“Ko-what-es?” Every so often on the Cook’s Country team, I get an assignment to develop a recipe for a dish I’ve never heard of. A quick Google search and I had the basics: round, yeasted, pastries filled with sweetened cheese or fruit, brought to this country by Czech immigrants. One of the best-known kolache enclaves is central Texas, where thousands of Czech immigrants settled in the late 19th century. With a little help from Texan colleagues and their contacts, I had the pronunciation down (
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In the weeks leading up to the trip, I set up meetings and tours with Texan kolache bakers and tried a few recipes to get my bearings before meeting the experts. At first, it seemed that the ingredients that made a kolache a kolache were flour, sugar, butter, milk, eggs, yeast, and salt. Sounded like brioche, only less rich. I’m comfortable with brioche—great. A few called for shortening or vegetable oil in place of the butter or baking powder in place of the yeast, but between talking to the pros and our testing process, it would be easy enough to settle those debates. The odd thing was a fairly widespread admonition about over-mixing leading to tough kolache—which was totally counterintuitive.
I wasn’t exactly in love with any of the kolaches I had baked back at the test kitchen so I was anxious to taste the real thing. My first stop was a place called Kolache Depot, just south of Dallas in Ennis, Texas. Although Kolache Depot has two other locations that are standalone bakeries, this particular Kolache Depot was the first of several stops that turned out to be in a gas station.
I have to say, I was pretty nervous about the prospect of non pre-packaged food at a gas station. Luckily, being such a huge state, and the drives between cities so long, Texas has a lot more game in the road food department than my local 7 Eleven.
I had heard from some Texan friends that there are a few different categories of kolache and this first stop seemed to cover the bases. There were the classic “Czech-y” style, disk-shaped (sometimes baked very close together so they had squared-off sides), with an indentation in the middle containing apricot, prune, poppyseed, or sweetened cheese filling. Then there were the Texas takes on fillings, more like pie filling than Danish filling, with flavors like cherry, apple, blueberry, and pineapple. Finally, there were the savory kind, which didn’t look like the same sort of thing at all. Kolache Depot had sausage kolaches (spicy or not, with or without cheese) that looked more like long rolls than pastries, the bread completely enveloping the sausage. I ordered one of each, and when asked if I wanted them warm, answered that I’d take them however the natives did—so she popped them in the microwave. I was a little put off but I don’t know what I was expecting—it was a gas station, after all. As it turned out, both the savory and sweet kolaches were more like rolls than pastries—not very sweet, only slightly richer than sandwich bread and not much more tender either. They were plenty tasty and perfectly wholesome, unlike the shriveled hotdogs turning listlessly on greasy rollers you’d normally find in a gas station, but I had a vague feeling of unfulfilled expectations. I was trying to come into the project with an open mind but I was beginning to realize that if I didn’t find a little more magic than rolls and jelly in a gas station, I was going to be disappointed.
My next stop was “West, comma, Texas”, not to be mistaken for west Texas. Residents of West sometimes pronounce the comma to prevent confusion and perhaps to point out the irony of a town called “West” being located in the center of the state (between Dallas and Waco). West is home to three Czech bakeries and Westfest, a three-day Czech heritage festival featuring a kolache competition.
My first stop in West was the place to get a kolache, according to most everybody I asked. This time, I had been warned about the gas station situation.
And again, I was relieved to see a bright and tidy bakery case inside.
I had heard that Czech Stop sells more kolaches than any other kolache outfit in the state. I called Barbara Schissler, the CEO, to see if she could put an exact number on it—she couldn’t—but she did offer a tour. The tour made it perfectly clear why Ms. Schissler didn’t have a tally of kolache sales handy… the building went on for what seemed like miles and was outfitted with all kinds of humongous kolache-making tools. Cookie, a manager and Czech Stop veteran of over 20 years, showed me around and explained the process.
The dough is mixed on mixers with bowls large enough to bathe in. Cookie reiterated the common warning about too much mixing making tough kolaches and said that the bakers at Czech Stop follow a gentle, shorter mixing regimen than a typical bread recipe.
Once the dough is mixed, it’s stacked on rolling racks to rise, then rolled into the walk-in refrigerator to be stored for the night.
After rising the kolache dough is shaped and filled by a legion of women with very nimble fingers. Czech Stop sells kolaches filled with everything from the typical sweetened cheese to pepperoni and pizza sauce.
The ovens at Czech Stop are almost big enough to drive a car into and hold dozens of pans of kolaches. The racks are motorized and revolve slowly throughout baking so the enormous batches bake evenly and the bakers don’t have to open the oven to rotate dozens of huge pans while the oven is on.
Finished kolaches are cooled, then transferred to the bakery case or shipped around the country to people who call in orders.
