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National Festival of Breads showcases the best homemade breads in the nation

By Stuart Estes

The breads and amateur bread bakers showcased at the National Festival of Breads, in Manhattan, Kan., June 20 to 22, may have been the stars of the show, but the festival also highlighted the processes and products that make bread baking possible for contestants and attendees present at the festival.

The National Festival of Breads was born out of what was once the Kansas Festival of Breads. In June 2009, the first National Festival of Breads was in Wichita, Kan., and the biennial contest was conducted a second time this year.

Amateur bakers from across the nation entered recipes in the contest, and of those entries, eight adult finalists were chosen to compete at the festival, where they bake their recipes in temporary kitchens stocked with all the necessary supplies. One winner from the youth division was also chosen for the first time this year.

The finalists were welcomed to Manhattan, Kan., at the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center on June 20 by the sponsors of the festival—King Arthur Flour, Fleischmann’s Yeast and the Kansas Wheat Commission. While at the Wheat Innovation Center, finalists ate a meal and toured the facility dedicated to wheat promotion and research.

On June 21, finalists traveled from Manhattan to the Salina, Kan.-area to learn about wheat farming, harvest and storage.

During a bus ride to a flourmill, Aaron Harries, marketing director at the Kansas Wheat Commission, explained the intricacies of wheat production in Kansas, including types of wheat grown, the volume of wheat produced and production practices.

“Wheat in Kansas never fully matures because the heat kills it,” Harries said, while he explained the yield amounts and quality of wheat in Kansas.

Harries mentioned that yields are higher in the eastern part of the state, but quality of wheat in the western half of the state has traditionally been higher.

The tour began with a visit to Farmer Direct Foods flour mill in New Cambria, Kan.—a stone-grinding mill that produces flour for King Arthur Flour, among other brands. While at the mill, finalists were briefed on the processes that create flour from the wheat kernels harvested in the area.

“It was fascinating,” said Rosemary Leicht, a finalist in this year’s festival, about how wheat turns into flour. Leicht’s recipe for onion parmesan cracker bread secured her a place in the final eight.

After the tour of Farmer Direct Foods, the finalists were taken to Kejr Farms, a family operation near Salina, Kan., to see wheat harvest in action.

“Harvest becomes a fun part of the year,” said Joe Kejr, owner of Kejr Farms, to the finalists as he explained the production practices he and his family employ.

Once Kejr had enlightened the finalists to wheat production practices, the group went to a nearby field where wheat was being harvested. Some of the finalists chose to ride in the combines with the workers in the field.

“I found it very interesting,” said Rita Lutz, a finalists in this year’s festival, after she took a ride in a combine. Lutz, a native of Horseshoe Bay, Texas, noted the passion in all the steps along the production chain of flour creation.

“When you are buying your flour off the shelf, you don’t realize all of this is happening,” said Lutz, whose recipe for two grain cranberry and walnut bread brought her to the competition this year.

The final part of the tour was visiting Cargill Ag Horizons grain elevator in Salina, Kan. Here the finalists saw how wheat grain, like that harvested at Kejr Farms, is stored in silos and flats until time comes for the grain to be purchased.

The final day of the festival saw the eight finalists baking their breads in temporary kitchens at the Hilton Garden Inn in Manhattan, Kan. The finalists starting baking at 7 a.m., and their completed breads were due for judging at 3 p.m.

“My bread takes about three hours to bake,” said Merry Graham, one of the finalists in the competition. Graham’s recipe for light and fluffy chia whole-wheat rolls brought her to the festival as a finalist.

“We’ll be making three batches today, so it should keep me on my toes,” Graham said.

The other adult finalists in the competition were Elke Roby, German streusel cranberry bagels; Judi Berman-Yamada, red apple-golden cheddar challah; Marilyn Blankshien, red velvet cinnamon rolls with a twist; Gloria Piantek, Pennsylvania Dutch pretzel slider buns; and Jane Hinrichsen, rich Italian bread.

The winner in the youth portion of the competition was Mardi Traskowsky, a Herington, Kan., teen who baked her bread recipe in a special session for attendees during the festival.

“I will be baking family Italian bread,” said Traskowsky, as she began leading a seminar on how to prepare her recipe. “I chose it because my family loves it and we eat it all the time.”

In addition to Traskowsky’s seminar, the final day of the festival was filled with seminars for guests to attend on topics ranging from the basics of baking to making homemade flatbreads to the use of whole grains in baking.

After the contestants turned in their breads to the judges at 3 p.m., the festival paused until the National Festival of Breads Gala Event began at 7 p.m., at which the winning bread and finalist was announced. During the gala, guests were given the opportunity to taste all of the breads prepared by the finalists during the competition.

“It was really hard for us to come to a conclusion,” said Aaron Clanton, one of the judges for the festival and an instructor at the American Institute of Baking International in Manhattan, Kan.

But come to a conclusion Clanton and his fellow judges did. The winner of the 2013 National Festival of Breads was Rosemary Leicht for her onion parmesan cracker bread; Leicht was awarded $2,000 and an all-expenses paid trip to King Arthur Flour’s headquarter in Norwich, Vt., where she will take part in one of King Arthur’s exclusive baking classes.

“I owe it all to George (Leicht’s husband),” Leicht said. “He’s my head taste-tester.”

All of the finalists’ breads were auctioned off at the gala to benefit Share our Strength’s No Kid Hungry, a campaign that connects kids in need with nutritious food and teaches their families how to cook healthy, affordable meals.

Leicht’s onion parmesan cracker bread brought $500 at the benefit auction. Through the auction and a bake sale held at the festival, the National Festival of Breads raised $2,360 overall to benefit the charity.

Date: 7/8/2013

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