Sunday, May 15, 2016

May Fest and 24 Kolaches

Sometimes a person just needs 24 kolaches. I have dough recipes that make as many as 6 dozen, but sometimes I just need 24… staff appreciation day at my son’s elementary school, or a monthly staff meeting at work, or (today) a contribution to the dessert table at Slavnost (May Fest) at the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center (TCHCC) in La Grange. I am a member of the Travis-Williamson Counties chapter of the Czech Heritage Society, but hardly ever go to meetings. The chapter was in charge of the dessert table at the event today, so I decided to finally volunteer with them and also contribute something to the $1/dessert table. I failed to ask what they needed, so brought a pan of kolaches, which the event actually buys from Weikel’s in La Grange.

Other chapter members and TCHCC supporters – all experienced bakers and dessert makers – brought poppyseed and other cakes, apple strudel, pecan and cherry pies, cookies, peach cobbler, brownies and other delicious things.
I wanted to bring something with sort of the equivalent number of servings, so decided to use a recipe for kolaches called Little Batch, which makes one pan of 24. The recipe is from the Catholic Czech Club of Dallas’ 1980 book Generation to Generation and the contributor’s name is Mollie Krizan. (If anyone knows Ms. Krizan today, please get in touch with me so I can talk to her about her recipe.) This was the fourth time I’ve used it and it’s a little gem of a recipe. Soft dough that works perfectly overnight in the refrigerator, and makes a manageable number of kolaches for someone in a 900 square foot apartment. My modification of Ms. Krizan’s recipe is at the bottom of this post.
Eileen Rosipal, Vlasta Vitek, and Janie Zbranek of the
Travis-Williamson Counties chapter of the
Texas Czech Heritage Society. And darn good bakers, too.

There was more information imparted to me about Czech heritage in Texas standing behind the dessert table than in the whole rest of the TCHCC that day, in my opinion. Questions about kolaches and desserts led to discussions about agricultural practices (growing poppies for seeds), Czech language, the health attributes of lard vs. butter, how new products like Crisco changed the Texas Czech table, traditional vs. non-traditional kolach shapes and do they even apply any more, and the division of labor in families, among other topics. The grand dames of my CHS chapter (photo at right) grew up in old school Czech Texas and are so generous with their memories, knowledge, and opinions. I could listen to them all day.

Some crucial tips/opinions relayed to me today from various ladies that I’m going to experiment with…
  • Punch your kolach dough down a few times and let rise again for fluffier kolaches.
  • The more eggs you use in your dough, the softer it will be.
  • Don’t ever call a strudel a buchta! The dough is different and they are not the same thing. (Darn Americans!, I was told.)
  • Use butter instead of Crisco in kolach dough recipes.
  • Evaporated milk in kolach dough = yucky
  • Cottage cheese kolaches made today are not the same as the cottage cheese kolaches made by our collective Czech grandmothers and great grandmothers. They used a drier cottage cheese, which can be replicated today with farmer's cheese.
  • “My mother always made round kolaches” vs. “whatever shape they come out, that’s what shape they are.”
The sweet interior of the 1925 Fair Pavilion on the TCHCC grounds.
The unstoppable Lee Roy and Gwen Petersen of the
Texas Heritage Music and Dance Club.  
The Majek Orchestra of Corpus Christi.
Others at the Slavnost may have been talking as much about food, but the day was filled with other activities, too…. a fried chicken lunch, polka dancing to the multi-generational Majek Orchestra, door prizes and a raffle, admiring a few gorgeous classic cars parked on the grounds, walking around the buildings on the Center’s grounds and seeing the Center’s indoor exhibits, visiting the gift shop and the general store. And, of course, visiting. As always, I ran into several people I’m related to from both sides of my family, and someone I’m probably related to, but neither of us knew our
Lunch of champions from
Shiner Smokehouse and Spoetzl Brewery. 
genealogy well enough to figure out the connection that far back. Doesn’t matter. A beer and sausage wrap and whirl around the dance floor and ALL Texas Czechs are related somehow. Even if it’s just in spirit.

