try in recipes. Sometimes I'll even ask them, 'What are you doing with that?' or 'What is that?' because there are different things we sell that I don't even know what they are.
Ronna Farley as quoted in the Festival of Breads recipe book
As the 2017 National Festival of Breads champion, Farley received $2,000 cash, plus a trip to attend a baking class of her choice at the King Arthur Flour Baking Education Center in Norwich, Vermont. She will receive 120 envelopes of Red Star Yeast. 

This was Farley's second time as a top eight finalist in the Festival of Breads. Like several of the competitors, she is no stranger to cooking contests.  Patrice Hurd has been chosen as a finalist in a dozen national contests. Three times, she's been a contestant in the "grandmother" of them all - the Pillsbury Bakeoff. Once you've competed a trio of times, you're no longer eligible at Pillsbury. She's also been a finalist in the national beef cookoff, Build A Better Burger and Midwest Living events, among others.
Patrice Hurd and her Toasted Cardamom Nordic Crown.
But Patrice was glad to be back at the National Festival of Breads in Kansas. She was also a finalist in the 2015 contest. This time, her recipe was Toasted Cardamom Nordic Crown

"It's a fun hobby to compete in these contests," Patrice said. "You meet people who are just as crazed about doing this as I am. We get to know one another, and it's kind of like family when we get together."

There's a family feel to the National Festival of Breads competition itself, she said. 

"At the Pillsburg Bakeoff, there are 100 finalists, so you're basically a number," Patrice said Saturday as she worked on her bread recipe. "This contest (Festival of Breads) has so much heart and a real down-home feeling. I was thrilled to get back here. The organizers take care of every single detail. They do everything to make you feel welcome and make it an experience to remember." 

One of those experiences was her first-ever ride on a combine. Though it was on the schedule in 2015, a drizzly day kept the contestants from truly experiencing a Kansas wheat harvest. This year, Patrice and other contestants traveled on Friday to the Brookville farm of Joe and Geena Kejr where they took turns riding the John Deere combine. They also toured the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center in Manhattan and the Farmer Direct Foods Inc. flour mill in New Cambria. It gave them a glimpse at how wheat grown and harvested in Kansas ultimately becomes flour that can be used in their kitchens scattered across the U.S.
Michele Kusma with her Mexican Street Corn Skillet Bread.
Contestant Michele Kusma from Columbus, Ohio, loved the combine ride, too. This was the first time she was a National Festival of Breads finalist and her first visit to Kansas.

"It was just awesome," Michele bubbled. "It was interesting and beautiful to see the wheat being harvested." 

Michele, too, is a contest veteran. As she developed her recipe for Mexican Street Corn Skillet Bread, she was thinking about flavors that consumers tend to enjoy.
Though she's a contest pro now, she didn't grow up baking. Michele turned to creating recipes and baking as an outlet after her second bout with breast cancer.

"My mother didn't bake bread. My grandmother didn't bake bread. It was me and YouTube," Michele said with a laugh. "I love baking, and you might as well love what you do. None of us know how long we have on this earth, so we need to pursue the things that give us joy."
Jane Fry (on the right) and her kitchen assistant look over her Southwest Focaccia.
It definitely wasn't finalist Jane Fry's first time on a combine or in a Kansas wheat field. Jane didn't have to hop on an airplane to get to Manhattan. She was down the road in Elk Falls, Kansas.

Like many Kansas cooks, her love of baking dates back to her days in 4-H. This was her second time as one of the Top 8 in the National Festival of Breads. This time, her recipe was Southwest Focaccia.

Jane isn't just an expert in shaping bread. She and her husband, Steve, also shape stoneware, much with a wheat theme. Each piece is individually made on a potter’s wheel or by other hand methods, glazed, decorated and fired. The business has grown, but remains a small family enterprise to provide the kind of “home-grown” lifestyle. In 1987, Jane incorporated her love for quilts by developing a line of porcelain pins and earrings using traditional quilt patterns as well as original and custom designs, which are sold under the name Elk Falls Piecemakers.
Fellow contestant Kellie White grew up on a farm near Westmoreland, Kansas, though she now resides in Valley Park, Missouri. Her entry, Orange Spice Anadama Wreath with Walnuts and Dates, won the People's Choice award voting the day of the festival. Her Kansas fan club cheered loudly when those results were announced Saturday afternoon. Festival goers could vote for their favorites by depositing $1 in voting jars. Those efforts raised more than $600 for the Flint Hills Bread Basket, a local food pantry.

She credits her love of baking to her mom and also to a neighbor lady named Ethel who shared a day of baking with Kellie as a young girl and also gave their family gifts of homemade bread at Christmas.
One of Shauna Havey's Butternut Romesco Braid's was shaped and rising, while she had another dough rising.
On the other hand, contestant Shauna Havey didn't grow up baking. The Roy, Utah, finalist began experimenting in the kitchen after marrying her husband. The mother of two prefers savory recipes, so she developed Butternut Romesco Braid
Pam Correll shapes her Orange Marmalade Breakfast Crescents.
Pam Correll was hoping for a "sweet" victory with her Orange Marmalade Breakfast Crescents. The smells of orange zest and fresh orange juice permeated the work station for the Brockport, Pennsylvania, baker. The FACS teacher enjoys teaching her students to bake from scratch.

"It's becoming a lost art," Correll said. This was the Pennsylvania baker's second time to enter the Festival of Breads, and two of her recipes were awarded honorable mention in 2015. The 2017 contest was her first as one of the eight top finalists.
Turmeric-Rosemary and Sweet Potato Rosettes
Somehow I missed talking to Tiffany Aaron, whose recipe was Turmeric-Rosemary and Sweet Potato Rosettes. Aaron is from Quitman, Arkansas, but she grew up in Montana. In her interview included in the festival brochure, she says her father-in-law supplied all the sweet potatoes she used for her experimentation and recipe development. In 2015, she had won an honorable mention. This year, she only entered the one recipe, but it still got her included in the Top 8. The mother of five brought her middle daughter with her to Kansas to experience all the festival happenings.

The National Festival of Breads, the nation’s only amateur bread-baking competition, is sponsored by King Arthur Flour, Red Star Yeast and the Kansas Wheat Commission. Many more recipes from previous years' contests, as well as bread baking tips, are available at the National Festival of Breads website. Check it out.

I volunteered at the festival. Watch for my next blog post about why I took time during our own wheat harvest to travel to Manhattan and help out!


  1. Such a lovely article! Thank you so much!!!!

  2. The bread aromas would have been mouth watering. I look forward to the next post.

    1. Outside, there was the aroma of BBQ, too. Yummy!

  3. I have never seen these many pies in one place!! I like the diversity as well.

    1. It was actually breads - but just as tasty!