WILBER — Thousands of kolache fill the U.S. Czech Capital’s deep freezes today.
More of the pastries are baking in ovens, or cooling on wire racks, and a few, in all likelihood, are being devoured by those who are supposed to be baking them.
The combination of soft dough and sweet filling is a big draw of the city’s annual Czech festival, which runs Thursday through Sunday, said Jana Nicholson, manager of the Hotel Wilber. She baked 800 last week and planned to bake at least 800 more a few days later.
Maybe, she said, it’s that combination of bread and fruit or cheese filling. Maybe a bite of the soft and sweet treat brings back memories of grandma’s kitchen.
Or maybe it’s because making them is so darn labor intensive.
Whatever it is, she said, the thousands of people who attend Wilber’s Czech Festival can’t get enough.
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And so all over town, men and women, young and old, have been busy making the versatile treats, which can be eaten for breakfast or as a dessert, or as a midafternoon snack.
Since early July, Eunice Musil has baked at least 100 kolache just about every afternoon.
She bakes them for friends and family members who want to have some on hand for when their friends and relatives come to town.
And she’s trying to get 2,000 done to sell outside the Hotel Wilber during the Czech festival — something her daughter-in-law, Lana Musil, first encouraged her to do perhaps four years ago.
“Hers melt in your mouth,” Lana Musil said of her mother-in-law’s pastries.
Lana Musil makes them, too, but says they’re not quite the same. It takes a gift, she said. Or maybe you just have to be of Czech descent (she is German).
“I grew up east of the kolace curtain,” she said.
In any case, the recipe itself is quite simple: Eunice Musil begins by mixing together yeast, hot water, eggs, flour and a few other simple ingredients in a big white bowl. As she stirs, she watches the dough closely, until it appears ready to set aside to rise.
“I like the dough to be kind of shiny, a little sticky,” she said.
When the dough has doubled in size, she cuts off small pieces and rolls them into smooth, round orbs, a little smaller than golf balls, working a little more flour into them in the process.
There’s a trick to this step, Musil said. You don’t want to overhandle the dough, but you want to get rid of some of the stickiness, too.
She forms the balls by cupping her hands and rolling the dough into balls, but some people, like Nicholson, prefer to fold the dough into shape.
Musil lets the balls rise again, and then uses a wooden toy potato masher she’s had since she was a child to stamp a depression in the center of each ball (it’s just the right size.) She then fills each depression with filling — pineapple, strawberry, apricot, cottage cheese, poppy seed, blueberry. Almost anything can go inside.
After 15 minutes in the oven, and a secret step that Musil and daughter-in-law Lana have vowed to tell no one, the kolache are perfect — soft, warm bread and sweet, gooey filling.
Despite the thousands and thousands of kolache she’s baked, Musil still doesn’t feel she has the art of kolache baking down-pat (though her daughter-in-law protests this).
There are so many variables, Musil said — room temperature, humidity, the size of the farm -fresh eggs she uses in each batch. Each batch turns out just a little bit different — though perhaps those differences are unnoticeable to anyone but her.
But it’s true that kolache vary greatly from baker to baker, recipe to recipe, Nicholson said.
She remembers that her great aunt used to frost hers when they were just out of the oven. Some bakers top the filling with a butter-sugar-flour mixture that in the oven forms into a sweet, delicate crust.
And just about everyone doctors their filling a little bit. For example: Musil mixes applesauce in with her poppy seed filling; Nicholson mixes milk and crushed graham crackers with hers. Nicholson also likes to put some marshmallows in with the prune filling, to sweeten it up a bit.
In other parts of the country, kolace vary even more, said Doris Ourecky, a volunteer at the Wilber Czech Museum.
In some places, she said, the filling is actually inside the bread, kind of like a pig in a blanket.
A cookbook put out by the Nebraska Czechs of Wilber contains six different recipes for kolache dough — including one that calls for instant mashed potatoes — plus numerous recipes for filling.
People often contact the museum in search of kolache recipes, Ourecky said. Years ago, someonemade a videotape containing step-by-step instructions and demonstrations, which the museum also sold, Ourecky said. But those all sold out.
The best way to learn, really, is to watch a pro, Nicholson said.
Which is why she always invites local teenagers to help bake kolache up at the the hotel.
And today and tomorrow, pros and novices alike will fill the basement of Saint Wenceslaus Catholic Church in Wilber, said Bonnie Kreshel.
The church will bake 1,400 dozen kolache over the course of the next two days, using the same recipe they’ve used for at least 15 years, Kreshel said. They’ll use nine different varieties of filling (cream cheese is the most popular), she said.
Her daughter is coming from Omaha to help, and her granddaughter is coming from Kearney.
Although the church has equipment to do some of the work, the steps remain essentially the same.
And in this way, the art of baking kolache is passed from one generation to the next, year after year, Kreshel said.
“It’s kind of a family affair.”
Reach Cara Pesek at 473-7361 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
3 cups scalded milk
2 packages active dry yeast
¼ cup sugar
2 tablespoons salt
2 egg yolks, beaten
½ cup melted lard
6 cups flour (about)
Dissolve yeast and half of the sugar in 1½ cups scalded milk, which has been cooled to lukewarm. Add 1½ cups flour. Mix and put in a warm place to rise until bubbles appear (about 1½ hours). Add egg yolks, salt, rest of sugar, melted and cooled lard and remaining lukewarm milk. Beat well. Gradually add rest of flour, mixing well after each addition until smooth and elastic.
Cover and place in a warm place, until double in bulk. When dough is light, stir with a spoon and let rise again. Shape into small balls about the size of a large walnut. Put into well-greased baking pans, well spaced, about 15 on a 10x15-inch pan.
Brush top with melted fat and let rise in warm place until light. In center of each bun, make a small indentation with fingers and fill each with 1 tablespoon of filling. Return to warm place to rise again. Bake at 400 degrees for 12-15 minutes until brown. Remove from oven, brush with melted fat and remove from pans.
Source: Recipe by Mrs. Clarence Zajicek from the cookbook “Favorite Recipes of the Nebraska Czechs”
* Kolache are pastries consisting of a sweet dough and fruit or cheese filling that originated in central Europe.
* Also spelled kolace, kolach or kolacky
* Prague, Okla., and Caldwell, Texas, both have annual festivals celebrating kolache
* Montgomery, Minn., claims to be the Kolacky Capital of the World
* Verdigre, Neb., claims to be the the Kolach Capital of the world.
* Nebraska’s Prague was home to the world’s largest kolache, and also a cafe called the Kolache Korner.