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What I Learned Making 600 Kolaches

Photo by Lori Najvar.
The last week in July, I launched a home baking business called Old School Kolaches, offering pans of made from scratch kolaches, delivered to customers' doors. I got laid off in April and in reaction to scrolling endlessly through disheartening job boards at 50 years old, I decided I'd try doing something I'm good at and passionate about that also pays some of my bills (work and love don't always go together unfortunately.) It remains to be seen whether this can be instead of or in additional to a standard 9 to 5 job for me.

Austin, though it's the state capitol, is a wasteland when it comes to traditional kolaches. The one place I went to here that had decent kolaches closed down only weeks ago. There are instead two kolache bakery chains, countless donut shops that offer hotdogs wrapped in croissants or tasteless dough and call them kolaches, or one hipster beer and kolaches place that "elevates the classic Central Texas Czech pastry to gourmet status" (from their website.) Though their "kolaches" are delicious, with fillings like pepperoni pizza and PB+J, they are anything but traditional. I agree that kolaches from local factory chains need to be elevated, but well-made traditional kolaches do not. 

And I'm trying to make a kolach just like someone's Texas Czech grandmother used to make with rich, pillowy, yeasty, sweet-salty dough and fillings with absolutely nothing in them but dried fruit, sugar, real butter, and spices. There really is no comparison between uncompromising homemade kolaches and everything else—mine are not gluten free, not vegan, not fat free, and I won't make any fillings my ancestors wouldn’t recognize. Because of cottage food industry laws in Texas, I can't sell cream or cottage cheese fillings, so I make peach, prune, apple, fig, pecan, poppyseed, and apricot fillings using fresh and dried fruits, butter, sugar, spices, and hand ground poppyseeds. (And these are kolaches, not klobasniks, so there’s no sausage.) 

I've had fantastic response to my efforts so far and I've made A LOT of kolaches... almost 600, baking one to three pans a day.  I thought I would offer below some of the things I've learned in the last month.  I want more Texas Czechs to feel empowered to make real Texas Czech kolaches and ensure that this regional food stays authentic and owned by the community from which it sprang. Ask me questions or have me do a baking class at your house for your family.  If I can bake them, so can you. 

And more shameless plugging - if you're in Austin and need kolaches, please see my website to order. They are sold by the pan (24 kolaches) for $60 including delivery in South and Central Austin only, Monday-Friday. Sweeten your staff meeting, butter up your customers, or make your play group members swoon with a pan of warm kolaches. I'm working out the kinks for shipping them by the dozen, so if you're outside Austin and want some, sign up on my mailing list on the website and I'll let you know when I'm ready. - Retraction 8/24: Texas cottage food law prohibits mail order so, I won't be shipping delicious kolaches anywhere. :(

What I learned making 600 kolaches in a month

1) Practice makes perfect (or at least better).  From consistently rolling the dough balls into a perfect shape to getting a 4x6 grid of kolaches in straight lines, the more you do it, the easier and faster the process gets.  It matters visually and it matters to how well the kolaches hold their fillings. You don't want to be the last person to the office break room and end up with the tiny kolach in the corner of the pan with the filling oozed out the side.

2) Stay focused.  Distraction is the enemy of kolaches. I've done things like drop dough balls on the floor because I got too cocky about how well (fast) I was rolling them. I tried browning a pan of kolaches under the broiler because they weren't golden enough, turned away to answer a question from one of my sons, and turned back to find it practically smoking. I've dropped drips of poppyseed filling onto the dough where it wasn't supposed to be... it's impossible to get it off again and then looks unsightly. Stay focused and treat each kolach like it's the one you're going to enter into the Caldwell Kolache Festival baking contest.

3) Don't use a bristle baster brush for butter. (Say that 5 times fast.) No one wants a bristle stuck on the pan that then gets stuck on a kolach, that then makes it into your mouth. No matter what brand I've tried, the brushes always seem to leave a stray bristle. Best to be safe and use the silicone ones, even though you can't get a very thin film of butter with them. Again, practice, practice, practice will help you know how lightly to brush, how many kolaches you can brush with one dip in the butter, etc.

4) Butter, butter, butter, and more butter. Kolaches love butter and you know you do, too. Butter the pans. Butter the spoon you use to grab hunks of dough from the bowl to roll into dough balls. Butter the spoon you use to scoop tablespoons of fillings so that you can use it to further press the indentation into the center of the dough ball easily. Butter the kolach balls as they're rising and butter them again when they come out of the oven.  After 600 kolaches, I feel like everything in my kitchen and even my iPhone has a thin film of butter on it.

5) Go with the dough (flow). Though I said above in #1 that I'm trying to get faster, kolaches cannot be rushed, and they also cannot be slowed down. The process has it's own timing and you have to get into a rhythm. Remember that the dough is directing the process, not you.  Simple efficiencies can help the process go smoother without rushing. Using multiple fillings? Pull out a spoon for each one so you're not washing the same spoon in between. Don't clean up as you go (unless it's during the rising or baking time.) Just shove things to the side and stay focused on the next task. Also, find the tools that work for you and use the same ones every single time (measuring cups and spoons, spatula)... you'll naturally just start reaching for the right tool without thinking and not stop and second guess your measurements.  These are mine...

Making a pan of kolaches from start to finish takes 3 hours, but it's not constant working time. I can now put my makeup on, make my son breakfast and walk him to the bus stop, and check my email while making kolaches every morning. I'm not bragging; I'm saying that if I can do it, so can you.

6) Wear comfy shoes and stretch; get anti-fatigue floor mats. Any chef will tell you to take care of your back. I don't always take my own advice, but bending over and doing a downward dog every once in while and a few of these stretches helps a lot.

Tips? Arguments? Traditional filling suggestions? Please let me know.

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