The sweet kolaches at Czech Stop, like the peach one on the left, are baked quite close together in the pan, so they’re squared off around the edges.
The savory ones, like the “pepperoni pizza” on the right, are bun-like with filling inside, like the ones at Kolache Depot.
Czech Stop was an incredible operation, shipping kolaches nationwide and feeding the thousand of travelers who pass through on Interstate 35 between Dallas and Austin. The kolaches were similar to those at Kolache Depot. I liked the idea of peach filling, but while I found the scale of the operation breathtaking and the focus of the army of bakers humbling, I wondered if something had been lost in scaling the operation up to produce thousands upon thousands of kolaches.
The other bakeries in West were strictly local operations, so I took a short drive around the corner to Gerik’s, which is also a smokehouse and a restaurant.
The sweet kolaches at Gerik’s are round and the indentation for the filling is broader. The more ample dent made for a more pleasing ratio of bread to filling, and these small-batch kolaches were a little more tender and moist than those at Czech Stop. I suspected that their mixing method was more similar to a typical bread dough, but unfortunately the bakers had left for the day and I had a lot more stops to make so I’d have to phone them later.
Because Gerik’s is also a smokehouse, their sausage kolaches are serious business. The house sausage they use is thicker, meatier, and smokier than any others I tried. The counter staff at Gerik’s arranged to overnight a box of their kolaches to Boston for my team back at the test kitchen to try.
Village Bakery was my third stop in West and was deeper into the town than Czech Stop, which is on the interstate, or Gerick’s, which is just around the corner. I waited at the train tracks while a seemingly endless freight train lumbered across the main drag. The town center had a dusty, slightly rundown look, but there was something stately about it. Despite the conspicuous number of vacant buildings, I got the feeling that, in its heyday, West was probably a picturesque town—a destination—even if now it was more of a place you go through rather than to.
Village Bakery’s storefront had a sleepy, retro look, and I wasn’t surprised to find a group of retirees inside having coffee and exchanging the local gossip. The offerings at Village Bakery had more of a Czech bent, the filling selection focused on the classics: apricot, poppyseed, and cheese. They had a similar paper-plate-and-microwave setup and the kolaches were comparable to Kolache Depot, but they offered some other pastries—among them, something called buchta.
Buchta uses the same dough as kolaches but rather than being shaped individually, the dough is rolled out into a rectangle, spread with filling (poppyseed paste or lemon curd), then rolled like a pinwheel, baked, then served sliced. Village Bakery served it chilled, which I never would have considered doing, but admittedly found very appealing. The filling-saturated dough yielded a completely different experience from the standard kolache while using the same ingredients, resulting in a sweeter, moister, fork-and-knife-ier affair. I’ll definitely be trying my hand at making it at home sometime.
I had charted a course through Austin, where I’d stop at some chain kolache shops: Lone Star Kolaches and Kolache Factory. I didn’t expect to find perfection in a fast food kolache chain, but was fascinated by the idea that the region could support multiple chain outlets for a food virtually unknown in much of the rest of the country.
Both Lone Star Kolaches and Kolache Factory were located in nondescript strip malls and were pretty much what I expected—that is, after it occurred to me to expect a kolache chain restaurant at all. They were tidy and well air-conditioned, with a sterile sort of décor that reminded me of Dunkin Donuts (a doughnut chain that’s widespread in the northeast and ubiquitous in the Boston area).
The interesting difference between the kolache culture in West, comma, Texas and the kolache culture at the chain restaurants was the relative popularity of the savory kolache in the chains near Austin. Lone Star Kolaches and Kolache Factory both offered a mind-blowing variety of savory options, and other customers seemed uninterested in the classic sweet varieties. I had found sausage or sausage, cheese, and jalepeño at many of the independent outfits, but the chains had everything from huevos rancheros (mediocre) to barbecue beef (about which I later found scrawled in my notebook, “tastes like a McRib with a side of cigarette butts”). The savory kolaches were more round than elongated, unlike the more loaf-shaped sausage kolaches I’d found further north. Here, kolaches weren’t about Czech-American pride—they had been incorporated into Texas road culture and seemed intended for Texans in search of a self-contained on-the-go snack. I could see the purpose, but I was still hung up on finding sweet kolaches, impeccably executed by bakers who would be willing to share their expertise… and two days into a three day trip, I was beginning to worry I wouldn’t find them.
I had one more stop scheduled in Boerne, northwest of San Antonio. I’d just enjoy the scenery (which was incomparable), choke down a few last kolaches, and then catch a flight back to Boston—kolache catharsis or no. Imagine my surprise when I pulled up to Little Gretel Restaurant, which (rather than gas pumps out front) had a well-appointed slate patio and elegant border plantings. Inside, I met chef/owner Denise Mazal, a classically trained chef and Czech ex-pat. I had hit the jackpot.
