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?" 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Turnip Pickles and the Winter Pantry

In case you're wondering, pickling turnips is not a Czech thing (as far as I know.) But my Dad did it last Sunday morning and it offered a chance to talk to my parents about their winter canning pantry and what they remember from their childhood.

Selections from my parents' canning pantry - pickled okra, beets and bread and butter pickles.
The reason for pickling the turnips was necessity which is the reason for canning in general. My mother's brother A.J. (Alois Joseph) and his wife Alice have a marvelous garden outside of Hallettsville. On their way to Houston last Friday, they left a cooler full of vegetables on my parents' doorstep in Katy. Their little garden spot is a mass producer and, rather than feed the excess to the cattle which my Uncle A.J. had been resorting to, they shared with my parents.

Uncle A.J. and Aunt Alice (Kocian) Kallus, Hallettsville 
In the cooler were broccoli, turnips, beets, and carrots. Right away my parents pickled the beets and ate steamed broccoli for dinner. There were too many turnips to just eat creamed (the most likely dish since both my parents remember eating it that way as kids), so they did an internet search for something new and found a recipe for pickled turnips. Well, my parents are expert canners - they didn't need the recipe as they have their own tried and true favorites - they just needed the inspiration.

The winter pantries of my parents' childhood did not include pickled turnips. My mother (grew up in Hallettsville) remembers her mother putting up pears and plain pickled beets in her kitchen. My father's mother, a Zielonka (Polish), also did pears and beets, but went to her own parents' house near Cuero in DeWitte County to can with her mother and sisters. They would put up 100 to 125 quarts of things and then divide them up to take home. Her father would butcher a pig and store the meat in crocks covered in lard. He also kept molasses in the smokehouse, bought in a barrel, much to the delight of my Dad and his cousins, who would sneak in and steal the drips from the spigot. My father's grandmother Orsak (Czech) would do crock sauerkraut, as did her boys, George and Jerry. (Their extremely fertile winter garden also yielded cauliflower and kohlrabi, but those were eaten fresh.)

Of course, the dill was waiting in a cup from Prasek's.

So, pickling turnips was an interesting prospect for my parents... unusual, but within the realm of possibly being delicious. My Dad (overseen by my Mom) used their standard garlic pickle recipe which includes garlic, dill, and a chile arbol, but allowed himself a variation so that, in one batch, he could figure out which was going to work best. To one jar he deviated from the recipe by adding sugar, pickling spices, and some fresh, chopped jalapeno.

Dad stuffing the jars with turnips, dill, garlic and a dried chile arbol.

When I got home to Austin Sunday, my Dad had left me a phone message... "Well, I don't know what they're going to taste like, but damn, they're colorful!... white turnips, red chile, green dill and blue garlic."

If they turn out well, I'll post the recipe. As far as other winter pantry staples, I've found recipes in Czech community cookbooks for sauerkraut, pickled beets, spiced pickled beets, pickled sweet onions, sweet pickled cabbage, canned pears, pear relish and pear butter. I'd love to know about any others you know of, dear blog readers.