Saturday, July 9, 2016

150 Years in Texas

This month marks the 150th anniversary of my Orsak family being in Texas, according to my great-great-great grandfather's Record of Declaration, which notes that he "arrived at the port of Galveston on or about the 1st day of July 1866."

At our annual family reunion (for our downline of Orsaks) late last month, this momentous occasion was marked with a little speech from my father and signage in the door prize plants. We went about our usual reunion activities... sharing lots of food, children whacking a piñata, selling our baked goods to each other in the silent auction, telling embarrassing stories about when we were kids, listening to Don Orsak play the accordion, and visiting.

Czech foods were most abundant in the silent auction. People could outbid each other (for the good of next year's auction) to take home an apricot/cheese roll, kolaches by two different women, a cheese roll with pecans on top, a poppyseed roll, buttermilk pie, and five or six different kinds of canned goods.

There were, of course, varied and glumptious (to quote the new movie The BFG) dishes stretched out along the dinner and dessert tables. For posterity, I always make a list of what's brought each year and then walk around with my notebook looking like a canvaser for family traditions asking people what dish they brought. (Mostly in case I want to contact them for the recipe later.) My favorite comment this year was "Who brings lasagna to a Bohemian event?" (We're actually Moravian, and the lasagna was delicious.)

Me and my great aunt Marcella,
the oldest Orsak descendent and my grand-
father Orsak's only living sibling. She
brought barbecued brisket and
German potato salad.
This year, we could all partake of the following
savory dishes:

3 kinds of sauerkraut
broccoli-rice-chicken casserole
2 lasagnas
green beans with potatoes and bacon
green beans with dill sauce (recipe below)
green beans
corn on the cob
pulled pork sliders
pork loin with apricot sauce
pork roast with rice
3 other pork loins or roasts
2 dishes of baked ham
two pasta dishes
okra with bacon
sliced barbecued bricket
German potato salad
roast with potatoes and gravy
chicken wings
macaroni and cheese
red beans and rice
slices sausage from Novak's in El Campo
gumbo and rice
crawfish dressing
loaves of white and what bread
two plates of deviled eggs
canned peaches
kvasena (refrigerator pickles)
other pickles
fresh fruit platter
pasta salad
sauerkraut salad
creamed fruit salad
fruit salad
black bean-corn salad
cole slaw
couscous salad

Orsaks and food go together like vegetables and cream sauce. 

I brought sauerkraut salad and the green bean recipe below. It was given to me by an Orsak relative at the 2011 reunion, but this was the first year I'd brought it. The recipe notes that "Louise Orsak [my great aunt] makes this and so do some of her kids. It's a favorite of almost everyone." I checked with Aunt Louise's daughters who thought they recognized the recipe, but didn't remember the vinegar in it. I suppose is could be left out, but it balances the flavors nicely. You're on your own as far as quantities go, as I was. You can do it. 

Green Beans with Dill Sauce (typed below as written) 
Cook fresh green beans with onion and some salt til almost tender. Melt some margarine in pan 1/3 cup. Add 1/4 cup flour, fry til light brown. Drain some water from the beans with some milk to make a thick sauce. Add a little vinegar to taste and 2 to 3 tablespoons chopped dill. Drain beans. Add sauce to them and simmer briefly in sauce. 

The dill sauce recipe below is from The Czechoslovak Cookbook by Joza Brizova (Crown Publishers, 1965) and it is so similar to the one above, I like to assume my recipe was handed down from my Orsak relatives since coming from Moravia 150 years ago.

Dill Sauce (Koprová Omáčka) 
Prepare white sauce (below). Add 2 tablespoons minced dill. Add sugar and lemon juice to taste.  
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup flour
2 cups stock
salt to taste
1 cup light cream or milk
1 or 2 egg yolks 
Melt butter and blend with flour. Add stock and salt; simmer for 30 minutes. Mix cream with egg yolks and pour into sauce, stirring constantly. Do not boil. Serve over vegetables. Makes about 3 cups. 

Dobré jméno, nejlepší dědictví. 
English equivalent: A good name is the best of all treasures.

