Food & Drink | October 2016

By Abby & Kevin Tankersley

Czech Delights

Kolache.

How do you pronounce that word?

Chances are, you’re wrong, at least according to Alice Lunakova and Bessie Zemanek.

If you’re from around these parts, placing your order at the Czech Stop or Village Bakery or Slovacek’s in West, you say kuh-lah-chee.

But that’s not correct. And Lunakova and Zemanek should know.

Bessie Zemanek was Abby Tankersley’s grandmother. Her mother, Maria Havel, was born in 1883, in Archlebov, in the South Moravia region of the Czech Republic. Havel came to America when she was 16 and married Joseph Wolf in 1905 at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Bryan. Zemanek was born in 1910 and learned to cook at her mother’s side in their house in Smetana, a community six miles west of Bryan. As an adult, Zemanek and her husband, Joe, lived in a house on 28th Street in Bryan until she died in 2002, two days shy of her 92nd birthday. And it was in this house, at Zemanek’s side, that Abby developed her love of cooking and learned the correct pronunciation of that word: ko-lach.

Alice Lunakova lives in Prague, Czech Republic, and studied languages at Masaryk University in Brno. She was in Waco recently for a presentation at Baylor University’s Carroll Library. And she began her talk — called “How Kolaches Came to Texas: A Social and Cultural History of Czech Migration” — to the standing-room-only crowd by speaking about Texans’ love of kolaches and how those pastries made their way to Texas.

Lunakova first came to Waco two years ago to continue her education at McLennan Community College, which has been hosting students from the Czech Republic since 1998. It was during that trip that she first learned of Czech communities in Texas, including, obviously, West.

“The Czechs came to West in 1880,” she said, looking for fertile land to farm. “And I am so happy, coming from a small and not-very-famous country, to find a Czech town in the U.S.”

She then proceeded to give a linguistics lesson because, as she said, “I like correcting people.”

“The Czech word is kolache,” she said, but pronounced it just as Zemanek did: ko-lach. And the plural is ko-lach-ay, with the emphasis on the last syllable.

“You say kuh-lah-chee, kuh-lah-chees. OK, guys, that is not correct,” she said, laughing.

Lunakova’s talk was a much-condensed version of her 90-page thesis about the Czech migration to Texas.

“Food connects people, and there are kolache-lovers here,” she said in an interview the day after her presentation.

Lunakova, who was on her third trip to Texas, said that lots of what she ate here was sweeter than back home, including items such as yogurt, bread, drinks and even her beloved kolache. And she noticed that even when Americans try to do the right thing at the dinner table, there’s an issue.

“I appreciate that you eat vegetables, that you try to eat healthy,” she said, “but you put all kinds of sauce there. I have not seen anybody who would just eat the vegetables. No, you have to put sauce on it. We don’t even have that many sauces.”

To avoid the vegetable/sauce debate, we’re going to offer up only Czech pastry recipes. The end result of the kolache recipe below will not look like what’s available at those wonderful bakeries in West. There you’ll find open-faced kolaches, with the fruit filling sitting atop the dough. This recipe calls for enclosing the apricot filling within the dough and topping the pastry with a wonderful sweet and crunchy topping. You could use another fruit filling recipe if you like or use a poppy seed filling. But whatever you do, make sure you call this pastry what it is: ko-lach.

The Recipes

Old Country Czech Apricot Kolaches

  • 2 packages active dry yeast
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/4 cup warm water
  • 2 cups whole milk, warmed
  • 7 cups flour, divided
  • 1 egg
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 stick butter, melted
  • Apricot filling (recipe follows)
  • Posipka (recipe follows)

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In a measuring cup, add the yeast and sugar to the warm water. Let sit for 10 minutes, or until the dry ingredients are dissolved.

Pour the yeast mixture, milk and 3 cups flour into a large bowl and mix thoroughly. Set in a warm place and allow to rise for 45 minutes.

After the dough has risen, add the egg and egg yolks, salt, sugar and melted butter. Using a large spoon, mix until smooth. While kneading, gradually add 3 1/2 cups flour and continue to knead until the dough doesn’t stick to your fingers. Sprinkle another 1/2 cup flour on top of the dough and let rise for an hour in a warm place.