Kolaches (Little Batch) – makes 1 pan of 24 kolaches
Adapted from a recipe by Mollie Krizan in Generation to Generation

½ cup of whole milk
1 packet of dry yeast
½ cup warm water
¼ sugar
½ cup melted Crisco
1 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
3 cups of flour
¼ cup butter for brushing pan and kolaches

Bring the milk just to the boil and then set it aside to cool. In a small bowl, sprinkle 1 packet of dry yeast over ½ cup of warm water and let proof. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the sugar, Crisco, and salt.

Beat the egg and add to the yeast mixture, then add that to the Crisco mixture. Then add the cooled milk to the mixer bowl. Add the flour a ½ cup at a time to the mixer. When it’s all combined, let the mixer knead the dough for 5 minutes. Turn the dough out into a large buttered bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and put into the refrigerator for overnight.

Take the dough out to rise at least 2 hours before you expect to make and fill the kolaches. When risen, scoop out the dough by tablespoons to make 24 balls. Arrange them in a 4 x 6 array on a buttered, rectangular pan with a lip. Brush the dough balls with butter and let them rise again 20-30 minutes. Use your two index fingers to mash or spread an indentation in the middle of each dough ball. Fill with a heaping tablespoon of the filling of your choice. I mash and fill one row of four kolaches at a time. Brush the sides of the filled kolaches with butter. Sprinkle with posipka and bake in a 325 to 350 degree oven until golden brown – 15-25 minutes. This really depends on your oven. My oven runs hot so I bake them at 325 for 25 minutes, but most recipes call for baking kolaches at 350 for 15-20 minutes. Just experiment. Brush the koalches with butter once more after taking them out of the oven.

Texas Czech royalty - me and the lovely Monika Cavanaugh,
Miss Texas Czech-Slovak 2016. I want a sash, too.
Maybe one that says "I bake kolaches."
Polka royalty - National Polka Festival King and
Queen fueling up for the dance. When else does
a grown woman get to wear a crown around?
I want one.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Sunday Visiting

In rural Czech Texas, visiting with family and friends on Sunday after church used to be an important weekly activity (probably still is for some families) – a way to stay connected, share news and concerns, and further the cooperative spirit that’s helped Texas Czech culture last so long. I love this description of Sunday dinner by Robert Skrabanek in his book “We’re Czechs” (Texas A&M Press, 1988.)

“Sometimes we went to a friend’s house, along with three or four other families, to eat Sunday dinner and to spend most of the rest of the afternoon. If it was our turn to be hosts, we left [church] as soon as we could so Mama and the girls could get dinner ready as soon as possible. Once dinner was ready, the men always ate at the first table. After they were through, the women ate at the second table, and we kids ate at the third table. While our parents were eating, we passed the time playing games, and by the time it was our turn to eat, we were hungry enough to eat the table. One good thing about Czech families was that there was always plenty left so we had our fill of everything on the menu.”

My baby brother, Stephen came for lunch some Sundays ago, also to stay connected, share news and concerns. Though we both live in Austin, we don’t see each other that often, certainly not weekly. We ate at the same time! I modeled the food I served on lunch meals visiting with relatives in Frenstat pod Radhostem in Moravia, in the Czech Republic.  Stephen brought the beer. We had soup, and plates of cold items that we could make open-face sandwiches with—boiled eggs, pickles, sliced meats and veggies, and cheeses with slices of crusty bread. Having soup is a traditional way to start a Sunday lunch for Czechs. In Texas, chicken noodle soup was an overwhelming favorite.

I had an abundance of small amounts of vegetables left in my fridge, so instead put together a soup based on the one my family has for Stedry Vecer (Christmas Eve.) But at the last minute remembered kapanky, which is sort of a noodle substitute, made by dribbling a runny egg and flour mixture into the hot soup, making ribbons. When I was a child, my cousins and I called my grandmother’s version of chicken broth with kapanky “cloud soup”. I also heard her call it “ruffling soup.” Whatever you call it, it’s easy and delicious and seems to delight children.

