Sunday, March 20, 2016

Ghosts of Kitchens Past


This is my maternal grandmother's kitchen in Hallettsville. She passed away over four years ago, but she's still here. Her favorite basic recipes are still taped to the inside of a cabinet door. Comforting smells still drift through when her children and grandchildren occasionally cook in the house that otherwise sits empty. When my mother and I use the kitchen, we say things like "Does Datu have any oil here?" or "She keeps dishtowels in that bottom drawer." My mother and an aunt may shop for supplies for the visitors to the house, but my grandmother "keeps, has, needs" the supplies. In a way, she is the house and the house is her.

When I arrived at the house Friday to meet my parents for a weekend of visiting, I grabbed a Shiner and went to sit on the back porch and look out at the yard. A St. Francis statue sits atop a birdbath in the center of a little rose garden a few steps from the porch. The bath attracts cardinals, or my grandmother just called them redbirds. She would watch them from the kitchen window, who’s view looks straight at the rose garden. She would always remark about them being there or not being there at different times of the year. I heard recently about the legend that cardinals represent loved ones who’ve passed on, so I was not surprised that there was one sitting in the tree closest to the rose garden when I sat down on the porch.

Speaking through my mother and my memory, my grandmother offered occasional guidance yesterday as we baked a batch of kolaches and klobasniky. My mother and I invariably talk about my grandmother in her kitchen, from what ingredients she used in HER kolaches, to how her kitchen equipment works and how she dealt with it, to how she might tackle a particular cooking problem. I don’t remember my grandmother making kolaches that often (I remember klobasniky and cheese or apricot rolls). As she got older, she left the kolache-making to her sister Bessie Kocian or, after Bessie died, to her son’s mother-in-law, Vickie Klimitchek. 


Whether my grandmother was a master kolach maker or not, she was certainly with us yesterday as we baked. The finished kolaches were the best I’ve ever made. With my mother’s advice, too, I feel like I finally got all the components right at the same time (though my grandmother’s ancient oven was too hot in spots and the pastries browned a little unevenly.) The dough recipe I used, which is so good I’m not ready to share it yet, was given to me by an aunt who got it from a friend who contributed it to a community cookbook. We filled the kolaches with either poppyseed filling or cream cheese-cherry (from dried cherries.) Everything was done from scratch. And we made a dozen klobasniky with a link of City Market’s (Schulenburg) Smoked Jalapeno Pork Garlic Sausage.


Some things I learned yesterday regarding ingredients:
1) My grandmother only used Maeker’s sausage (Shiner) because it was easiest to peel the casings off of before using them in klobasniky.  If you’re making dozens and dozens, this would be a huge chore, so finding a brand that was delicious and easy to peel was a must. City Market’s worked well for us, though. The casings weren’t too hard to peel off and we lost hardly any meat.

2) My grandmother used Solo canned poppy seed filling on occasion. My mother informed me of this as we bought poppy seeds at Hoffer’s for my next filling recipe test. I’d never thought of using the canned filling until seeing it sitting next to the loose, dry seeds, but after picking up the can and seeing that the first ingredient was corn syrup, decided I’d never try it.

Regarding making kolaches in general…. it takes a village… of Texas-Czech women to pass these baking traditions on. The recipe I used yesterday came from my aunt who’d called me to say “THIS is the recipe… you have to try it.”  My first attempt at the recipe was taken to a polka dance in Austin last month, where a lovely older lady constructively offered that I double the amount of filling I was putting in each kolach, which made a huge difference yesterday. I made the kolaches with my mother, who was enthusiastic, encouraging, and patient, which I needed. My grandmother’s spirit presided over the effort and her 75 years in this house and stocking the kitchen yielded all the equipment we needed for the job... seasoned pans the perfect size, an old school pastry brush for the butter (don't use the new silicone ones), and multiple sets of measuring cups to get dirty and keep working.

Lastly, we dropped off kolaches to Erwin and Carolyn Kolacny at their barbecue joint. Carolyn launched into a stream of sweet little stories about her grandmother’s and mother’s cooking and family food traditions that reminded me why I care about learning and mastering the staples of Texas-Czech food in the first place. Her mother passed in the last year or so, so perhaps she, too, has been thinking of kitchens past and was eager to share her happy memories.

I ended the weekend visiting my grandparents' graves. I thought about leaving a kolach on my grandmother's grave as a thank you offering for the spiritual oversight, but decided she'd think that was pretty wasteful. And the fire ants it would attract!! So I left a half dozen in her freezer instead for the next time I visit the house... a good test of their freezability after being baked. She'd think that was a lot more practical. 

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