Though Merry Graham has been cooking and baking for years, it has been over the past decade that the local resident has really dedicated her time to traveling the globe as a competitive cook and recipe developer.
Next week, Graham will travel to the National Festival of Breads, America’s Bread Baking Competition, in Manhattan, Kansas, to compete against seven other finalists in the national competition June 8.
“She is like a baking rock star,” said Jordan Hildebrand, program assistant at the Kansas Wheat Commission. “It’s her third time (competing as a finalist), and she’s going for the gold this time.”
The festival will go from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Graham will be challenged to make her Blackberry Ginger Speculaas Danish Wreath not once but three times throughout the day.
This festival is one of Graham’s favorites, because of the opportunities given to finalists.
“Their vision for you is to watch a wheat kernel go from the very beginning out in the wheat fields all the way to final grinding,” she said. “So you get to see all the different steps to get there.”
Contestants are allowed to create any breads they’d like, which allowed Graham to come up with the idea for her bread that included speculaas, a Danish spice blend that usually has a mix of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and allspice.
“When you enter a National Festival of Breads all you do is a ton of research and look all over for any methods that might be different,” she said.
Graham said it took her six different tries to get the recipe just right before she submitted it.
“Too many berries would give you too much juice, so I had to balance that,” she said. “But the interesting thing about this recipe is that it is made with a Japanese starter called tangzhong.”
This technique cooks a small percentage of the flour and liquid (water or milk) very briefly before combining the resulting thick slurry, like a gravy, with the remaining ingredients.
Not only does this allow the bread to keep its shape better, but it also keeps the bread softer, according to Graham.
“But I think the best thing that it does is that the next day if you have leftovers, the bread is still soft,” Graham said.
Before discovering the tangzhong method, she had first begun with a corn starch method that is used in the dough of cinnamon rolls, but when she transitioned to tangzhong, she “couldn’t let go of the cornstarch” and instead settled for a “combo method.”
“In a recipe you want to try and eliminate as many ingredients as possible so it doesn’t look overwhelming,” she said. “So I tried to take it out, but those two tablespoons actually kept the texture softer and helped with the longevity of the bread.”
Graham’s recipes are always unique, and she has “mastered the wow factor,” said Julene DeRouchey, National Festival of Breads co-director.
“She goes all out when she designs her recipes, and she knows how to make her recipes stand out,” DeRouchey said. “She always likes to sneak a little nutrition in her recipes as well.”
In previous years, Graham has snuck in helpful ingredients, like kale and chia seeds, according to DeRouchey.
“Being from California, we always tend to go towards the healthier option,” Graham said. “It’s just the way I cook at home — I don’t cook with packages or very many canned things. Because in California, we have this plethora of beautiful produce. When I travel for other cook-offs, sometimes I have to pack my own stuff.”
Graham also likes to use premium ingredients that make her recipes stand out, DeRouchey said.
“You learn a lot by just experimenting,” Graham said.
The bread recipes from all eight finalists will go into the “Kansas Wheat 2019 Recipe Book,” which will be available for purchase.
Although she has never won the competition, she has won various other titles, including Healthiest Cook In America, Pillsbury Bake-Off Gluten Free Award, Ocean Spray’s Ultimate Cranberry Recipe Contest and was inducted into the Cooking Contest Central Hall of Fame in 2015, which was a special one for Graham because fellow contest cooks from all over the country selected her as the top competitive home cook for the year.
“To me that’s a real honor because that is all your peers — all age groups compete,” she said. “I remember I got all teary eyed because I thought, ‘Wow, they really like me.’”
And while Graham enjoys baking, her true passion lies with cooking.
“I am fearless when I cook and I love to be adventuresome, so this is always a treat for me because bread is challenging and yeast has a mind of its own,” she said. “It’s such a joy for me to enter this contest because it pushes me to the max. Every step of the way was a new discovery.”
After the competition, Graham hopes to continue developing her website, where she has been collecting her various recipes.
“I want to start going through my winning recipes just so have them for my family and my friends,” she said. “That’s my next goal actually, because a blog is just like a cookbook.”
To learn more about Graham or to try some of her award-winning recipes, visit amerryrecipe.com.