Vegetable Soup with Kapanky 

¼ c. chopped onions 
1 garlic glove, minced 
2 carrots, sliced in rings 
1/2 zucchini, diced 
1/2 yellow squash, diced 
1 tomato, diced 
1 c. sliced mushrooms 
1/2 green pepper, diced 
2 quarts vegetable or chicken broth 
salt to taste 
lots of black pepper 
parsley to taste, finely minced 
Sauté all the vegetable together in a couple of tablespoons of butter in a medium sized pot. When they just start to get tender, add half the broth and cook until you they’re done to your liking. In another smaller pot, use the second half of the broth to make the kapanky in (recipe below.) Combine the two pots and season with salt, pepper and fresh parsley. Serves two with leftovers.

Kapanky (Egg Drops for Soup) 
from Otillie Naizer Maresh, Travis-Williamson Counties CHS Czech Heritage Cookbook 
1 eggpinch of salt 
2 tablespoons flour 
2 to 3 tablespoons milk or water 
Beat the egg well. Add salt and flour and beat well. Mix in the milk or water. This batter is then dropped by tablespoons slowly into any boiling chicken or meat soup. Cut down the heat and cook for 5 to 10 minutes. The drops will come to the top. We called these soup drops "kapanky."
Texas Czech accordionist France Barton offers this apt description of these faux noodles. “My mother made kapanky very often; she would drop the kapanky dough (flour, egg, and salt mixture of a runny consistency) into chicken broth that usually also had onion, tomatoes, celery, and lots of parsley. So delicious. A little like Chinese egg drop soup, except the Czechs always used flour in the mixture.”

Here’s a 10-second video to help you understand the process, if you’ve never made kapanky.

My brother Stephen and me. Ten years apart in age, but simpatico in sprit.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Folklore and Foodways; Connection and Inspiration

Monica Pope's Texas Czech dinner at the
Foodways Texas symposium in Austin.

When it rains, it pours. I was fortunate enough to participate in three different events in the last three weekends regarding work to highlight and preserve Texas Czech culture. I’m tired, but I’ve been inspired, encouraged, and challenged. Any one of these events deserves its own blog post, but I have a backlog of things I’d like to write about, so I’ll cover all three together in this post. Rather than acting like a reporter documenting the events, I’d like to offer some of the questions I’ve been formulating after listening to and connecting with really interesting and passionate folks the last three weeks doing their own cultural preservation work.

My first Texas Foklore Society Annual Meeting...
the Society's 100th! So honored.

At the Texas Folklore Society 100th Annual Meeting the first weekend in April, I presented a paper I called “Texas Czech Foodways: More Than Kolaches.” I wanted to give the group of folklorists, writers, and historians an idea about the richness of traditional Texas Czech food. My paper was only one of two focusing on foodways at the meeting, but I learned so much about what makes a great presentation and how to hold the audience’s interest by listening to other presenters on topics that ranged from Irish cowboys to April Fools Day jokes in the Victoria Advocate newspaper. My paper’s premise is that the easiest way for non-Czechs to be exposed to Texas Czech food is by visiting the bakeries and meat market/barbecue restaurants around the state.  But what other places and events should I recommend the next time I do such a presentation? Church picnics and festivals surely. Family farms that sell produce, eggs, and noodles, too? The very few restaurants in Texas that claim to have Czech or Texas Czech dishes on their menu?

Sausage at Moravian Hall in Corn Hill, made by members just for their annual event.
In turn, I was also questioned by audience members. What festivals and picnics did I know of that made their own sausage especially for their event? Was I aware of the small, but potent Czech community in west Texas whose food traditions are still going strong at places like St. Ambrose Church in Wall, St. Joseph’s in Rowena, and St. Boniface’s in Olfen? I was not aware, but am grateful that I now know. Road trip!

