The next morning along with a dozen truck drivers and construction workers, I was served a plate of cold cuts, cheese, sliced tomatoes and peppers, some bread, some good strong coffee and wonder of wonders, a freshly baked fragrant prune pastry. “Kolache! Děkuji!” I said, using two of my remaining words of Czech. She eyeballed me and said, “Ne, koláče”. My pronunciation was miles away but the remembered flavour was, blissfully, exactly the same.
My Texas government teacher, university edition, didn’t teach me anything that my Texas government teacher, high school edition, hadn’t covered. Except: one day he was talking about odd little towns in Texas and asked if anyone had been to West, Texas. All the folks from Snyder and Sweetwater guffawed. Prof got a smug expression and said, “Not West Texas; West, Texas.” He then pontificated about ethnic enclaves and how the Czechs had settled north of Waco and south of Corsicana. He finished off by saying, “If you haven’t stopped off at the Village Bakery for kolaches and coffee on your way to Austin, you just haven’t lived”. For the next fifteen years, whenever my family drove to Corpus to see my aunt, we would stop off and get a couple of boxes of prune, poppy seed, cheese, and sausage kolaches to feed the extended family. Sometimes we couldn’t wait for a visit and made a field trip down that way for kolaches and a visit to the fine butcher in West. This was especially necessary after another foray down that way to the West Fest, where we danced to Brave Combo and bought a splendid cookbook.
The West Heritage Cookbook is the best kind, a loose-leaf collection of every kind of recipe from the ubiquitous King Ranch Chicken to pudding + cake mix + rum bundts, but…pages 286-291 contain recipes for the holy grail of pastries. Mrs. Wilfred Cervenka’s recipe on 287 has a big green star written on it in marker, and a lot of stains. I’ve used that dough recipe for the last 20 years or so to make both standard kolaches and sausage ones (koblasniki if you happen to be in the Czech Republic and run into a stickler).
Amidst the tragic images of yesterday’s horrific explosion, it may seem frivolous to think about food, but the food made our family pull off I-35 to investigate and then drew us into the town, its stores, its festival, and its wonderful friendly people. The Czech Stop bakery along the interstate is feeding the emergency personnel who are helping out during the process of trying to assess the damage and recover. The people of West will rebuild their lives over time, but in the meantime, my heart goes out to Mrs. Wilfred Cervenka and her family in hopes that they are all well and safe.
Here is Mrs. Cervenka's masterpiece:
Let stand in large bowl (she means it)
2 oz. cake yeast
1 tsp. sugar
1/4 cup lukewarm water
1 tall can of evaporated milk (warm)
2 cups flour
Mix to make a cake like batter and let rise.
1/2 cup shortening (I use butter)
1/4 cup sugar
6 egg yolks (you can tell this is a farming community)
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. butter flavouring (I leave this out)
Add creamed mixture to cakelike batter. Add flour a little at a time (about 4 scant cups) to make a nice smooth dough and let rise until doubled.
Roll 1 tbsp at a time into balls and place about 1" apart in a 9" x 13" ungreased pan. Brush the tops with melted butter. Make a dent in the top with 4 fingers and fill the indentation with fruit filling and let rise again. (Make the dent deep enough because the dough will tend to fill in the dent).
Sprinkle Sugar Topping on them and bake at 425 degrees about 8 minutes or until a lovely golden brown. Remove from pan while still warm.
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 tbsp. butter
1/4 tsp vanilla
rubbed together to make crumbs.
I used canned poppy seed filling or made fruit filling from scratch. I also halved the recipe because this makes around 50 kolaches and, much as we loved them, and much as they freeze fairly well, 50 kolaches is a lot of kolaches.
For more information on the finer points of kolaches, here is Stephen Harrigan's wonderful article about an international kolache hajira via Texas Monthly. I will be making some of these tomorrow, and sending out healing wishes for the people of West.