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Despite recent flirtations with secession and even being accidentally listed as a foreign destination by the State Department, Texas is not its own country. The Republic of Texas may have dissolved in 1845, but the Czech Republic of Texas is doing better than ever, thanks to a surge in interest in Tex-Czech’s most beloved dish: kolaches.
The doughy pastry came over with a wave of Czech migration in the late 19th century and found a happy home in the rural communities like West, Texas (a town of fewer than 3,000 people but which serves as a touchstone for Czech culture in the region) and others at the heart of the state, sometimes called the Czech Belt. For the most part, the culture settled in quietly. Unlike other urban centers in Midwestern cities including Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis, rural Czech families maintained relatively traditional dialects and recipes.
“The dialect of Czech spoken here is very old-fashioned. It’s from 100 years ago and people are always amazed to hear it and I think the food is the same way,” explains Austin-based food blogger Dawn Orsak. From her blog, Svačina Project, Orsak honors her Czech grandmother and chronicles her many adventures with kolaches, from judging to baking.
In the Czech Republic, kolaches come in two varieties: dense wedding kolaches that are formed in circles or frgale, which Orsak describes almost like a pizza, and covered in toppings. In Texas, you’ll find both the wedding kolaches and rectangular options with lighter, more bread-like dough. Since coming to the States, kolaches have added a few flavors (you would never find a kolache with meat in the Czech Republic, for example), including one of Orsak’s favorites: sauerkraut. Based off recipes that once used sweetened cabbage filling, sauerkraut kolaches arose only after coming to Texas. Though sauerkraut is now part of the Tex-Czech canon, other flavors still haven’t found complete acceptance within the community.
As big companies inside Texas capitalize on the kolache-trend, Orsak says it inspires her even more to find out about the roots of the food and to get it right. “My friend Laurie and I take pictures of the most bizarre fillings we can find and email them to each other with a subject line that says ‘Eww.’” She remembers one in particular, “There’s a place that makes a cream cheese kolache that has one of those mini Hershey’s bars stuck in the center, it sort of melts in there. I laugh because I am biased.” While she’s open to trying these new takes on the Czech dish, she says she can’t stand when big companies use gelatinous fruit fillings or get the dough wrong.
And she doesn’t seem to be alone in wanting to celebrate the century of Czech tradition in Texas. As a judge at the 2011 Kolache Festival in Caldwell, Texas, she says she was heartened by the number of young people entering the contest.
Her first taste of the pastry, traditionally filled with dried fruits or cheese, was in her grandmother’s kitchen on special occasions. Nowadays, Texans can grab the treat from bakeries and even gas stations on a whim. For the most part, says Orsak, these varieties aren’t true to the Tex-Czech roots of the pastry. The big three traditional kolache flavors are prune, apricot and cheese. But at these combination bakery-gas stations, you’ll often find savory buns with meats and even vegetables.
“It’s funny, there’s a company in Austin called Lone Star Kolaches that now has like four locations and they don’t even sell prune,” she says. “I asked about it a couple weeks ago and they said, we don’t sell that, which I was really surprised about.”
But when Texans find themselves outside the warm, buttery embrace of the Czech Belt, they crave everything from the sweet stuff to the less conventional and their demands are helping spread the dish, from Pittsburgh to D.C.
In February, Shana Teehan, spokeswoman for Rep. Kevin Brady from Texas, begged Roll Call writer Warren Rojas to find her some kolaches in the nation’s capital. “I’ve never had a flavor I didn’t like,” she told him, “whether it was a sweet, fruit-filled bun, or a savory option filled with sausage, cheese or peppers.”
Czech cuisine also enjoys some fame for its influence on Texas barbecue, which owes a lot to Czech and German smoked meats. In fact, the most common place to find Czech food–other than at a bakery–is at a meat market or barbecue.
All of this is helping bring the food of the Tex-Czech community, most visible at festivals and bake-offs but largely tucked away in rural kitchens, onto a wider stage. From a new bakery in Brooklyn, New York to hungry politicians in D.C., kolaches may be ready for their close-up.
Orsak offers up her favorite recipes here.