The next weekend, I sat on a panel called “Gender Roles in Texas Czech Home Kitchens” with four other Texas Czechs as part of the 6th annual Foodways Texas Symposium. The panel included moderator/writer Sarah Junek, baker and Caldwell Kolache Festival founder Lydia Faust of Snook, Texas A&M professor Clint Machann who literally “wrote the book” about Texas Czechs (Krasna Amerika: A Study of the Texas Czechs 1850-1939), and the owner of the Old Main Street Bakery in Rosenburg, Nicholas Maresh. (Photo below.) We talked about men and women's roles on the farm 60 or 70 years ago, and the fact that half the kids Lydia now teaches how to bake at her local SPJST lodge are boys. 

Left to right: me, Clint Machann, Lydia Faust, Sarah Junek, and Nicholas Maresh.
The most thought provoking questions from the audience seemed the simplest, too. Which kolach flavors are “original” or came first, and what is the traditional fat used in kolach dough? Lard, Crisco, butter, vegetable oil? A case could be made for all of them because, of course, the word “traditional” is so subjective. One person’s “traditional” recipe from their grandmother, who embraced the joys of Crisco when it was introduced in 1911, is not another person’s idea of traditional. Is there such thing as THE traditional kolach in Texas?

Great bakers of two generations.
The speaker that followed our panel—Monica Perales of the University of Houston—gave a talk about Mexican-American women and their food work that had direct parallels with my investigations into Texas Czech foodways. I couldn’t take notes fast enough during Monica’s presentation. How did the choices that Texas Czech women made in feeding their families help strengthen or dissolve their children’s Texas Czech identity? When they decided what foods to prepare, how to accommodate children’s tastes, how to save time in the kitchen by using a new product or gadget, they were doing “cultural work” too, in that what they served at their tables would collectively and over time effect Texas Czech food’s power to be a marker of cultural identity. Were the same choices being made in the community’s “home kitchens” – church picnics, KC halls and various festivals? Who was the first Texas Czech who decided to use cream cheese in kolaches and when? Or coconut in strudels? What brands of noodles were offered to homemakers in Texas Czech communities who didn’t want to make their own?

Kitchen in the Migl house on the grounds of the
TCHCC in La Grange.

A fascinating presentation by Brandon Aniol of the Landmark Inn historic site in Castroville got me thinking about historically accurate cooking demonstrations in the house of my great-great-grandparents (who were Migls), which was moved to the grounds of the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center in La Grange. Could I learn to bake kolaches in a wood-burning oven while wearing long skirts without using my KitchenAid? Imagine the upper body strength and stamina our ancestors had! Aniol also talked about the difficulty of replicating past ingredients. An audience member mentioned making one’s own yeast. Did my Czech ancestors do that? Did they make kolaches from dewberries if they were growing wild along fences? Were some recipes I’ve found for venison in community cookbooks from Texas Czech areas really a traditional Czech preparation?

Monica Pope and her Chicken Schnitzel

The celebrated Houston chef Monica Pope (Sparrow Bar + Cookshop), who had a Czech grandmother, prepared the last dinner of the symposium… her own delicious take on Texas Czech flavors. During Monica’s dinner I wondered how far someone could take the commonly associated ingredients of Czech food—garlic, dill, poppyseeds, cabbage, vinegar—and still call a dish Czech? This has direct bearing on the current cultural discussions about bastard kolach flavors (I use the term “kolach” loosely) like saag paneer, bacon and brie, and even Nicholas Maresh’s cream cheese and chocolate. These thoughts were in my head as I savored Monica Pope’s cole slaw with poppyseed dressing, chicken schnitzel, and noodles with fresh dill.

A little polka from the Czech Melody Master to accompany Pope's meal.
For more information about the Foodways Texas event, see two great blog posts by Kelly Yandell and by Abby Johnston

This last weekend on April 17th, Lori Najvar and I hosted an absolutely fascinating music program at the Texas State Capitol Extension Auditorium in Austin by accordionists and music scholars Frances Barton and Dr. John Novak on the sources of seven of the Texas Czech community's most beloved "folk" songs. There were 125 people in attendance, which we all considered a triumph of marketing, word of mouth, and the popularity of Texas Czech music. The lecture/demonstration was both informative and interesting, but the loveliest moment was when Frances and her daughter Jubilee sang the Wedding Song in harmony to John's accordion accompaniment. Just the night before I’d watched the recent film Brooklyn. In one scene, the main character—an Irish immigrant in the early 1950s—is transfixed and teary-eyed with homesickness, listening to another immigrant sing an Irish folk song. Hearing the Wedding Song sung by Frances and Jubilee brought tears to my eyes, too. Can someone be homesick for a place they’ve never lived (Czech Republic) and a time before they were born? I seem to be.

