When the pandemic set in, countless people took to baking at home. Ask anyone and they would probably discuss their sourdough starter with you. But Ana Barth, director of Marshall’s Global Programs and Partnerships (GPP), took pandemic baking several steps further.
“Early on in the pandemic when we were under lockdown, baking bread really helped me relax and also helped me cope with the isolation,” she said. “It was something I looked forward to doing every few days.” As she improved her skills, she began experimenting with different recipes and ingredients. Soon, her family didn’t even need to buy bread at the store anymore.
When she heard about the National Festival of Breads and decided to enter with her Savory Thai Peanut Sauce Rolls, she had no idea that she would go on to not only be a category finalist but both the adult people’s choice award winner and 2021 Best of Breads Champion.
Sponsored by King Arthur Baking Co., Red Star Yeast, and the Kansas Wheat Commission, the National Festival of Breads competition began in 1990 as the Kansas Festival of Breads and opened up 16 years later to the rest of the US.
Held once every two years, it typically draws thousands of bakers and is the country’s premier amateur yeast baking competition.
In 2019, the Kansas Wheat Commission hosted over 3,000 people in Manhattan, Kansas where finalists got to ride a combine to witness wheat being harvested from the fields. This year, however, because of the pandemic, the event announcing the winners was held virtually on Facebook Live on Wednesday, June 9th.
Barth’s GPP colleagues were right there via a Zoom watch party, cheering her on.
During her finalist interview, she discussed how growing up in Thailand, her mother taught her to cook and instilled a love of food. But it was an international experience that broadened her horizons beyond the taste of home.
“My exposure to food that is different from Thai food was when I studied abroad in Japan in college,” she said. Then, in 1991, she came to the US for grad school and worked part-time at a restaurant, honing her skills.
For her savory rolls, Barth mastered the tangzhong starter technique often used in Asia that helps ensure fluffy, soft bread. About her recipe, Barth noted the Thai red curry paste and coconut milk along with creamy peanut butter “tastes like you are having peanut butter—but with a kick.”
Travel—both personal and in her role managing Marshall’s global immersion courses—has continued to play an instrumental role in her baking development.
“As I travel, I can’t always afford the Michelin star restaurants, but I can always afford to go to the best bakery in town,” she said. “Traveling and seeing different people in different cities making their local bread and desserts kind of inspired me. And I want to repeat that at home.”
Barth added, “I really love seeing family and friends enjoy the breads that I make. To be recognized at the national level for something I enjoy doing so much is pretty surreal, and I am so honored.”
She will receive a trophy—which might just earn a place of honor in her Bridge Hall office when she returns to campus this August. And because she will receive a one-year supply of both flour and yeast, among many other prizes, she might just have some bread to share with people who stop by. (ed note: yes please!)