Monday, June 20, 2016


Though you probably think this post is going to be about Texas Czech church picnics, it's actually about just a regular family picnic last Saturday, which was International Picnic Day (always celebrated on June 18th.) In honor, my son and I headed out to a local park. But, of course, I used it as an opportunity to explore traditional Texas Czech food and diverge with inspiration a bit, as well, and luckily my youngest son will eat almost anything.

It was hot, there was no breeze, there were ants and flies, but it's always fun to eat outside. Actually, it's more than fun. I personally love spreading a blanket on the ground instead of sitting at a picnic table.  There's something magical and romantic about relaxing under a canopy of trees and lazily sampling a little of this and a little of that. My youngest son and I have spent many glorious mornings in Zilker Park in Austin eating a breakfast picnic after dropping my older son off at the ungodly hour of 7am for cross country practice. On sightseeing trips in the Czech Republic, my host friends would pop open the car trunk and we'd eat pâté spread on bread right out of the cooler.  I used a picnic lunch to woo a wonderful man last summer (though the magic unfortunately didn't last.)  Pot luck picnics among parishioners started something that would last... the Pražská Pout or church picnic of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Praha in Fayette County (161st picnic this year!!), celebrated every year on August 15th, no matter the day of the week. 

On a sightseeing trip up to Pernštejn Castle
in South Moravia, which was followed by
an impromptu picnic in the car park - 1998. 
What I brought along in my cooler last Saturday is below. Except for the sauerkraut salad, I wanted all finger foods.

   sauerkraut salad (recipe below)
   Shiner Smokehouse sausages (boiled, sliced and browned and brought in tin foil to keep them warm) with my sister's cabbage-fennel relish
   deviled eggs
   cold cheeses with homemade white bread (made that afternoon in my bread machine)
   sliced tomatoes from my Aunt Deniese and Uncle Gary's garden
   my parents' kvasena (refrigerator pickles)

Kvasena, a deviled egg, and homemade bread with salted butter
and home grown tomatoes.

Shiner Smokehouse sausage on homemade bread topped
with cabbage-fennel relish canned by my sister.

My son was most excited about the homemade bread and the sausages, which he piled on top of each other with the cabbage relish. I was anxious to eat the sauerkraut salad, which I'd made for a family reunion and had leftover, but hadn't actually eaten at the event. Family reunions are the only places I've ever been served sauerkraut salad, except that it's one of the choices on the salad bar at Picha's Czech-American Restaurant in West. There are many versions in community cookbooks and the flavor can be altered depending on the type of sauerkraut you use (sweeter or saltier, more or less sour, caraway seeds included or not.) I used Central Market's Organic Sauerkraut in a one pound bag (no caraway seeds), found cold in the "deli section" of my local HEB.

I was mostly afraid of sauerkraut salad when I was younger and a less adventurous eater. I imagined hot sauerkraut with flecks of bacon or sausage refrigerated until it was cold and congealed and then salad dressing poured on... yuck. But it's nothing like that. This recipe makes a light, sweet-sour, crunchy salad with an interesting mix of flavors with the raw onion, sweet carrots, black pepper, tangy kraut. There's no oil in it and no need. After a night in the fridge, it makes its own sweet-sour dressing.

Sauerkraut Salad
adapted from a recipe by Mrs. Julius Bucek in Temptin' Recipes, collected by Court Sacred Heart No. 797, Catholic Daughters of America, Hallettsville, TX, 3rd Edition, 1977

1 pound of sauerkraut, drained  
1 cup grated carrots
1/2 cup diced celery
1 green pepper, diced
1 medium onion, diced
1/2 cup sugar
salt and pepper to taste 
Combine all the ingredients, cover, and let sit in the refrigerator overnight. Toss well before serving and taste again for salt and pepper. Serves at least 8 as a side.

(We are, of course, in the middle of church picnic season, too. Please see an article I wrote for Edible Austin's Outdoor issue earlier this year, which includes recipes for stew, potatoes with butter and onions, and rosettes.)

