Tuesday, September 17, 2013

They're Almost All Gone

Today in the mail I received my copy of the latest newsletter of the Texas Czech Genealogical Society publication, the Cesky Stopy. My father signed me up as a member of the organization and though I don't take advantage of the conferences they hold or resources they make available, I enjoy reading the Stopy four times a year. My dad has really become interested in our family genealogy in the true sense of the word - researching one more generation back in the family line, then another, then another.  He's serious about our heritage, both Czech and Polish. See his brand new custom made boots at left with both country's flags and, below them, the earliest date our ancestors immigrated from each. He's a proud man; there's no way I, the oldest child, could not be affected by his love of history and of Texas. My dad was recently moved to write the article below, which I was pleased to  turn to on page 12 of the Cesky Stopy edition that arrived today.  

I'm cheating on my blog tonight by offering my father's article, though you'll find one of his aunt's recipes at the end, added by me. My Dad's writing illuminates a bit my own need to chase down a recipe and my obsession with things like letters and memorabilia my grandmother saved for upwards of nine decades.  I also inherited my father's (and mother's) strong sense of family and family history and all the activity and obligation that accompanies that. I'd like to say "damn you, Mom and Dad!", but what I really mean is "thank you." 

by Steve Orsak

Steve Orsak, age 3. 
I recently turned 70 and it caused me to reconsider life’s different phases and experiences. Family history began to seem more important.  As my aunts, uncles and closer family members slip away, childhood memories of visits to their farms and homes are taking on a new significance. I  am realizing that we are shaped by even these small experiences. 

For example, tasting an olive for the first time at Aunt Pat Rippamonti’s apartment after she married my Uncle Tommy Orsak.  Then later finding out that her grandfather had come from Italy to drive stakes on the railroad from Victoria to Houston for Count Von Telfener. Or being a farm laborer loading watermelons on trucks that were bound for Chicago from Cuero for Uncle Ben Parma.  I earned a quarter per hour.

The humbling experience of being third in line for a bath behind 2 cousins...  humbling because it was on their back porch and we all used the same water.  Losing nickles and dimes to uncles who learned the art of poker on the pitching decks of destroyers in the South Pacific during WWII. 

Listening to war stories around the kitchen table at Grandpa Steve’s farm house and noticing that Uncle Tullie (Alvin), who had served in WWII and the Korean conflict, never said a word.  He had won the Silver Star for holding his platoon together while forcing the communists to retreat at Hangye, Korea, killing nine Chinese in the process.  I followed him out on the porch where in the night air he simply said “No more killing”. 

I had seventeen aunts and uncles who served in WWII and they all came home safely. Whether I realized it or not at the time, their sacrifices kindled a desire to serve my country,  as most of my cousins and friends did also.  On the whole, I don’t see that kind of desire anymore in young people. Maybe it isn’t necessary.

When my wife and I got married,  we were blessed with having a total of 76 aunts and uncles between us.  Yes,  76.  The stories about them are endless, but two traits common to all four families were working hard and having fun whenever possible.  Some of the events and traditions that have kept our families close are still celebrated.

The Morkovsky family on my wife’s side still gathers once a year to make over 1,000 links of sausage.  It isn’t the act of sausage making that holds them together, though - it’s getting together as a family that counts.

Morkovsky family sausage making event.
Photo by Lori Najvar. 
Being part of a large family means a full time commitment and responsibility to be somewhere, other than your own home, almost every weekend. Birthday parties, family reunions, anniversaries, baptisms, weddings, graduations, engagements parties, and of course funerals keep everyone close.  If not there in reality, people’s presence is there in our minds.  The experiences keep rising to the surface of our lives as glue to bind them together.

I used to make fun of visiting my relative’s homes because there was never a place to put down a cup of coffee.  Every inch of available flat surface was covered with pictures.  I now realize that the pictures were more than a remembrance.  The pictures kept the family alive in my relative’s minds.

Sundays were always mandatory “visiting” day in the family.  It was usually to visit grandparents, but you got to escape that crowd by leaving with cousins in some beat-up old truck for a swim in 12 Mile Creek or the Tres Palacios River.  You knew when to head back because at 3:30 both grandmothers served afternoon snacks.  “Svacina” is both a Polish and Moravian Czech tradition.     

My father's parents - Joe and Irene (Zielonka) Orsak.
My grandmother's still dancing at 93. 
Of the 80 aunts and uncles (counting our parents), there are only four left - two on the Orsak side, and two on the Zielonka side, including my mother.  The loss of a whole generation is mind numbing.  The rich variety of family experiences we used to enjoy can’t be made up by today’s technology that takes away afternoons and free weekend days.  Visits to grandparents' and relatives' homes cemented family ties.  Experiences that should be made easier by today’s transportation seem to get tougher when we have the choice of watching TV instead of making the sacrifice to visit family and friends.

