Monday, June 20, 2011


I have never made kolaches that I could call my own. I've helped other people, watched demonstrators, read a hundred recipes, and eaten countless pastries. Since my partner is a well-known pastry chef, you think I would have taken advantage of his knowledge and skill some time in the last four years of our relationship, but I hadn't... until yesterday. I'm not even sure how the topic came up, but when it did he declared that making kolaches was what he wanted to do with his Father's Day, God bless him.

We approached the project from polar opposite viewpoints, but both wanted the same thing... a beautiful, delicious kolach. I brought decades of baggage as a Texas-Czech that thought she knew how it must be done (but had never done it). He brought decades of baggage as a professional pastry chef who thought he knew how it must be done (but had never done it.) I made the traditional fillings - cream cheese and apricot - but the apricot wasn't sweet enough. He made the non-traditional filling - blueberry compote with orange juice, sugar and a vanilla bean - but it was too sweet. I'm surprised we made it through the whole project without throwing pots, pans, beer bottles and the two-year-old, but we did and they turned out pretty darn fantastic.

We used my cousin Rose (Morkovsky) Hauger's dough recipe, which had been published in the online edition of the Austin Chronicle some time in 1998. There are a few women whose recipes I've collected because their kolaches seemed "right" to me. A good kolach is a subjective thing and what I like is not what everyone likes. (How else could places like Lone Star Kolaches not only exist, but open four locations?)

I read the recipe and watched the 2-year-old, while Mark put the dough together,
commenting "This recipes is crappy" at one point until we got on the same page. He knew when the yeast had proofed, knew when enough flour had been added, knew when the dough had doubled in size. I knew how to make the indentations for the filling (sort of), knew how to wrap a klobasnek (sort of), knew how the posipka (crumble topping) was supposed to look. Somehow when we were actually working, we complimented each other's knowledge and the finished kolaches smelled and tasted exactly like they were supposed to. We have a learning curve as far as actually shaping and filling them and know we could improve, but all in all we were so pleased.

I called my Dad to wish him happy Father's Day and tell him that we were making kolaches for the first time. Weirdly, he reported
that a family friend my youngest brother's age, Chad, had called him to say the exact same thing and that my blog had inspired him. Chad and I compared notes today and he indeed also had trouble shaping and working with the dough/filling combo, though he resorted to just making klobasneks. He wrote to me "I played the "father's day" card to take the time to do something as selfish as play in the kitchen. That said, I abandoned the kolaches and went with the klobasnek at the last minute. It did not turn out good.The pastry was awesome, but when I folded them over the sausage and cheese and baked, they did not stay closed - so not pretty. Moreover, the sausage and cheese was not significant enough to make them yummy. I need to try it again, but with a different plan as to how I am going to get the sausage/cheese into the dough." Anyone have suggestions for us?

I'm pretty happy (and feeling like Amelie) that in at least two homes in this hipster, green, too-big-for-its-britches city, people younger than 45 were making kolaches from scratch yesterday. My workplace got a dozen. My son's daycare got a dozen. My freezer got a dozen for another family reunion this coming weekend. I call that a kolach revolution... a hot, yeasty, buttery, satisfying revolution.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Orsak Reunion 2011

Yesterday, I was at the annual Orsak reunion outside of Ganado, TX on Lake Texana... hot as blazes and we worried about alligators eating our small children, but we let them get in the water anyway. There are so many reasons to go to a family reunion that outweigh the difficulty of driving 8 hours out of 24 with a 2-year-old. For example, I hope my kids will be imprinted with the importance of keeping family ties tied. Also, going makes my Dad happy. We got to see my 91-year-old grandmother that lives north of Dallas. And I found out that another one of my relatives plays the accordion, Don Orsak, who strolled around the hall playing sweet waltzes and polkas that would make my grandmother spontaneously shuffle around in a circle dancing with herself and a smile on her face.

Then there's the food... tables and bowls and mounds and boxes and roasters and tin-foil-covered cardboard trays full of it.

This year there was a really good spread; mostly homemade and with lots of variety (except for the vegetables. "There are never any green vegetables," my mom complains.) See my plate below covered with brown and beige this and that.

Here's what we ate (hm=homemade):
fried chicken
barbecued shrimp, ribs, brisket (bought in Edna)
barbecued chicken (hm)
beef and hominy stew with white rice (hm)
ham x 2 (hm)
baked turkey (hm)
dressing x 2 (hm)
shrimp jambalaya (hm)
chicken enchilada casserole (hm)
baked chicken and sausage (hm)
smoked sausage x 3 (hm)
sauerkraut with sausage (hm)
macaroni and cheese

broccoli and rice casserole (hm)
yellow squash with tomatoes and fresh basil (hm)
cheese and vegetable pie (hm)
corn on the cob (hm)
boiled potatoes (hm)
pork and beans x 2 (hm)
pasta with marinara (hm)
coleslaw (hm)
raw veggies with ranch dip
tossed green salad x 2 (hm)
cornbread salad (hm)
Greek pasta salad with grilled chicken (hm)
chicken salad (hm)
fruit platter
fruit salad (hm)
dill pickles
kvasena/crock pickles (hm)
deviled eggs x 2 (hm)
cheese and bacon-stuffed jalapenos x 2 (hm)
white bread

The sweets:
cheese roll x 3 (2 hm and one from Prasek's in Hillje)
German chocolate cake (hm)
ginger blueberry pound cake (hm)
apricot roll (hm)
snickerdoodles (hm)
apple crunch (hm)
pecan pie (hm)
pear pie x 2 (1 hm)
lemon meringue pie
apple strudel (from Catholic Daughter's fundraiser)
banana pudding (hm)
brownies (hm)
chocolate bundt cake (hm)
Oreo pie
chocolate chip cookies (hm)
poppyseed bundt cake (hm)

I love the mix of Czech (sausage, sauerkraut, kvasena, potatoes, coleslaw, kolaches) and South/Coastal Texas (cornbread, hominy, jambalaya, barbecued shrimp, stuffed jalapenos, pecan pie.) The menu is a true snapshot of my Dad's branch of the Orsak family, whose ancestors originally came from Novy Hrozenkov in Moravia, eventually settled in Blessing and branched out through South-Central Texas from there.