Monday, May 30, 2016

Pampelišky (Dandelions) Greens Salad

I have been thinking about pampelišky (dandelions). A few popped up in the grassy areas around the apartments where I live and they always remind me of the Czech Republic. Three reasons…. first, the word pampelišky is one of my favorite Czech words to say. Second, they remind me of a day in 1996 when I visited a friend living in Brno and we drove to a nearby lake. He went swimming, but the water was too cold for me, so I sat on the bank in the softest, greenest grass I’d ever seen and felt, which was dotted with sun-yellow dandelions. I have a visual memory of this beautiful afternoon… one of the mental “happy places” I go to, should I need to. Third, my great-great-great uncle Josef Kalus wrote a book of poetry published in 1925 called Pampelišky, cover pictured at right. 

The power of Facebook and a kind stranger yielded this translation from Czech of the 4-line melancholy poem on the flyleaf of the book…

Dandelion, you are an image of human glory,
you have once bloomed like gold in the grass,
your glory has not been spread into the world yet, 
and already feathers fall out of your gray head.

Last Saturday, I got together with two of my first cousins (one’s mother and the other’s father are two of my mother’s seven siblings), their spouses, and a few friends to bake kolaches and make a Texas Czech lunch, so that I could test recipes. We grilled several kinds of sausages, but experimented with salads and sides. Texas Czechs aren’t known for vegetable recipes necessarily and I wanted to see what we could come up with besides potato salad and cole slaw.

Zoy and Josh, two of my 25 awesome first cousins.
I had already known about wilted lettuce or wilted greens salad, but in searching for something really interesting, I ran across the variation below for Dandelion Green Salad in a cookbook I bought at the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner.  The book is comprised of recipes submitted by employees, Shiner residents, and friends, and every recipe has Shiner beer in it, if course. The majority of recipe contributors have Czech or German last names, reflecting the area in Lavaca County.

I asked the Czech mother of a Texas Czech friend about whether Czechs actually made wilted greens salad and she said they did, but she thought it was a regional thing. Her mother made it (from Moravia near the Slovakian border), but her mother-in-law (from a different region in the CR) did not. She also commented that the dandelion stalks could be used as a celery substitute, if they weren’t too tough.
Dandelion Green Salad
Submitted by Ruth Terpinski
“A Taste of Texas: Cooking with Beer from the Little Brewery in Shiner, Texas”, 1986
4 cups young tender dandelion greens or other greens
4 hard cooked eggs, chopped
4 slices bacon, cut up
1/3 cup Shiner beer
1 Tablespoon honey
In a salad bowl, combine dandelion greens and chopped eggs; set aside. In skillet, fry bacon until crisp. Remove from heat. Stir Shiner beer and honey into bacon drippings. Pour over salad; toss to coat. Makes 4 servings.
Washed greens about to be ripped into smaller pieces.
Roughly chopped hard boiled eggs.
Mmmmmm, bacon. 
Pouring the bacon and grease, to which the honey and
Shiner Bock has been added, over the greens and eggs. 
I made no changes to the recipe except adding salt and pepper to taste. We were all skeptical about the bitterness of the greens, but the salad was delicious. The sweetness of the honey and richness of the bacon balanced the bitterness. Actually my cousin Josh remarked, "It tastes like mowing the lawn." (In a good way - think fresh and pungent.) And the dish rounded out a plate full of other flavors… sour sauerkraut, bitter dandelion greens, salty sausages, plus black eyed peas, a tomato and onion salad, and a mushroom salad. And beer. Lots of beer. And a red wine from Majek Winery near Moravia. Who says Texas Czech food is all sausage and sauerkraut? Well, at least that’s not ALL it is.

I found organic dandelion greens at Central Market. One $1.99 bunch yielded enough greens for the recipe, which will serve 4 to 6 people depending on what else you’re serving.  If you can’t find dandelions in your local grocery store or farmer’s market, forage for them, which I’m anxious to try myself. My friend Addie Broyles, wrote an article on cookbook author Georgia Pellegrini and foraging, which includes a more upscale dandelion greens salad recipe.

If you're a Texas Czech and you or a relative make anything with dandelion greens, I'd love to hear from you. 

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.