Top row: Lori Najvar, me.
Bottom row: Frances Barton, Jubilee Barton, Dr. John Novak.

Photo: Gary McKee.
The questions I was asking myself as I listened to Frances and John’s presentation were about how I could bring the same level of scholarship and research to Texas Czech food that they’re bringing to the community’s folk songs. Could I trace a recipe to its origin and explain why kolaches look the way they do in Texas and what picnic stew has in common with gulash, for example? The last three weekends have bolstered my commitment to try.  

The music program was offered in conjunction with the travelling exhibition Texas Czechs: Rooted in Tradition which is on display at the Capitol Visitors Center in Austin through June 12th. 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Mazanec, Nadivka, and $2 Bills

Easter has always been a holiday for which my immediate and even extended family gets together. My parents and six of their ten grandchildren are pictured at left on Easter Sunday last week. We have traditions around the day, from putting out baskets, of course, dyeing eggs, the Easter egg hunt for the kids, to some dishes my parents make every year, but nothing I've thought of as Czech. Our Easter celebration over the years has seemed a mix of Catholic and American activities and foods.  

I've been divorced for years and spent many Easter weekends at my parent's house, where we would dye eggs together and the Easter Bunny would visit overnight. This year was the same with my youngest son asking to eat the candy out of his basket before I'd poured the cream in my coffee. But for the last few years, I've managed to bake mazanec (Czech Easter bread), which my Czech grandmother did not make. She did make vanocka (Czech Christmas bread) though, and the recipes are almost identical, so I say I'm reviving the tradition of baking mazanec. We had made the mazanec the night before, so I had something to get into my son quickly before the sugar hit his system.  Process photos of the baking are below.

Mazanec dough rising.
Buttering the dough balls.
Finished mazanec with raisins and sliced almonds.

I used The the mazanec recipe out of The Czech Book: Recipes and Traditions, compiled by Pat Martin. The recipe was from a Mrs. Frank J. Stastny of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Apologies to Pat and Mrs. Stastny, but I was not happy with the recipe. The bread didn't rise like it should, which I think had something to do with the way the recipe directs you to proof the yeast. It still tasted delicious dipped in coffee, which is how my mother remembers eating vanocka on Christmas morning. And I made the recipe into six small loaves, so we could eat one and then send the others home with my siblings and parents.

My sister and mother.
Nadivka is another dish that is traditional in the Czech Republic, but not served in Texas-Czech homes. At least, I've never heard of it being served or anyone that was familiar with it. My sister surprised us all by showing up with nadivka this year, a savory "present" she called it for me and my parents. It was delicious and understandably a perfect Easter breakfast or brunch dish with its eggs, bread cubes, and smoked ham (Christmas ham from the freezer! - we are resourceful Czechs and do not throw food away.) It was a like a strata or very dense quiche baked in a loaf pan. And, being the modern super woman my sister is, she connected with her cultural traditions by Googling. She found a story about the Czech food maven Hana Michopulu and followed it to this recipe for nadivka.  Then she used bolillos for the bread cubes, because we are Texans, too, dang it! (Add another recipe to the Tex-Mex-Czech repertoire.) My parents and I decided nadivka would be our new Easter Sunday breakfast dish in the future, made the night before and baked in the morning while the kids are critiquing the Easter Bunny's gifts in their baskets.

Nadivka using smoked ham and spinach. 
My parents traditionally serve the following menu at our Easter lunch: smoked ham, asparagus or green beans, several other vegetable dishes that change year to year (this year peas with mushrooms, carrots with parsley, a layered green salad, and au gratin potatoes) and deviled eggs.

