Sunflower State

Sunflower State

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Merry Baker: Festival of Breads, Part I

When I visited Merry Graham's kitchen at the National Festival of Breads last Saturday, she was talking to two boys and their mom. One of the boys was telling her about how much he loved to cook and bake.

"Do you know they have contests for kids your age?" Merry said with an infectious lilt to her voice. "You could do something like this, too! Just go to and look under the junior division. There's lots there to choose from."

For Merry, interacting with bakers - young and not-so-young - is part of the appeal of the National Festival of Breads, held June 8, 2019, in Manhattan, Kansas. And this year, the third time was the charm for the Newhall, California, baker, who walked away with the top prize in the Food Blogger division of the contest with her Blackberry Ginger Speculaas Danish Wreath. (More on the home cook division winner, Rachel Hubsmith, in the next blog post.)

Merry's enthusiasm and personality bubbled out just like the blackberries bubbled out from the wreath during baking. Sharing her passion with young bakers comes naturally. She enjoys baking with her seven grandchildren when she's not competing.
Blackberry Ginger Speculaas Danish Wreath - Photo from National Festival of Breads website
Three food professionals chose Merry's wreath as the winner among the four finalists in the food blogger division. The sweet yeast dough has brown sugar, Speculaas spice blend, and blackberry jam swirl, dotted with blackberries and crystallized ginger. Speculaas has gotten some traction in the grocery store aisles in the U.S. in the past few years with a spread often located next to the peanut butter (Biscoff spread). The spread is made from Speculaas cookies, a treat often served at Christmas time in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Austria,
Photo from National Festival of Breads
But King Arthur Flour, one of the major sponsors of the breads festival, has a Speculaas spice mix made  by combining cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves with anise, coriander, cardamom, citrus zest and a few other spices. That's what Merry used for her wreath recipe. (In the recipe, there's also a way to make your own at home.)

Sharing the legacy of baking and recipes is a central theme for Merry. She began her blog, A Merry Recipe, after she began competing in baking contests in 2009. After 10 years on the competitive cooking circuit, she plans to revisit some of those early posts. She hopes to retake some of the early photos and make sure that the winning recipes she's entered in contests all over the country will be easily accessible.
Merry used a thermometer to check "doneness" on her wreath.
"I look at it as a legacy," she told me. "And having it on the blog makes it so easy. You can just enter a topic or a recipe name in the search engine and have it at your fingertips. That way, I can make sure that my family has a record of all my recipes." A side note: It's also easy to access all the Festival of Breads finalists' recipes from this year and previous competitions at the contest website
Merry sprinkled fresh thyme over the freshly-baked wreath after she removed it from the oven.
Merry hedged her bets and entered seven different recipes in the 2019 Festival of Breads competition. The wreath ended up earning her a finalist spot.
When experimenting with recipes for the contest, Merry wanted to find a "showstopper." As she explained to the spectators during the judging on Saturday, a "showstopper" has a natural visual appeal. The ribbon of blackberries and blackberry jam provides a splash of dramatic color to the specialty bread.

"I've been watching The Great British Baking Show, and they feature showstoppers, so that's what I developed for my entry this year."

Win or lose, this was going to be Merry's final year in the National Festival of Breads competition. Once a baker has competed three times, they are no longer eligible. That's not to say she's done with competitions. She is a seasoned pro in that arena.

In 2014, she was selected as a finalist in the 47th Annual Pillsbury Bake-Off, winning the Gluten Free Award for her Herbs and Seeds Parmesan Crackers recipe. Also in 2014, she was one of the five finalists on the Rachael Ray show, Great American Cookbook Competition. In 2015, she competed on Season 1 of Food Network's Clash of the Grandmas, making it to the final round of the Thanksgiving-themed show. She has also appeared on and competed in the World Food Championships.

Merry admits the cooking competition world becomes kind of like a "sorority." She knew almost all the finalists at the bread competition this year and had competed against them before.

