Thursday, March 31, 2016

Mazanec, Nadivka, and $2 Bills

Easter has always been a holiday for which my immediate and even extended family gets together. My parents and six of their ten grandchildren are pictured at left on Easter Sunday last week. We have traditions around the day, from putting out baskets, of course, dyeing eggs, the Easter egg hunt for the kids, to some dishes my parents make every year, but nothing I've thought of as Czech. Our Easter celebration over the years has seemed a mix of Catholic and American activities and foods.  

I've been divorced for years and spent many Easter weekends at my parent's house, where we would dye eggs together and the Easter Bunny would visit overnight. This year was the same with my youngest son asking to eat the candy out of his basket before I'd poured the cream in my coffee. But for the last few years, I've managed to bake mazanec (Czech Easter bread), which my Czech grandmother did not make. She did make vanocka (Czech Christmas bread) though, and the recipes are almost identical, so I say I'm reviving the tradition of baking mazanec. We had made the mazanec the night before, so I had something to get into my son quickly before the sugar hit his system.  Process photos of the baking are below.

Mazanec dough rising.
Buttering the dough balls.
Finished mazanec with raisins and sliced almonds.

I used The the mazanec recipe out of The Czech Book: Recipes and Traditions, compiled by Pat Martin. The recipe was from a Mrs. Frank J. Stastny of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Apologies to Pat and Mrs. Stastny, but I was not happy with the recipe. The bread didn't rise like it should, which I think had something to do with the way the recipe directs you to proof the yeast. It still tasted delicious dipped in coffee, which is how my mother remembers eating vanocka on Christmas morning. And I made the recipe into six small loaves, so we could eat one and then send the others home with my siblings and parents.

My sister and mother.
Nadivka is another dish that is traditional in the Czech Republic, but not served in Texas-Czech homes. At least, I've never heard of it being served or anyone that was familiar with it. My sister surprised us all by showing up with nadivka this year, a savory "present" she called it for me and my parents. It was delicious and understandably a perfect Easter breakfast or brunch dish with its eggs, bread cubes, and smoked ham (Christmas ham from the freezer! - we are resourceful Czechs and do not throw food away.) It was a like a strata or very dense quiche baked in a loaf pan. And, being the modern super woman my sister is, she connected with her cultural traditions by Googling. She found a story about the Czech food maven Hana Michopulu and followed it to this recipe for nadivka.  Then she used bolillos for the bread cubes, because we are Texans, too, dang it! (Add another recipe to the Tex-Mex-Czech repertoire.) My parents and I decided nadivka would be our new Easter Sunday breakfast dish in the future, made the night before and baked in the morning while the kids are critiquing the Easter Bunny's gifts in their baskets.

Nadivka using smoked ham and spinach. 
My parents traditionally serve the following menu at our Easter lunch: smoked ham, asparagus or green beans, several other vegetable dishes that change year to year (this year peas with mushrooms, carrots with parsley, a layered green salad, and au gratin potatoes) and deviled eggs.

My family LOVES appetizers and usually laments how full we are before lunch is actually served (but never change our ways), so we had boiled shrimp with my dad's family-famous red sauce, a crudites platter, assorted cheeses and pâté,  pickles and olives. My sister nodded to her husband's Greek heritage with basil pesto hummus and accommodated a vegetarian son with kale and quinoa salad.

First cousins!
Desserts included lemon bars, decorated sugar cookies, and my mom's Strawberry Devonshire Tart. The tart has nothing to do with our family heritage; my mom tore the recipe from a magazine in the late 1970s and has been making it to usher in spring ever since. It always works.

My niece, Emma, in my parents' backyard garden.
After lunch, there was much running through the house by the grandchildren and talking and drinking of mimosas and other drinks by the adults. Piles of dishes were washed. The hounds were released (i.e. Easter egg hunt in the backyard.) There was discussion of my mother's garden, the profusion of blossoms on the tangerine tree, and the fact that "Easter lilies" my mother had planted in her backyard, transplanted from her mother's yard, bloomed THAT morning.

Me and my son in my parents' backyard in Katy.
We all Facetimed my nephew, away at college in Alabama, by passing the iPhone around the house. More treats were distributed by my mother as we left for home... a Godiva chocolate bunny with a $2 bill tied to his neck. This tradition comes from my grandmother who would give her grandchildren $2 bills at Easter. Why? I don't know, but I still have a few my grandmother gave me, and my sons have all of theirs.

I do find it a little strange that traditional Czech food is not a bigger part of our Easter menu. My mother's family had a very traditional Christmas menu, so I wonder why dishes didn't get passed down for Easter, too. But my grandmother had only 3/4 the number of children (8) that my great-grandmother Morkovsky did (11). My mother had only half the number of children that her mother had. And I had only half the number of children my mother had. Not so many people to get together and cook for (or have around to help.) My grandmother lived her entire adult life in Hallettsville, with a population around 2,500 (now) and brothers and sisters on farms in the surrounding counties, while my parents moved all over the country before settling in Houston. And two of my siblings live in a city of 4 million people while by brother and I live in Austin (will be 4 million people if we don't watch out.) And of course, my mother worked full-time for much of her adult life as do I, which my grandmother did not do. The socioeconomic factors of moving from rural to urban areas, women with full-time jobs, and having much smaller families have taken their toll on many Texas Czech cultural traditions.

But still, the picture below sums up for me the essence of what still remains and that I feel absolutely blessed to experience... CLOSE family with lots of multi-generational interaction. We play together and we work together (even if that's just to pull together a delicious Easter lunch and then get the dishes done.)

My son, sent flying by my brother, while our niece watches the shananigans.

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.