AUSTIN – They’re tender, doughy pastries with Old World European roots that are being called one of the “it” foods of 2015 by the likes of Bon Apetit magazine.
But like so many other trends, Texans have been enjoying kolaches long before they became the menu item du jour of the culinary elite.
We can thank our friends in the Texas Czech community for introducing Texans to kolaches some 150 years ago, when Czech families began settling in spots like present-day Fayette, Austin and Lavaca counties.
Though they were unable to bring many physical belongings on the long voyage by sea and wagon to the black prairie of Eastern Central Texas, early Czech settlers made up for this by bringing their rich culture and traditions with them to the Lone Star State.
One of these was the preparation of kolaches, most likely evolving from the word “kola” – meaning “wheels” or “rounds.” Legend has it that centuries ago, on a farm in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a bored young girl was given a piece of dough by her mother to play with so her mother could continue baking uninterrupted. The girl rolled and flattened her dough, placed some plums in the center, and slipped the pastry into the oven with the rest of her mother’s baking. When her father arrived that evening, he bit into the pastry but was immediately burned by the scalding surprise of baked plums in the center. As he hopped in a circle around the table in pain, the little girl said her father was making a “kola,” or “wheels.”
Whether this legend is the true origin of kolaches – we may never know. But history does tell us that traditional kolaches began as a circular pastry the size of a pie – not like the rectangular treats we see today in Texas – and were prepared mostly for weddings, special celebrations, or Sunday gatherings, when families would visit each other’s homes. Unlike some of the evolutions we see today that resemble a “Hot Pocket,” traditional kolaches were prepared with the fillings resting on top of the pastry, not encased in the dough. Traditional kolaches were typically made with apricot, poppy seed, prune, and sweet cheese—ingredients that were easily in reach for farming families in 19th Century Texas.
Today, kolaches are made with a wide variety of ingredients, including sausage, chocolate, jalapeno cheese—even brisket. They’re sold everywhere from Texas highway rest stops to family bakeries in towns along the Czech Belt, like the Village Bakery in West, Texas, which opened in 1952 and is known as the “First All-Czech Bakery in Texas.” According to co-owner Mimi Montgomery, before the Village Bakery opened, kolaches could only be found at weddings and other gatherings. “There was no business on a commercial level,” she says. “It wasn’t easy to make them in quantity. Luckily, my father was a chemist, and my grandmother, who was Czech, helped my dad develop the recipe.” She claims the vintage, gas-fired oven has been essential to their success. “The oven is part of our secret. It takes years to season an oven like ours. There aren’t a lot of them around.”
Also in West is the Czech Stop and Little Czech Bakery, a combination deli/bakery located on the northbound IH-35 frontage road and known for its sweet and savory kolaches. I visited the Czech Stop on April 19, 2013, just after the tragic fertilizer plant explosion that shook the small community to its core. The Czech Stop is a common meeting place for locals, and the employees are proud to know many of their customers by name. So central is the eatery to the local community that many of the residents, including some injured, flocked to the Czech Stop within minutes of the explosion. I can imagine that being there gave them a sense of normalcy during a horrific time and a chance to check on the condition of their friends and neighbors. The Czech Stop stayed open that night, and in the following days served as a drop-off point for those looking to donate clothing and other items to a community that had lost so much. The store also donated water, ice, and of course—kolaches—to the impacted families.
While we Texans will forever feel a special kinship with kolaches, little by little they are making their way to other corners of the country, with kolache bakeries popping up in places like Portland, Brooklyn and the soon-to-be-launched Republic Kolache Co. in our nation’s capital. Some who were fortunate enough to inherit Old World recipes from grandmothers and great-grandmothers resist the evolution of the kolache, preferring to preserve the more authentic pastry and traditional ingredients.
Dawn Orsak, an Austin-based folklorist who studies Czech heritage in Texas, told the New York Times, “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.”
Wherever the cycle takes them, I’m just glad kolaches are a staple here in Texas, where I know they’ll always remain a Czech-Tex favorite.