My family LOVES appetizers and usually laments how full we are before lunch is actually served (but never change our ways), so we had boiled shrimp with my dad's family-famous red sauce, a crudites platter, assorted cheeses and pâté,  pickles and olives. My sister nodded to her husband's Greek heritage with basil pesto hummus and accommodated a vegetarian son with kale and quinoa salad.

First cousins!
Desserts included lemon bars, decorated sugar cookies, and my mom's Strawberry Devonshire Tart. The tart has nothing to do with our family heritage; my mom tore the recipe from a magazine in the late 1970s and has been making it to usher in spring ever since. It always works.

My niece, Emma, in my parents' backyard garden.
After lunch, there was much running through the house by the grandchildren and talking and drinking of mimosas and other drinks by the adults. Piles of dishes were washed. The hounds were released (i.e. Easter egg hunt in the backyard.) There was discussion of my mother's garden, the profusion of blossoms on the tangerine tree, and the fact that "Easter lilies" my mother had planted in her backyard, transplanted from her mother's yard, bloomed THAT morning.

Me and my son in my parents' backyard in Katy.
We all Facetimed my nephew, away at college in Alabama, by passing the iPhone around the house. More treats were distributed by my mother as we left for home... a Godiva chocolate bunny with a $2 bill tied to his neck. This tradition comes from my grandmother who would give her grandchildren $2 bills at Easter. Why? I don't know, but I still have a few my grandmother gave me, and my sons have all of theirs.

I do find it a little strange that traditional Czech food is not a bigger part of our Easter menu. My mother's family had a very traditional Christmas menu, so I wonder why dishes didn't get passed down for Easter, too. But my grandmother had only 3/4 the number of children (8) that my great-grandmother Morkovsky did (11). My mother had only half the number of children that her mother had. And I had only half the number of children my mother had. Not so many people to get together and cook for (or have around to help.) My grandmother lived her entire adult life in Hallettsville, with a population around 2,500 (now) and brothers and sisters on farms in the surrounding counties, while my parents moved all over the country before settling in Houston. And two of my siblings live in a city of 4 million people while by brother and I live in Austin (will be 4 million people if we don't watch out.) And of course, my mother worked full-time for much of her adult life as do I, which my grandmother did not do. The socioeconomic factors of moving from rural to urban areas, women with full-time jobs, and having much smaller families have taken their toll on many Texas Czech cultural traditions.

But still, the picture below sums up for me the essence of what still remains and that I feel absolutely blessed to experience... CLOSE family with lots of multi-generational interaction. We play together and we work together (even if that's just to pull together a delicious Easter lunch and then get the dishes done.)

My son, sent flying by my brother, while our niece watches the shananigans.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Ghosts of Kitchens Past

This is my maternal grandmother's kitchen in Hallettsville. She passed away over four years ago, but she's still here. Her favorite basic recipes are still taped to the inside of a cabinet door. Comforting smells still drift through when her children and grandchildren occasionally cook in the house that otherwise sits empty. When my mother and I use the kitchen, we say things like "Does Datu have any oil here?" or "She keeps dishtowels in that bottom drawer." My mother and an aunt may shop for supplies for the visitors to the house, but my grandmother "keeps, has, needs" the supplies. In a way, she is the house and the house is her.

When I arrived at the house Friday to meet my parents for a weekend of visiting, I grabbed a Shiner and went to sit on the back porch and look out at the yard. A St. Francis statue sits atop a birdbath in the center of a little rose garden a few steps from the porch. The bath attracts cardinals, or my grandmother just called them redbirds. She would watch them from the kitchen window, who’s view looks straight at the rose garden. She would always remark about them being there or not being there at different times of the year. I heard recently about the legend that cardinals represent loved ones who’ve passed on, so I was not surprised that there was one sitting in the tree closest to the rose garden when I sat down on the porch.

