Monday, November 16, 2009

Robot, Pistol and Kolache: What will those Czechs Think of Next?

About a year ago I read a story in Gourmet Magazine by Jane and Michael Stern of Road Food fame about kolache, sweet yeast buns that originated in the Czech Republic. The word kolach is loosely translated to mean cake.

I always enjoy the articles by the Sterns but this one was of particular interest. I have a good friend who left the Czech Republic when she was a young girl.

She and I share a passion for breakfast pastries. We figure if we are going to treat ourselves it should be coffee cake and croissants and not a huge dinner.

But I had never heard her pine for kolaches or for that matter, mention them at all.

When I asked her if she had ever had them she said, "of course." Turns out kolaches in Czech Republic are as ubiquitous as doughnuts in the U.S.

But similar to doughnuts and even to medialunas – the small, sweet croissants I fell in love with in Buenos Aires, kolache are a treat that is generally picked up at the corner bakery in any Czech town and not made at home.

Well, not now anyway. My friend quickly produced three Czech cookbooks with at least ten different recipes for making kolache. It seems there are as many different ways to fill and shape the buns, as there are ways to spell and pronounce its name.

Later that summer after my friend returned from a trip to Prague, she showed me numerous photos of kolache and none of them looked the same (and what a good friend to snap photos of baked goods for me while on a vacation).

The cookbooks were fun to look at (even the ones written in Czech) but what I was really excited about was the chance to bake with her family friend, Monika. Turns out her friend who is now in her eighties lived nearby and my friend was certain she would love to bake with us and show us how to make kolache.

I quickly sent Monika a copy of the kolache article from Gourmet Magazine and a note saying I looked forward to meeting her in a few months. She couldn’t meet with us any sooner given her busy social and travel schedule!

In the meantime, I set about learning all I could about kolache.

As I mentioned above, kolache are a sweet yeast bun. They can vary not only in size and fillings but also in the spelling of its name. I've seen the name spelled kolache, kolace, kolach, kolatchen and kolacky. I’ve also seen them called Bohemian, Festival and Moravian Buns.

(I also found it hard to find a consistent answer to what is the plural and singular of this treat. So, for purposes of this post, I’m going with kolache as the plural form and kolach for the singular!)

The traditional fillings are prune, apricot, poppy seed and cheese. They look very similar to traditional American danish in that a yeast dough is topped with a small circle of filling.

But most American danish have a bit of toughness or snap to the dough. A properly made kolach is all about tenderness.

As the name implies, the articles Michael and Jane Stern write for their Road Food series focus on one particular place in America where they have found a unique food or a traditional food that has frequently had an American spin put on it.

Now you can find savory Kolache stuffed with pork sausage and even jalapeños and kolache topped with all kinds of fillings including strawberry and blueberry.

After reading in their article about the obsession Texans have for their kolache, I also found a cookbook written by the Czechs of Nebraska that included numerous kolache recipes. There is also a huge population of Czechs in Iowa as another cookbook attests to.

And Montgomery, Minnesota considers itself to be the “Kolachy Capital of the World”!

How did all these Czechs get to the Midwest? A bit of research found that immigration to the U.S. peaked in the 1900s as many Czechs were lured to the U.S. by the promise of uncultivated land in America, specifically in Texas, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska. And as had many immigrant populations before them had done, they brought their food traditions with them.

And that’s also why many of my older cookbooks include at least one recipe for Kolache, including the Joy of Cooking. The kolach recipe in this cookbook is referred to as Kolatchen and calls for the more traditional fillings of prune and apricot.

Armed with this knowledge, I was ready to bake with Monika. But then sad news, Monika had injured her shoulder and was out of kolach baking commission for a while.

I decided I couldn’t wait to bake a batch so I started looking for a modern recipe for kolache.

Once again, cookbook author and master baker Flo Braker came to my rescue with a simple and straightforward recipe called, Bohemian Kolaches, from her latest cookbook, Baking For All Occasions. Other kolach recipes I found made them seem daunting to make – almost as if you had to grow up at the knee of a Czech grandmother to learn the secrets of how to shape the dough.

Not every baker likes to work with yeast dough. It is time consuming and getting the dough the right consistency can be tricky. But I can’t think of any cookie or cake that can match the smell of yeast bread baking.

One of the things I liked about Braker’s recipe is she acknowledges how time consuming working with yeast can be by offering the option of refrigerating the dough for several hours and up to a day. This cooling of the dough also had the added benefit of letting the dough develop more flavor and because the dough is so soft, refrigeration makes it easier to handle.

Braker also offers a recipe for the traditional kolach fillings – prune or apricot. I chose apricot.

Braker’s gift as a baking instructor shines in this recipe as she clearly sets out each step in the process. The filling of the buns looked to be challenging but Braker suggests a simple solution – buy a tart tamper.

This nifty and inexpensive little device is typically used to make miniature tart shells. In this recipe it is used to make an indentation in the dough. This makes it easier to have the filling stay where it is supposed to and gives the buns a professional look.

My finished kolache got the thumbs up from my friend and from her mother. But I would still like the opportunity to bake with Monika. The pinching and pulling of each piece of dough into a smooth ball was not easy. It would be helpful to watch someone who has made many kolache do it.

And something about reviving a recipe that used to be a standard item made by every home cook is appealing to me. My mom routinely made doughnuts at home while I was growing up. Kolaches are definitely not as messy to make as doughnuts but they still certainly take time and effort to put together.

But just as the Czech language gave us the words Robot and Pistol, they also gave us this very appropriate saying:

Bez práce nejsou koláce

Translation: There are no cakes without work (or no pain, no gain!)

1 comment:

  1. Yet another inspiring, wonderful post! Thanks, as always, for sharing your baking adventures. And of course, I couldn't agree more about Flo Braker's being a wonderful author/teacher! Hugs, Evie