"These events become as much a reunion as they do a competition," Merry said. "I always enjoy reconnecting with everyone."
Photo from Kansas Wheat at the Joe & Geena Kejr farm near Brookville.
As a sponsor of the biennial contest, Kansas Wheat arranges a Field to Flour tour. With a later harvest this year, contestants weren't able to ride a combine cutting wheat. Instead, they could take a spin in a sprayer with farmer Joe Kejr near Brookville. Joe and Geena Kejr also hosted the contestants and their guests for lunch and told about wheat production. The finalists also toured Farmer Direct Foods at New Cambria and drove by grain elevators as they drove to Saline County and back to Manhattan.

This was Merry's third Field to Flour tour. But the experience always reminds her that a premium flour is worth the extra money.

"I'm a southern California girl," she told me. "When I go into my grocery store and pay a few more dollars for the premium flour instead of the store brand that's on sale, I remember those trips to a Kansas wheat field. I remember the people of Kansas - especially their commitment and their passion to produce a quality product. When I think about all the hands the wheat touches from the field to the grocery store, I realize what a bargain it is."
Kansas Wheat photo
On Saturday, the contestants could begin their first attempt at their bread recipe at 7 AM. At 8:30, the ballroom opened to spectators, and the contestants interacted and answered questions throughout the day while making their recipes up to three times. They had to choose their best product to be judged by 2:30, and another of their products went into a silent auction to raise money for Flint Hills Bread Basket. (The People's Choice award votes and the silent auction raised more than $938 to feed the hungry in Manhattan.)
Kansas Wheat photo - Merry Graham, food blogger division winner, and RaChelle Hubsmith, home cook division winner (More on RaChelle next time.)
I was outside for much of the day working a booth in the Children's Festival.
Children could spin a Wheel of Fortune-like wheel and answer questions about wheat production, end products, nutrition, exports and harvesting for a prize.
I had some special contestants. (Well, they were all special, but these two were the most special to me!)

Randy took a shift, so I could go inside and cool off. I spent part of that time talking to all eight contestants and taking some photos so I could blog about it this week.

When I got back, we had another special visitor to our Wheel of Wheat station. Willie the Wildcat pondered his answer ...
... And he correctly deduced that Kansas is usually the leading producer and exporter of wheat in the nation. Good job, Willie!
I try to do my part in connecting the farm with consumers through blogging, something I've done since beginning Kim's County Line in January 2010. But face-to-face interaction is better in the long run. That's why I gave up my Saturday to volunteer at the National Festival of Breads.

With all the gluten-free promotion and companies marketing "non-GMO" to consumers, it's important for those of us in production agriculture to tell our stories. Goodness knows, popular restaurants and so-called nutrition experts aren't shy about doing it.  (For the record, there is no GMO wheat commercially available at this time. And yes, those with celiac disease must avoid gluten. However, many of those who don't have celiac disease avoid gluten based on inaccurate information from non-medical professionals who make unsubstantiated claims.)

In 1870, 50 percent of the U.S. population was directly involved in agriculture. Today, farm families comprise less than 2 percent of the population. A lot of the kids I talked to didn't even know what kind of machine harvests wheat. So that's why it was important to volunteer and talk to little consumers and their families about wheat.
Photo from Merry Graham's website as she was practicing before the breads festival.
And it doesn't hurt to get some yummy recipes, too. Check out Merry Graham's winning recipe for Blackberry Ginger Speculaas Danish Wreath on the National Festival of Breads website as well as the other winner and all the finalists' recipes.

For her champion bread, Merry receives tuition to attend a hands-on baking class at a King Arthur Flour Baking School in Norwich, Vermont or Skagit Valley, Washington, along with a $1,500 check for travel and lodging expenses. She also receives a one-year supply of Red Star® Yeast, another major contest sponsor.

More from the National Festival of Breads next time!


  1. You almost convinced me to try this bread. The ingredients sound so delicious but are unavailable.

    1. I'll have recipes for some of the others tomorrow. Maybe those recipes will be available. And since you're entering winter, the timing for fresh-baked bread is good!

  2. What a beautiful and accurate post about NFOB festival and lil' ole me! Thank you! Such a joy to read your writing!

    1. Thank you, Merry! I really enjoyed visiting with you. Congratulations!