Speaking through my mother and my memory, my grandmother offered occasional guidance yesterday as we baked a batch of kolaches and klobasniky. My mother and I invariably talk about my grandmother in her kitchen, from what ingredients she used in HER kolaches, to how her kitchen equipment works and how she dealt with it, to how she might tackle a particular cooking problem. I don’t remember my grandmother making kolaches that often (I remember klobasniky and cheese or apricot rolls). As she got older, she left the kolache-making to her sister Bessie Kocian or, after Bessie died, to her son’s mother-in-law, Vickie Klimitchek. 

Whether my grandmother was a master kolach maker or not, she was certainly with us yesterday as we baked. The finished kolaches were the best I’ve ever made. With my mother’s advice, too, I feel like I finally got all the components right at the same time (though my grandmother’s ancient oven was too hot in spots and the pastries browned a little unevenly.) The dough recipe I used, which is so good I’m not ready to share it yet, was given to me by an aunt who got it from a friend who contributed it to a community cookbook. We filled the kolaches with either poppyseed filling or cream cheese-cherry (from dried cherries.) Everything was done from scratch. And we made a dozen klobasniky with a link of City Market’s (Schulenburg) Smoked Jalapeno Pork Garlic Sausage.

Some things I learned yesterday regarding ingredients:
1) My grandmother only used Maeker’s sausage (Shiner) because it was easiest to peel the casings off of before using them in klobasniky.  If you’re making dozens and dozens, this would be a huge chore, so finding a brand that was delicious and easy to peel was a must. City Market’s worked well for us, though. The casings weren’t too hard to peel off and we lost hardly any meat.

2) My grandmother used Solo canned poppy seed filling on occasion. My mother informed me of this as we bought poppy seeds at Hoffer’s for my next filling recipe test. I’d never thought of using the canned filling until seeing it sitting next to the loose, dry seeds, but after picking up the can and seeing that the first ingredient was corn syrup, decided I’d never try it.

Regarding making kolaches in general…. it takes a village… of Texas-Czech women to pass these baking traditions on. The recipe I used yesterday came from my aunt who’d called me to say “THIS is the recipe… you have to try it.”  My first attempt at the recipe was taken to a polka dance in Austin last month, where a lovely older lady constructively offered that I double the amount of filling I was putting in each kolach, which made a huge difference yesterday. I made the kolaches with my mother, who was enthusiastic, encouraging, and patient, which I needed. My grandmother’s spirit presided over the effort and her 75 years in this house and stocking the kitchen yielded all the equipment we needed for the job... seasoned pans the perfect size, an old school pastry brush for the butter (don't use the new silicone ones), and multiple sets of measuring cups to get dirty and keep working.

Lastly, we dropped off kolaches to Erwin and Carolyn Kolacny at their barbecue joint. Carolyn launched into a stream of sweet little stories about her grandmother’s and mother’s cooking and family food traditions that reminded me why I care about learning and mastering the staples of Texas-Czech food in the first place. Her mother passed in the last year or so, so perhaps she, too, has been thinking of kitchens past and was eager to share her happy memories.

I ended the weekend visiting my grandparents' graves. I thought about leaving a kolach on my grandmother's grave as a thank you offering for the spiritual oversight, but decided she'd think that was pretty wasteful. And the fire ants it would attract!! So I left a half dozen in her freezer instead for the next time I visit the house... a good test of their freezability after being baked. She'd think that was a lot more practical. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Tex-Czech Party Food

The travelling exhibition Texas Czechs: Rooted in Tradition has finally landed in the State’s capitol city and co-curator, Lori Najvar, and I tried to throw an opening reception with fabulous Czech and Texas Czech food. The reception on January 16th at the State Capitol Visitors Center (CVC) was attended by close to 200 people, who might have enjoyed the food as much as the exhibition.

Pavla Van Bibber's gorgeous sweets, klobasniky, and open faces sandwiches. 
Texas Czech food tends to be heavy and meat-based, so Lori and I brainstormed about how to transform traditional Texas Czech dishes into finger food for a party… no utensils, not too much sausage, small bites. With a mix of sweet and savory, Czech and Texas Czech, and enlisting the considerable skills of chef Pavla Van Bibber, we put together a menu that worked. 

