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Blue Ribbon

Jean Stinocher’s baked goods win again at state fair
In her kitchen­ Jean Stinocher shows off her award-winning kolaches, which took first place for the second year in a row at the Iowa State Fair. Iowa boasts the largest competitive food department of all state fairs in the country. (photo by Janet Nolte)

SOLON– Around Solon, her kolaches are legendary, as are her famous vinegar burgers served annually at Beef Days. Folks have been known to angle for a slice of her pie or carrot cake when sighted among desserts offered with fish fry at the Stinocher Post 460 American Legion on Fridays during Lent.
In the past couple of years, Jean Stinocher’s baked goods have made judges at the Iowa State Fair smack their lips in appreciation as well.
“When she tasted the kolache, you could read her lips: ‘that was the best kolache I ever ate!’” Stinocher said of the reaction of a state fair judge who sampled her Czech pastries in the 2016 competition, the first year she took first place.
“I would have won first prize (in 2015), but I had five kolaches on the plate, and was only supposed to have four,” she said, a bit surprised by the picky rule. “They could have taken it off or ate it. Because they eat them anyway.”
Disqualified but not defeated, Jean brought her kolaches to the state fair again the following year.
“I did it all right, did the four on the plate and followed all the rules and I won first place last year,” she said.
And not just for her kolaches.
In 2016, Jean also won first place for her pan rolls. The two wins put her in the running for the overall competition in the King Arthur Yeast Rolls division where entries were judged on flavor, texture and appearance. She won, taking home the title of Grand Champion.
This year, Stinocher took a very respectable Second Place Overall in the yeast rolls competition. She won first prize again for her kolaches and second for her pan rolls. The judges had a tough decision.
“They said it was a toss up, but this lady had some Danish rolls that she had made, and the judge said they were just a little bit sweeter than my kolaches,” Stinocher noted.
“That’s okay,” she added philosophically. “Give somebody else the glory.”
Not one to seek recognition for her considerable baking talents, Stinocher might never have entered her goods in the state fair contests without persistent encouragement from her daughter, Janet Lloyd, who lives in West Des Moines. As officers in the Iowa District Optimists, Janet and her husband Tom work on the committee to organize the parade and staff a booth at the state fair. They also get a good look at the food exhibits from year to year.
“Mom, you gotta enter your kolaches in the state fair. Because what was in the showcase didn’t even look like a kolache!” Janet said repeatedly.
“That was several years ago, and I never did it,” confessed Stinocher. “Then one year for Christmas she gave me an entry form to enter my kolaches in the state fair. So I did it three years ago for the first time.”
Raised on a farm in Wyoming, Iowa, Stinocher started cooking for her dad and brother at 10 years old while her mom helped care for her sister’s eight kids. She especially liked baking and experimented with recipes she found in the Betty Crocker cook book.
Around 1953, Jean and her late husband Bob moved to Solon, one of the top 50 towns in the country with the highest percentages of residents claiming Czech ancestry according to the 2000 census. Over the years, Jean became interested in the traditional pastry that Bohemian immigrants brought to Iowa when they settled in towns like Solon and Oxford.
“I thought, I live in this community, so I better learn how to make kolaches. My first batch was not very good,” she admitted. “They were like hockey pucks. It took me a lot of years to get them down pat.”
About 30 years ago, an older lady who lived east of town in a big farm house offered to teach her traditional methods for making kolaches.
“Her name was Lavona Leonard and she was an old Bohemian,” said Stinocher . “Her maiden name was Cerny.
“She decided that she was going to teach me how to make kolaches, so she invited me to her house... And she took me step by step through the whole process… And she gave me the recipe.”
Anyone who has enjoyed Stinocher’s kolaches at the Legion after remembrance services on Memorial Day has benefited from that training. To preserve the legacy, Jean has passed Lavona’s recipe and essential tips for kolache-making down to her daughters.
“They’re doing pretty good,” said Stinocher. “They say, ‘well, they’re not like yours, Mom, but we try.’”
Along with her kolaches and pan rolls, Stinocher took a fruitcake and cinnamon rolls to the state fair this year.
“I make a mean fruitcake,” she said with a mischievous smile. “The reason I say that is because I baste it with brandy when it’s all done.”
Instead of dried candied pineapples and citrons, Jean revealed that she uses gumdrops to round out the conglomeration of raisins, dates and nuts in her fruitcake. In the “other than listed” category for cakes, Jean’s gumdrop fruitcake placed second for the category as well as for the overall division of cakes.
Even though she’s been making them as long as the kolaches, Stinocher’s cinnamon rolls with nuts did not fare so well with the judges. “They pondered over them, and then set them on the table that was ‘maybe to be placed,’” she recalled. “But I didn’t win.”
Stinocher already knows what she will enter in the state fair next year. In addition to her kolaches and pan rolls, she will take her turtles and carrot cake.
This year, she noticed that there was much to be desired in at least one of the candy department’s categories.
“I looked in the showcase and saw the turtles,” Stinocher said. “Oh my God, they were spread all over the place. The caramel didn’t do what it was supposed to do. They looked pretty sad.” Just like her fruit cake, she knows she makes a mean turtle “better than what was in the case at the fair… by far!”
A little surprised at her own candor on this topic, she quickly added, “Not to take anything away from anybody that entered something in the fair, because it’s a lot of work. And there’s a lot of rules to follow.”