To managing editor, Marina Mayer, raisin bread is just bread. That is until she attended the California Raisin Bread Contest.

Made With Love

For the average consumer, raisin bread is raisin bread. Sometimes it contains cinnamon, sometimes it’s covered in glaze, and most of the time, it tastes good. Whatever the case, it’s just raisin bread.

Or so I thought.

After attending the second-annual California Raisin Bread Contest, which took place on Oct. 10 at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kan., I quickly learned that raisin bread is sometimes more than just a good-tasting product.

Sometimes it’s a premium quality product filled with unique inclusions and a whole lot of love.

For example, the grand prize winner for the commercial category, Ronald Guerrero from Caravan Ingredients, incorporated purple wheat flour, which gave his raisin bread a royal hue. He also includedFridge Soft, which is a Caravan ingredient that allows the end-user to put bread in the refrigerator without staling.

Aside from his bread’s purple coloring and functional ingredients, it was his passion that separated his winning bread apart from the crowd.

“I’m just really excited and happy to be here,” he says. “I’m in awe, I’m honored, and I’m already working on next year’s [formula] to make it better. I love this type of environment.”

For the artisan category, the grand prize winner’s Sicilian raisin bread product stood out in large part due to its unique football shape, which was slit down the middle to allow one side of the bread to rise above the other. In fact, I could grip the bread just by placing my fingers underneath the raised side.

The winner, Larry Lobe of Dawn Food Products, also added that ingredient called passion.

“I’m really excited to be back,” he says. “I wanted to come back and win this year, I really did. I worked hard on it, and it all came together. I was happy with my formula. The only doubt that I had was seeing the level of competition. There were a lot of good bakers and a lot of good formulas and, of course, you weren’t sure where you were going to end up.”

Other noteworthy concepts included break-apart Bubble Raisin Bread, which was a co-winner of the Idea prize in the commercial category. Produced by Feng Xie from Caravan Ingredients, this raisin bread was designed so consumers could break it apart in clean sections without crumbs or having to use a knife.

In the student competition, Courtney Lipkins from Johnson & Wales University took home the artisan grand prize for her Honey Nut raisin bread. Meanwhile, Liana Ycikson, also a student at Johnson & Wales University, won the commercial grand prize for her Cardamom Pecan raisin bread, which contains natural and golden raisins, cardamom, ginger and pecans.

“When I found out about the contest, I began experimenting because it requires that it be 50% raisins,” Ycikson says. “So of course I added more raisins and I tested it by soaking the raisins, not soaking the raisins, using water, using milk, different types of sponge methods.”

Although Ycikson is an adult, she participated in the student category because she went back to school to become a chef. However, she hadn’t learned about baking with raisins in any of her culinary classes, so she jumped ahead and studied up on those chapters in order to compete.

“It’s fascinating because now I need to be creative,” she notes. “And I’m thinking, ‘Oh wow. I never thought of that for this contest.’”

Another winning raisin bread, such as Coila Farrell’s Golden Harvest Raisin Bread with Toasted Walnuts, will be distributed during Thanksgiving at Kansas State University’s Derby Dining Center, where Farrell works.

“I was particularly excited this year that we had several new participants who came from all across the states, and from bakeries and companies big and small,” says Larry Blagg, senior vice president of marketing for the California Raisin Marketing Board (CRMB), the host of the contest. “Everyone had a story to tell about their careers and why they love their jobs.”

For example, Herb Fingerhut’s dad starting baking in 1929, and although his product didn’t win, he promises to be back next year with a winning formula.

John Cream, another contestant whose product unfortunately didn’t win, worked as a sales rep for nearly 50 years and finally opened is own bakery in Florida about 3.5 years ago, which has recently begun selling gluten-free products.

Unlike some of last year’s formulas, which were simply versions of a typical raisin swirl bread with cinnamon, this year’s competitors took the contest to a whole new level, Blagg says.

“This year, we had California Raisin breads with cardamom, fennel seeds, ginger, rosemary, habañero peppers, bleu cheese, ricotta cheese and even the purple whole grain flour,” Blagg says.

All 24 bakers and six students were asked to prepare a formula consisting of at least 50% raisins and calculated in 100% baker’s percentages. Then they were required to given an oral presentation outlining the theme behind their product, the ingredients used, the suggested retail price, and more.

“What this event does for the baking industry is absolutely astounding. The learning experience is phenomenal,” says Jeff Zeak, AIB’s plant manager. “Last year, it was only 20 bakers. [The CRMB] asked me if we could step it up a notch so we took it to 30 bakers.”

Aside from developing a winning formula, contestants are faced with other challenges such as not working on their home turf.

“[The contestants] have to come in, use a different oven than what they’re used to using, a different proof box, everything’s different,” Zeak says.

In the end though, hard work does pay off. In addition to their plaques, each of the 12 winners received an all-expense paid, five-day trip to California, which includes tours of Yosemite National Park, San Joaquin Valley and the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley. Don’t worry – the other 18 bakers didn’t leave the contest empty-handed. They received an engraved nameplate.

Additionally, each of the 12 winning formulas will be published in the CRMB’s recipe book and made available to the public.

While each participant walked away from the contest with new ideas on how to better their product, I learned that some raisin breads aren’t just ordinary products, especially when they’re filled with fruit bits, chocolate chips and a whole lot of love.

Congratulations to all of the winners.

The winners for the artisan category are as follows:

Student finalist – Courtney Lipkins from Johnson & Wales University, Providence, R.I., for Honey Nut Raisin Bread

Idea prize – Luminita Cirstea from Kendall College, Phoenix, for Golden Gate Bread
Philippe Sanchez from Marriott International, Orlando, Fla., for Raisin Walnut Blue Cheese Sour Dough Pave

Judges prize – Charles Niedermyer from Pennsylvania College of Technology, State College, Pa., for Dueling Raisins Bread
Mitch Stamm from Johnson & Wales University, Providence, R.I., for California Gold Rush Bread

Grand prize – Larry Lobe from Dawn Food Products, Phoenix, for Sicilian Raisin Bread

The winners for the commercial category are as follows:

Student finalist – Liana Ycikson from Johnson & Wales University, North Miami, Fla. for Cardamom Pecan Raisin Bread

Idea prize – Jerome Davis from Cargill Integrated Bakery Resources, Lake Oswego, Ore., Oregon Trail Cinnamon Vanilla Raisin Bread
Feng Xie from Caravan Ingredients, Lenex, Kan., for Bubble Raisin Bread

Judges prize – Coila Farrell from the Derby Dining Center, Housing & Dining Services at Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kan., for Golden Harvest Raisin Bread
Eric Spelger from Caravan Ingredients, Lenexa, Kan., for All Natural, 100% Whole Wheat Raisin Bread

Grand prize – Ronald Guerrero from Caravan Ingredients, Lenexa, Kan., for Natural Swirl Raisin Bread with 50% More Raisins

Editor’s Note: Go to to learn more about next year’s California Raisin Bread Contest.

Marina Mayer, managing editor