Spray a baking sheet with nonstick spray or line with parchment paper. Sprinkle some flour on a clean counter and spoon out about a tablespoon of dough. Stretch into a 3-inch diameter. Place about a tablespoon of the apricot filling on top of the dough and pinch closed. Place the kolache, seam-side down, on the prepared baking sheet. Continue, leaving a bit of space between each kolache, until the baking sheet is full. Brush the tops of the kolaches with melted butter. Press a pinch of posipka on top of each kolache. Let rise for 30 minutes.

Heat oven to 350 F. Bake kolaches for 25-30 minutes, or until they’re lightly browned. After you remove them from the oven, brush with a little more melted butter. Makes 3-4 dozen kolaches, depending on how big you make them.
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Apricot Filling

  • 1 pound dried apricots
  • 1 cup orange juice
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick), cut into pieces

Place apricots and orange juice in a saucepan. Set over medium-low heat and simmer until apricots are tender, for about 25 minutes. Stir in sugar and salt. When dissolved, add the butter and remove from heat.

When the butter is melted, pour the mixture into a blender and pulse a few times, leaving the apricots in small chunks. Pour into a bowl and cool before adding to the kolaches. Makes enough for 3-4 dozen kolaches.
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Posipka

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 1 cup sweetened coconut flakes
  • 1 cup pecans, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 cup butter, softened

In a bowl, use clean hands to mix all the ingredients together thoroughly. Makes about 2 1/2-3 cups.
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Czech Delights

  • 2 egg whites
  • 1 1/2 cups brown sugar
  • 2 1/2 cups ground pecans
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Heat oven to 250 F. Spray a baking sheet with nonstick spray or line with parchment paper.

In a small bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Pour into a large bowl and add the sugar, ground pecans, salt and vanilla. Mix well with a rubber spatula.

Drop by the teaspoonful about 1 inch apart onto the prepared baking sheet. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until they are set and no longer appear wet on the top.

Let cool on the pan. (This is an important step. If you try to remove the cookies before they’re cooled, they’ll simply crumble.) Makes 4-6 dozen cookies.
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Potica (Slovenian Sweet Bread)

For the dough:

  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup milk, warmed
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 large eggs yolks
  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 2 packages active dry yeast
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

For the filling:

  • 3/4 cup dried dates, chopped
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 3 large egg whites
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup pecans or walnuts, chopped

 
Before baking:

  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 1 tablespoon sugar

 
To make the dough:

Lightly spray a large bowl with nonstick spray. Set aside. 

In a large measuring cup, mix the butter, milk, sugar and egg yolks together. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, stir 2 1/2
cups flour, yeast and salt together. With the mixer on low, add the milk mixture. After the dough comes together, increase the speed to medium and mix until it’s shiny and smooth, for 4-6 minutes.

Turn the dough out onto a heavily floured counter and shape into a ball. Knead just until the dough is smooth, for about 20 seconds. Place the dough in the prepared bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rest in a warm place until doubled in size, for 1 1/2-2 hours.

To make the filling:

While the dough is rising, in a small nonstick skillet, bring the dates, milk, 3 tablespoons sugar and cinnamon to a simmer over medium-high heat. Lower the heat to medium-low and cook until the milk is evaporated and the mixture turns to a thick paste, for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature, for at least 30 minutes.

With an electric mixer, beat the egg whites at medium-low speed until frothy, for about 1 minute. Increase the speed to medium and gradually add the 3/4 cup sugar until incorporated, for about 1 minute. Increase the speed to high and beat until the whites hold soft peaks, for about 2 minutes. Add the date mixture and beat on low speed until just mixed, for about 10 seconds.

Spray two 8-inch cake pans with nonstick spray. Punch down the dough, remove it from the bowl and divide it into two balls. On a lightly floured work surface, roll each piece of dough out to a 20-inch square. Spread each square with half the filling and top with half the pecans or walnuts. Roll each into a cylinder and arrange in the prepared pans in a spiral. Cover with plastic wrap that has been sprayed with nonstick spray and let rise for 1 hour.

Place an oven rack in the middle of the oven and heat oven to 350 F. Before baking, brush the dough spirals with the beaten egg and sprinkle with sugar. Bake until golden brown, for about 25-30 minutes. Makes 2 loaves, each serving about 6.


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