HOUSTON — – Morgan Weber grew up eating poppy-seed kolaches baked by his Czech grandmother, who honed her technique on a wood stove. Kolaches, soft pastries of yeasted dough with a divot in the center, traditionally filled with sweetened cheese or fruit, are a humble link to the Old World.
But in the Revival Market in this city’s Heights neighborhood, Weber and his business partner, Ryan Pera, the market’s chef, serve sweet and savory pastries that are decidedly American: kolaches laden with satsuma oranges or filled with strawberries and ricotta cheese, and savory versions girded with house-made sausages poached in locally brewed beer. On Saturdays, they sell 1,500 of them to a youthful clientele that also snaps up artisanal fare like caraway-spiced goat sausages.
This is the new world of the kolache, a food that now straddles several constituencies: the descendants of Czech immigrants, who still make the pastry in the broad swath of central Texas known as the Czech Belt; the highway commuters who have made it a coveted road food; and the artisans and entrepreneurs around the country who are positioning it as the next-generation doughnut.
As it juggles all these incarnations, the pastry seems to be having something of an identity crisis.
“Kolaches are in the love-child phase of their development,” said Dawn Orsak, an Austin, Texas, folklorist working on a traveling exhibition that showcases Czech heritage in Texas. “The experimental versions got a lot of popular attention. An artisan backlash is peaking now. And another move toward wide popularity is building. Kolaches will probably continue to evolve as part of that cycle.”
The kolache (pronounced ko-LAH-chee) entered the American repertoire in the mid-1800s, soon after immigrants from Central Europe settled in the hills and prairies of central and south-central Texas. The region was once home to more than 200 Czech-dominant communities. Today, the Czech Belt remains a stronghold of traditional culture, where polka bands led by accordion cowboys play church bazaars, and descendants contribute to civic organizations like the Katolicka Jednota Texaska and the Slavonic Benevolent Order of the State of Texas.
Yet kolaches – once considered a svacina (pronounced sfah-CHEE-nah), or midday snack, in Central Europe – are being quickly adopted and just as quickly transformed by all sorts of audiences.
Kolaches and polka bands
This proliferation has been driven in part by Czech-Americans themselves. At festivals sponsored by Czech-led churches and civic clubs, which can attract thousands of people, polka bands play, church matrons cook Praha (a Czech version of goulash) and bakeries serve traditional poppy-seed kolaches. In Ennis, Texas, which holds a polka championship each summer, a grocery store helps finance community classes where Czech baking traditions are taught.
More influential, though, has been the rise of those roadside emporiums, selling everything from beer to deer stands to spiral-bound cookbooks, said Orsak, whose grandmother came to Texas from Moravia in the 1880s. Many Texans, no matter their heritage, now consider kolaches road food, best purchased at a Czech Belt rest stop. (In April, one of them, Czech Stop in the city of West, drew national attention when it stayed open to serve rescue workers after the deadly explosion of a nearby fertilizer plant.)
Now expatriate Texans in places like Portland, Ore., have begun to build customer bases at restaurants like Happy Sparrow Cafe, which serves Nutella-and-banana kolaches. Autumn Stanford, who owns the Brooklyn Kolache Co. in New York City, takes an artisanal tack, selling fruit-filled kolaches like apricot, as well as savory ones stuffed with bacon-wrapped hot dogs of Mexican-American derivation.
The inspiration for her business came from the roadside purveyors.
“My kolache story doesn’t involve Grandmother making them in the kitchen,” Stanford said. “Growing up in Austin, I didn’t even know they were a Czech food. When I was young, both sets of my grandparents lived in Houston. And when we went to visit, we always stopped at Weikel’s, in La Grange, for a bathroom break and a box of kolaches.”
One recent afternoon at Weikel’s Bakery, Pat Thomas, who was traveling from Austin to Schulenberg, Texas, confirmed that road-food imperatives still drove many kolache purchases.
“I came for the cream cheese kolaches,” she said. “And the clean bathrooms.”
Cream cheese, chocolate
Many Czech-Americans here, rather than feeling threatened by new varieties of kolaches that may obscure the pastry’s origins, are so confident of their cultural and culinary patrimony that they embrace them. In that spirit, some church festival organizers have expanded their kolache bake-offs to include the category “other.” And old-guard purveyors like Hruska’s Store and Bakery, in business in Ellinger since 1912, now sell nontraditional cream-cheese-and-chocolate kolaches.
“Maybe the most important thing is that kolaches, in some form, continue to be made,” said Orsak, the folklorist. “And they continue to be eaten. Kolaches have long been a kind of poster child for Czech identity. Now they’re becoming a symbol for Texans. Maybe that’s not so bad.”
COMBINE yeast, milk, sugar and 1 cup flour in a large bowl to make pastry. Mix well, cover and let rise until doubled in size, about 20 minutes.
MELT 8 tablespoons (1 stick) of the butter. Pour into a large bowl and whisk in eggs and salt. Add to flour mixture and mix well. Slowly add remaining 2 cups of flour; the dough will be soft and moist. Turn onto a floured surface and knead for 10 minutes, adding flour as necessary to make a soft workable dough. Place in an oiled bowl, cover and let rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour. Meanwhile, make your choice of filling.
PLACE fruit in a small saucepan and add 1/2 cup water or just enough to cover to make the dried-fruit filling. Set aside until plumped and softened, about 1 hour. When fruit is ready, add sugar, cinnamon and lemon zest. Simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Pure in a food processor or blender and set aside.
USE an electric mixer to beat together cream cheese and sugar until fluffy to make the cream cheese filling. Add flour, egg yolk and lemon zest. Mix to blend and set aside.
ONCE dough has risen, punch it down and divide evenly into 12 pieces. Roll pieces into balls and place on an oiled baking sheet several inches apart. Flatten each ball slightly so it is about 3 inches in diameter. Cover and let rise for 30 minutes.
HEAT oven to 375 degrees.
MAKE crumble topping: In a medium bowl, combine flour, sugar, butter and cinnamon. Crumble with your fingers until mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Set aside.
ASSEMBLE kolaches: With your finger, gently make an indentation in the center of each bun, being careful not to flatten too much. Fill with 1 tablespoon of cream cheese or dried fruit filling and sprinkle with topping. Bake until risen and pale gold, 12 to 15 minutes. While baking, melt the remaining 4 tablespoons butter. When the kolaches are removed from the oven, brush with melted butter and serve warm.Yield: 12 kolaches