Dori taking the kids out in the Swedish double-buggy.
Picture this photo with a five year-old standing on a running board between my arms, and two large, braided loaves of challah riding on the rack beneath the little kids’ bottoms. That was the image the time this city girl decided to enter her bread in the New Mexico State Fair. (And I’m pretty sure that’s the day the buggy exceeded it’s weight limit, and one of the wheels became warped.)
We were living in the mountains just outside of Albuquerque, in a somewhat isolated area, where a trip to the big grocery store meant a 20 mile car ride. With three kids at home, ages 5, 4 and 2, I was happy to putter around the house, rather than wrangle them all into the car, and so it happened that I spent a lot of time baking bread. I challenged myself to go without using store-bought bread. Through a co-op we belonged to at the time, I ordered 50 pound bags of different kinds of flour. I baked whole wheat bread, molasses bread and a beautiful two-toned swirly bread, but our favorite was the challah I learned to bake from my Cousin Betty’s recipe.
Our mountain newspaper had a notice that the New Mexico State Fair was coming to Albuquerque. Being raised in a North Shore suburb of Chicago, I’d never so much as set foot in a state fair before, but I knew that people took bread and had it judged there. Doug was out of the country for two weeks and I was looking for something interesting to do, so I decided to enter.
I entered two separate contests: The Fleischmann’s Yeast Bread contest (with a cash prize), and the New Mexico State Fair bread contest. As I filled out the paperwork the official asked me for my empty Fleischmann’s yeast packages so she could staple them to the entry form. I’m a pretty loyal Red Star yeast user, so her request made me pause. She didn’t miss a beat, thankfully, and handed me a three-pack and a pair of scissors. “There’s a trash can under the table.” I snipped off the ends, emptied that sad yeast into the trash can, and handed her the packages to staple to my Fleischmann’s entry form.
My sister-in-law, Donna, a veteran fair goer, later informed me that picking one’s category is crucial when entering a contest. But at the time I didn’t give it a lot of thought and I chose the “holiday bread” category because challah is a Jewish sabbath bread, and the sabbath is our most important holiday — right? Unfortunately, Easter sticky buns fell into the same category. In fact, there were over 30 breads in the holiday bread competition.
The judging was fascinating. A celebrity food judge from one of the local television stations was tasting the breads for the Fleischmann’s contest. I watched with my three squirmy kids, still buckled into the buggy, while the judge took a slice from the very center of each loaf, holding some up as examples of having a good “crumb” or crust.
The kids held out long enough for my bread to be held up by the judge, who said that he was from Philadelphia and he knew what challah tasted like and that this was the best challah he’d ever had. I won a big fancy third place ribbon, and $30, which almost paid for parking and four ice creams. Later, when I talked with the judge, he told me that I should have entered in the international category. Maybe next time.
I had to drive the 20 miles back up into the mountains so that I could get Max to afternoon kindergarten, and I missed the judging of my other loaf. I called later to find out the results and learned that I had won the first place ribbon in the New Mexico bread contest. They put the bread on display in the case for the 10 remaining days of the fair and asked if I wanted it back at the end. I said no. But I did go to town to fetch my ribbons, and I framed them to display in my kitchen. With thanks to Betty Jane for her fine recipe.
My framed ribbons on the right. On the left is a “Santo,” a painted image of a saint that I got in Taos, New Mexico. On the back it says: Saint Marta. Patroness of housewives, dietitians, domestic workers, waitresses and lay sisters, invoked to protect the home.
For the dough:
- 1 package yeast (2¼ tsp.)
- 2/3 c. sugar
- 2 c. warm water
- 1 egg
- 3 Tbs. oil
- 1 Tbs. salt
- 2 c. whole wheat flour
- 4 c. (about) white flour
Mix together and brush on before baking:
- sunflower, poppy and/or sesame seeds, about ¼ cup total
- Proof the yeast: Mix together the yeast and sugar, add the warm water, stir, and let it sit for 20 minutes. It should get foamy.
- Add the rest of the dough ingredients, putting in just enough white flour to make a smooth, not sticky dough.
Knead for about 10 minutes.
- Cover and let rise for about 3 hours, or until doubled in size. Shape into two small loaves or one large loaf. Place loaves on a greased cookie sheet or into greased loaf pans if you want sandwich-shaped loaves. Cover and let rise for one more hour.
- Brush with the egg/honey mixture and sprinkle with some seeds. Bake at 350˚ for 35–40 minutes.
You can find this recipe (and many more!) in these cookbooks:
The Plate is My Canvas: Recipes and Stories from My Family’s Interfaith Kitchen
You Can’t Have Dry Coffee: Papa’s Excuse to Have a Nosh And Nana’s Perfect Pastries