In the underworld of the Prague Metro, small shops sell delightful pastries and breads for 20 crowns each, a tiny amount even if you are a poor English teacher. Apple strudels, pastries, cakes, and breads drenched in seeds awaited my nibbling each day, and who was I to refuse? I tasted so many nameless treats that I don’t remember when I first had a kolache. But somehow I got it into my head that while I was living in Prague I might as well come away with some useful knowledge, and that knowledge should be how to make kolaches.
Kolache is actually a plural word, meaning “cakes.” Traditionally they are a yeasty dough in a round shape, baked golden, with a spot of apricot, prune or poppy seed filling.
I decided to make them for our American Thanksgiving celebration that year. I do have some tales of things gone wrong in Prague, but that first batch of kolaches actually came out perfectly. A Czech friend joining our feast told me they were just like the ones his grandmother use to make–I could have kissed him. I suspect he might have turned on the charm a little bit, but as long as they were edible I’ll take the success!
In the United States, the kolache is incredibly popular in Texas due to the Czech immigrants who moved there in the 1800s. It’s still a big trend today: big enough to merit The Kolache Factory, which as far as I can tell is a kolache fast food chain. I don’t like this idea. Therefore I choose to ignore it.
To me, kolaches are something to be labored over. Like the Czech saying “bez práce nesjou koláče,” meaning “there are no cakes without work.” (Do you see how it near-rhymes in Czech? práce/koláče. I love that.) And labor I do, like any baking project with yeast. Mix, let rise. Knead, let rise. Shape, let rise. Butter, let rise…
Eventually, the little eggs of dough turn golden and puff up like a proud child.
They are the perfect companion to a cup of coffee in the morning, or at the end of a good meal. Not too sweet, with a dollop of filling. They’ve become my Thanksgiving tradition over the last few years, and I like to think that someday I’ll make them for my kids, or neices and nephews. They’ll ask why I like them so much, and I can tell them of another time and place when I lived very far away, but they won’t care too much because the kolaches in the oven are growing and soon we’ll take them out and feel the heat of the dough, and taste the crunch of the poppy seeds. Who cares about the distant past when there are kolaches to eat?
My favorite? Poppy seed.