Faithful volunteer, Kay, loading up trays. 
This is what we served. Feel free to borrow the list for your own Tex-Czech party:
  • A deconstructed cucumber salad (cucumber, tomatoes, onions, marinated and skewered) – Lori’s own recipe.
  • Cesnekova pomozanka – this is an addictive, intensely flavored garlic dip for which I’ve seen various recipes. My first exposure to it was in Brno, made by friends who used only butter, quark, and a scary number of garlic cloves. But I used a recipe from David’s Delicious Photoblog (David Placek from Canada.) It got rave reviews at the reception and is especially good in the wintertime when everyone’s immune system needs a little bolstering. We served it with crudités (celery, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers) to sneak some vegetables onto the table. 
  • Open-faced ham sandwiches made by Pavla. Guaranteed the most beautiful sandwiches you’ve ever seen, and a variation on the Czech chlebicky.
  • Stary syr, which literally translates as “old cheese” – this cheese spread was originally made with homemade cottage cheese, but you can use store-bought, large curd cheese if you drain it. I used the no-miss recipe by Sandra Mueller Dierschke in the cookbook “Tempting Recipes” collected by Court Sacred Heart #797, Catholic Daughters of America in Hallettsville (below.) I’ve heard this called “stinky cheese”, though I’m not sure why and many older Czechs remember bowls of it sitting on their mother’s kitchen cabinet.
  • Jitrnice – This old school Czech product is liver sausage (though many Texas Czechs mistakenly call it head sausage) and it’s baked and served with bread and molasses. I baked jitrnice from City Market in Schulenburg.
  • Strudels and other baked goods – apple, poppyseed, and cheese strudels made by Pavla Van Bibber, along with various cookies, ruzicky, kolaches, and klobasniky.
Me preparing jitrnice on bread.
Cooked Czech Cheese (by Julie Pavliska, from Sandra Mueller Dierschke)
1 pint cottage cheese 
1 good teaspoon baking soda 
½ teaspoon salt 
1 Tablespoon butter 
¼ teaspoon caraway seed (you can add more if you like) 
Squeeze liquid out of cottage cheese.* Add soda and salt. Mix together with hands until the texture is sticky. Let stand for 2 hours or so. Empty cheese into a pan with butter. Cook slowly until melted and creamy. Add caraway seed. Mix and empty into a bowl and let cool. Enjoy! Great on rye bread.
* I accomplished this by scooping the cottage cheese into cheese cloth and literally taping the cloth to the side of my kitchen sink to drain the cheese. Many older Texas Czechs remember their mothers or grandmothers "hanging" the cottage cheese this way. I don't have a clothes line to do it on (like my grandmother), so I improvised. It worked great! 

Texas Czechs: Rooted in Tradition documents and celebrates the rich culture of Texans of Czech descent. It includes 11 photo montage panels, photographs, artifacts, and short documentary films shown in a multi-media “station.” Topics include taroky, music, language, community celebrations, Sokol, and, of course, food, presenting a contemporary picture of the diversity and richness of Texas Czech culture today. There's an entire panel devoted to food and a short film about Shiner Catholic school's annual strudel bak, but food gets mention in other places, too, like the panel about community celebrations and the short films about church picnics, wedding traditions, and the first words people learned in Czech.

Pavla Van Bibber sprinkling sugar on her strudels (in a
beautiful kroj, no less.)
The exhibition is on display at the CVC through June 12th. The CVC is located on the southeast corner of the State Capitol block at 1201 San Jacinto Boulevard. (It is not located inside the State Capitol itself.) Weekly hours are Monday-Sat 9am-5pm, Sunday noon-5PM. Closed Easter Sunday. There is free parking at the Capitol Visitors Parking Garage.

All photos in this post not shot in my kitchen were taken by either Maria Minor or Lori Najvar. See lots of great photos from the reception on PolkaWorks' Flickr page

View into the exhibition at the Capitol Visitors Center.