I go to reunions partly for those gems of traditional food that magically appear some years, like the sausage and sauerkraut. Don, the accordion player, and his wife Gladys grated, fermented and canned the sauerkraut themselves and they used local meat-market sausage. Asking about just one dish can lead to an afternoon's worth of conversation about Texas-Czech food. Gladys (a Novak) grew up on a self-sufficient family farm with a garden, smokehouse, larder, and even a poppy patch for... you guessed it... harvesting the seeds for baked goods. It seems like it would be an ancient practice, but Gladys is only 61.

On the way back home, I drove one of the prettiest roads in Texas... FM 530 between Hallettsville and Edna. I passed a wooden, one-story house with a long front porch and seven acres for sale nestled among trees whose green belied the extreme drought. The rest of the trip I fantasized about my retirement in a place like that, hoping each of my two sons has five kids that come to visit me. (I'm going to look EXACTLY like my grandmother - see below.) I'll make sausage, have a poppy field for poppyseed rolls, make pear strudels from my own trees, tend my garden and put up pickles, catch fish in my stocked pond to bake for Christmas Eve, gather eggs for kolaches... and maybe teach cooking classes there so these foods aren't lost.

Friday, June 3, 2011

"Thursday. 8:20am. Put the pickles in the fridge."

That's the message I got from my Dad on my cell phone May 15th - that and nothing else. No "Hello, Dawn, it's Dad." No nonsense. He forgets a lot of things, but remembered when MY pickles were supposed to be put into the fridge.

Four days before, I was in Hallettsville in Lavaca County visiting my grandmother in the nursing home. I'd stopped at a local mom-and-pop grocery store, Hoffer's, to see what local vegetables they had that day and I was pleased to find cucumbers. I didn't know how long ago they'd been picked but decided to take a chance and bought enough for a 1/2 gallon jar. My dad says "vine to brine in 24 hours" is the rule, but if you have to break it, just trim a tiny bit off each end of the cuc with a sharp knife and soak them overnight in plain water. Presumably, older cucumbers will plump back up.

I still needed a jar. My family doesn't eat anything in large enough quantities to collect 1/2 gallon jars. I was directed by my Dad to the unused deep freeze in my grandmother's garage, a mile away from the nursing home, sitting on top of which, he remembered, was an empty jar. Sure enough. It was square, not round, and had a red and silver label on the front in a 1970s-ish font that read COOKIES. And it was caked with dirt. But it had charm and screamed 'homemade goodness' no matter what was in it.

I actually managed to trim and soak the cucumbers that night; actually managed to get my 12-year-old to stuff the jar the next night and I brined them; actually followed my Dad's instructions on the 15th and put the jar in the fridge. (The first time I tried this experiment, I let the soaking pickles sit on the cabinet in a bowl while I ignored them night after night feeling too tired to do anything with them until they went bad and I threw them all out.)

In contrast, we've been enjoying fresh, sour, crisp and dilly pickles for a week now and I'm pretty chuffed. They were the easiest thing in the world to make, but somehow putting something up makes you feel like a pioneer woman or like you could provide for your family through a nuclear war. That's a pretty good return for the effort AND I can add another Texas-Czech food to my list of accomplishments. Also, I think that making them pleased my Dad as much as it did me. I've got light years to go before I could can like my parents, but this was a confidence-building start.
His recipe is below, which he says is actually his Aunt Louise Orsak's recipe. Don't let the fact that the pickles sit out on the cabinet for 4 days until the brine gets cloudy scare you. Some magical alchemy takes place. Then they spend the rest of their lives in the fridge. A foodie friend tasted them last weekend and said "They taste just like Claussen," which was a compliment. That and the fact that her 9-month old gummed two spears to a pulp. Lastly, don't let the fact that the garlic cloves turn blue in the brine after two weeks scare you either. My dad doesn't know why it happens, but it doesn't change the taste. How often do you get to eat naturally blue food?

Other recipes I've seen call for a little more salt or a little more vinegar or embellishing the jar with dill seed, chunks of cabbage, onions or squash. My Dad collected a recipe from my grandmother who collected it from Slovacek's, which is now Mustang Hall, between Hallettsville and Shiner. My grandmother asked for it because my grandfather loved it so much. Slovacek's served the pickles at the bar (which presumably my grandfather frequented) to make patrons thirsty and drink more beer... Shiner, I suppose, since the brew
ery is only 10 miles away.

Kvasena (crock or refrigerator pickles):
Cucumbers that have not been picked more than 24 hours earlier
Canning salt
Garlic cloves
Dried whole red pepper
White vinegar
Distilled or well water (not tap water because of the chlorine content)

Heat 1 gallon water to a boil. Remove from heat and add 1/2 cup canning salt, 1/2 cup white pickling vinegar and stir until the salt is dissolved. Let cool to room temperature.

Put cucumbers, 3 or 4 cloves of garlic, a generous sprig of dill, and 1 dried red pepper in a gallon glass jar and cover with brine. Place a piece of cheesecloth or kitchen towel over the top.

Let sit on the kitchen cabinet until they turn cloudy (in 4 or 5 days.) As soon as they do, refrigerate them. Pickles will be ready to eat 7 days after refrigeration.