Denise excused herself to freshen up from a busy brunch service while the host sat me down on the patio with some iced tea and two plates of picture-perfect kolaches: about 4 inches in diameter, perfectly round with broad wells of filling ringed by a puffy rim of shiny and perfectly browned dough. I bit into one and it was light and well-risen, perfectly seasoned, lightly sweet, and overall very similar to brioche. They were amazing. Denise returned, sat down, and asked how I liked the kolaches. I wanted to tell her what I’d been through with the gas stations and the bizarre mixing instructions, and about how many bags of kolaches I had guiltily deposited in trash cans along I-35, but I was so overwhelmed that all I could get out between mouthfuls was, “I love them. No, seriously, you don’t understand. I love them.” She asked me where I’d been and when I got to the bottom of my list, she stopped, looked at me gravely, and asked, “So, you liked those kolaches?” The panic in my face as I scrambled to craft a diplomatic response must have been perfectly obvious because she cracked a knowing smile—she was testing me. Once it was clear that we had an understanding, Denise took me into her kitchen.
She had the ingredients measured out in small bowls on the table. She rattled off the amounts in a way that made it clear that she wanted to give me an in-depth conceptual education without letting me leave Boerne with every detail of her personal recipe—fair enough. Denise mixed together the flour, sugar, and salt in the big bowl of her commercial Hobart mixer, and then put on the dough paddle, added the milk (in which she had bloomed the yeast with a little extra sugar), eggs, some extra yolks, and melted butter.
She mixed it until it came together. Then she turned up the mixer and let it spin for several minutes until the dough was smooth, shiny, and elastic.
“So you mix it just like bread?” I asked. “Oh yes—it is bread,” she replied. When I mentioned the warnings about over-mixing, she got flushed and started talking faster as she explained her own frustration with the state of the kolache in Texas, which she summed up like this: “People eat these things in gas stations and think that Czechs can’t cook.” She showed me how to roll the dough into individual balls, covered the pan, and set them aside to rise. While the dough was rising, Denise regaled me with kolache myths and legends.
She told me about old recipes that called for letting the dough rise under the covers in bed—which made a strange sort of sense. Houses that are heated by stoves get cold overnight, and if you make bread first thing in the morning, the warmest place in your house is the bed you just got out of.
Next, she told me about wedding kolaches, which aren’t necessarily a variety of kolache so much as just kolaches you make for a wedding. The tradition has fallen off a bit, but many Czech and Czech-American women still pay a 1,000-kolache dowry (although now the kolaches are more of a refreshment for the celebration than a dowry). The idea behind the tradition, she explained, was that the kolaches served as proof to the man that his betrothed had the skills to keep him well-fed. Denise’s wedding kolaches were very petite and were more cakey and buttery than her standard kolaches.
So how had the Texan kolache wound up on a divergent course from the Czech kolache? Denise posited that young Czech women arrived in Texas with their mothers’ recipes but were on their own to navigate different unfamiliar ovens, ingredients, and weather. These novice bakers had raw instructions but little hands-on help. It seemed logical, but there’s no way to know for sure. What I did know for sure: I was now in on Denise’s crusade to restore honor to kolaches.
Just then, a timer went off and Denise rushed off to check the dough. It was ready. Next, she transformed each ball into a disk with a puffy perimeter and a deep well in the middle by pressing slowly with a special cylindrical wooden tool that looked just like my great-grandmother’s potato masher.
She explained that a spice jar or drinking glass would do just as well. Some of the other bakers I met had used their fingers to make the indentation but their kolaches couldn’t hold as much filling, often caved in, and didn’t look as neat and uniform as Denise’s. I’d definitely be taking her advice on shaping.
Next, she filled them—some apricot, some cheese, some poppyseed.
She let them rise just a few minutes, egg-washed them (beaten whole egg and a little milk), and then it was time to bake. While the kolaches were in the oven, Denise explained that there are different types of kolaches. She even had a visual aid.
The Frgál was round, about the size of a pizza, and painstakingly decorated. Denise told me a story about how, during medieval times when men went to war, the women would send them off with a frgál. The nuts and elaborate fruit design represented the landscape, villages, and people that the men were supposed to be protecting from invaders—men getting forgetful on medieval Czech moonshine was allegedly a serious security risk. Denise made an absolutely gorgeous frgál, which she served chilled.
Denise eschews the savory “kolache.”
Instead, she serves a delicious “sausage in a bun” at Little Gretel.
The timer sounded again, and the kolaches were finished. They were every bit as delicious as the ones she had served me on the patio. I had now tasted the standard of kolache perfection. I was ready to get to work on a recipe that would bring kolaches back into home kitchens and, as Denise hoped, prove to American that Czechs can cook.