Monday, March 26, 2012

Tradition vs. Innovation

Recently, a Texas-Czech friend emailed to me the photograph below. The subject of the email was just "Nooooooo." It's a picture of one of the cases at a Central Texas bakery displaying cream cheese kolaches, each with a Hershey's mini chocolate bar literally stuck in the middle to sort of soften and ooze while baking.  My friend's comment together with the photo illustrate two types of kolach eaters... traditionalists and those who are willing to try kolach dough wrapped around any food that, on its own, could be deemed yummy. I generally fall into the first camp.

Not because I don't think a kolach filled with "delicious marinated chicken, cheddar cheese, tomatoes and fresh spices"  might not taste good. (That is Kolache Factory's "Kolache of the Month" in March... Ranchero Chicken.) Rather, I think that the institution of Texas-Czech kolaches has enough to battle (time consuming to make, associated with special occasion foods, knowledgeable bakers are dying off) without having it diluted with beans, spinach, cheddar cheese, scrambled eggs, or whatever else someone night decide to throw into one.... probably to make it more generically appealing to the masses (i.e. sell more.)

Photo by Lori Najvar.
After doing a lot of recipe research, I'm of the opinion that "traditional" kolach/klobasnik fillings are:
  • fresh fruit, especially those that could be found on a late 19th/early 20th century Texas farm or roadside, for example... dewberries - yes, pineapple - no
  • dried fruit, especially prunes, apricots or apples
  • cream cheese (with or without raisins) 
  • cottage cheese (with or without raisins)
  • cabbage
  • poppyseed
  • sausage
Interestingly, nut kolaches are common in the Czech Republic, but I've never heard of them in Texas, even though pecan trees are common. Also, in Texas cabbage kolaches morphed into sauerkraut (with or without sausage.)

I do know that innovation can sometimes create a new audience for a dish. People might be wooed by the strangeness of a thing, but then be open to the traditional version after they realize they like the concept. And, in the hands of sensitive cooks, innovation can be interesting and delicious. I love Andy Zubik's (Zubik House in Austin) take on kolaches... especially the smoked pork shoulder with jalapeno and onion relish and the fresh blueberry and local honey. In a way, it was only a matter of time before a Texas-Czech combined local ingredients with a savvy, inspired palate into a kolach. However, one does have to wonder why it took 160 years after the first wave of Czech settlement here.

Almost every culture that I can think of has their version of dough wrapped around fillings, both sweet and savory... pirogi, empanadas, dumplings of all sorts, tortellini, Southern fried pies, filled croissants, blintzes, tortas. They also have their unwritten rules about what can go into them traditionally and what is considered culinary sacrilege.

With all that said, yesterday I experimented with fillings, traditional and not. (It was also the first time I baked a batch of kolaches all by myself from start to finish and, let me tell you, if I can do it, so can you.) The reason for experimenting was that I didn't make enough traditional filling. I made one recipe of cream cheese filling and then pulled out three containers of fillings from the freezer from past attempts. This was so that I could 1) report on whether freezing leftover fillings really did work and 2) use them up (I hate to throw out food.)

Three things I learned during the defrosting period... fresh fruit fillings do not freeze. The peach filling I pulled out defrosted into peach juice, basically. The dried fruit filling defrosted perfectly... as if it had never been frozen. The sausage and sauerkraut had to be set into a colander and drained but ultimately worked really well. This was a dish I made guided by a recipe for Pork and Sauerkraut which I made a couple of weeks ago out of Shiner Brewery's cookbook called A Taste of Texas (submitted by Ruth Terpinksi.)

The photo above shows my smorgasbord of kolach filling experiments:
  • traditional cream cheese
  • dried fruit (made like prune or apricot but using a bag of assorted fruits)
  • sauteed spinach and a slice of a Rockdale tomato
  • fresh blueberries, chevre and honey
  • grated carrot and apple with butter, cinnamon and sugar
  • fresh peaches
  • Addie Broyles' tomato jam and Parmesan cheese
  • sausage (pork/venison) and sauerkraut
  • cream cheese and apricot preserves

All of them were interesting and tasted good, but would I make a whole batch of the unusual ones? Probably not. Would I make a whole batch of blueberry croissants or grated apple/carrot tortellini? Yes, but I don't feel strongly about their authenticity. And let's face it, someone needs to feel that way about Texas-Czech food or we're going to start seeing cherry pie and milk chocolate kolaches at Central Texas McDonald's.

There's a very long, interesting string on Chowhound about "authentic" kolaches... which are and which aren't.

I would LOVE comments on this post. What do you think of as traditional? What flavors should not be messed with? Are you a Texas-Czech that loves "odd" flavors?" 


  1. Hey, Dawn! Great post. I was thinking of you when I read Stephen Harrigan's kolache piece in a recent issue of Texas Monthly. He goes kolache crazy for a year, in an effort to understand his path. It's a journey you have been on for some time, and I'm glad to read articles like this standing up for tradition while acknowledging the important of creative exploration. And what a surprise to see that tomato jam in there! I'll have to remember that if I ever write about my canning escapades. Hope all is well!

  2. Dawn... Excellent post... you are Right On with your comments.... Keep up the wonderful work with this "project"... see ya soon... bk