I have truly been blessed to have been from such a large family. What used to be considered an obligation is now a blessing.  It took a lot of work and effort, but the laughter, tears and smiles were worth every minute I spent in someone else’s home or on their farm.  I have learned and been loved so much that words cannot express, and I hope, after reading this, that you take some time to think of the family that has shaped you. 


Spiced Pickled Beets (based on Steve's Aunt Pat's recipe)

3 cups water
3 cups sugar
My parents' canning -
Aunt Pat's spiced pickled beets in the center. 
1 1/2 cups pickling vinegar
1 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Boil whole beets in water just to cover until a fork can barely pierce them. Cool slightly and slice or quarter.

Mix vinegar, sugar and slices in a large kettle. bring to a boil, add beets and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Pack beets in hot, sterilized jars. Pour hot vinegar mixture over beets to within half inch of rim. Seal tightly and cover with a towel until cool. 

*For plain pickled beets, simply leave out the spices.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Dougal Makes Cream Cheese Rolls

When my 14-year-old son asks to bake something (himself), especially something from his ethnic heritage, well history, nostalgia, and pride tell me to say yes. My oldest son asked to make cheese rolls (or buchta in Czech) which is one of his favorite sweets. We didn't get started until late on a Friday night, after dinner out, after going to see the new Percy Jackson movie, after a trip to the grocery store to get the ingredients because I hadn't planned well. But we did it. How could I discourage such an urge?

My grandmother, maybe around the same age my son is now. 
Cheese rolls are not dinner rolls with cheese on them; they are jelly-roll type sweets of yeasted dough filled with sweetened cream cheese. We used my grandmother Anita (Morkovsky) Kallus' recipe, which is below. A buchta can actually have in it some of the same things that kolaches are filled with... poppyseed, apricots, cream cheese, but also pecans, brown sugar, raisins or whatever else might strike your fancy. They can also be shaped so that the dough is braided on top, which is lovely. They can be sprinkled with white sugar, posipka (like streusel) or a glaze, which I'm not normally fond of (too sweet), but my son and I used it sparingly.

Cream cheese roll or buchta.
I want Dougal to be unafraid to try recipes. I had convinced myself for all of my 20s that I couldn't bake anything with yeast in it. I'm not sure why because I loved to cook and actually did it quite a lot. Thank goodness I got over that after watching many other woman make the things I wanted to make. So, baking together was a chance for me to show my son that, with just a little knowledge, he could dive in and try something.

Rolling out one quarter of the dough after refrigerating it overnight. 
We talked about what "scalding" meant; about not having the water too hot when you sprinkle the yeast on top; how sticky is too sticky for the dough and when it needs more flour; how to keep the rolling pin from sticking to the dough; how to leave a border of dough around the filling so he could seal the edges once the buchta was rolled up; not to cut the buchta too soon after taking it out of the oven or the filing oozes out all over the pan. I felt like I actually taught him something which, as any mom with a teenager knows, is priceless. Dougal did a fantastic job... so much so that, after seeing the entries in the buchta bake-off at WestFest last Sunday, I'm going to encourage him to enter the contest next year.

Spreading the filling onto the rolled rectangle of dough with
the back of a spoon.
When we were all done, he basically ate an entire buchta himself, half almost straight out of the oven and half for breakfast the next morning after that. Luckily he runs cross country so the 7 miles a day keep the pounds off him. My office mates finished off another roll in nothing flat. Homemade cheese roll is so much better than what you can get in a commercial bakery. The yeast, the butter, the vanilla, the rich cream cheese, no preservatives... you really can taste the love in them.

Rolling up the buchta. 

Cream Cheese Rolls
1 8-ounce carton sour cream, scalded
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 t. salt
1 packages dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water (105 to 110 degrees)
2 eggs beaten
4 cups all-purpose flour
melted butter for brushing.
Filling (see below)
Glaze (see below)

Combine the scalded sour cream, sugar, butter and salt; mix well and let cool to lukewarm. Dissolve yeast in warm water in a big bowl. Stir in sour cream mixture, then eggs. Gradually stir in flour (dough will be sticky). Add more a tablespoon at a time, if TOO sticky. Cover and chill overnight.

Two of the four buchty starting to rise.
2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla

Divide dough into 4 portions. Turn each one out on a heavily floured surface and knead 4 or 5 times. Roll each into a 12 x 8" rectangle. Spread 1/4 of filling over each. Roll up jelly roll fashion. Cover and let rise. Brush with melted butter. Bake at 375 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes.

The cream cheese filling.
2 cups powdered sugar
1/4 milk
1 teaspoon vanilla

Whisk together until smooth. Spread loaves with glaze while warm. Makes 4, 12" loaves.

Real Texas-Czech men BAKE!