You know how when you were little everything was always better at the neighbors? Neighbor kids had better (and more!) toys, could stay up late when you weren’t allowed to, and their Mom cooked way better than yours. Even if she just smeared some butter on a slice of bread for you, it was the best bread and butter you’ve ever had!
So for this week’s recipe we’ll go to the (Slovak) neighbors, the Czech folks. For a very long time, we used to share the same country, and we have a rich common history together, including many shared culinary traditions. Both Slovak and Czech people love leavened baked goods, and can work miracles with flour and yeast. Little old grandmas in tiny villages don’t need a scale – they just dump an entire sack of flour onto a wooden block, crack in couple of eggs from chickens scratching in their backyard, add some melted butter and yeast bloomed in milk, and then roll up their sleeves and get to work. Forget kitchen mixer – they make do with just their own wrinkled hands and lots of elbow grease. After years and years in the kitchen, they understand how the dough behaves and what it should look like. They might not know exactly why it does what it does, but years of practice taught them what works and what doesn’t. They bake by feel, by sight, by smell – the same way their mothers and grandmothers did. Recipes scribbled on yellowed pages of an old notebook are passed on from generation to generation and cherished as the biggest treasure. Crumpled records of life passing by.
Chances are, you’ve already heard about kolache. But despite what many Americans think, kolache aren’t just yeast goods filled with various sweet fillings. In both Czech and Slovak kolach is a much broader term, encompassing many different dessert-type creations. Cake, pie, tart – everything can be kolach under right circumstances! And it is koláč (singular) and koláče (plural); there is no such thing as kolaches – just have to throw it out there.These particular kolache, typical of a geographical region in western Bohemia, are made from leavened dough. Big rounds of thinly rolled dough are filled with combination of a sweet farmers’ cheese, poppy-seed filling, and thick plum preserves, and decorated with raisins and blanched almonds. The fillings can be either piped on in alternating stripes, or the entire round is given a generous layer of farmers’ cheese, and then it’s decorated with poppy-seed and plum filling. Either way, the combination of three – colored filling is as beautiful as it is delicious, and many bakers don’t even stop there: they spread the kolache with combination of whipping cream/sour cream while they’re still hot coming from the oven to make them moist and even more toothsome. At the end you have these beautiful, soft rounds of deliciousness to sink your teeth into!
It turns out, there are things that truly are better at the neighbors. They say good fences make good neighbors, and it may be so. But still, it pays off not to build our fences too high – not so much so we can see what our neighbors are up to, but more so we can learn from each other and share what’s worth sharing. And kolache are the best example of that.
Traditional Czech Kolache (Chodské koláče; makes 10 – 12 big rounds)
- 4 teaspoons dry yeast
- 2 cups (500 ml; 16 oz.) lukewarm milk, divided
- 200 g (7 oz.) white sugar
- 1 egg + 3 egg yolks
- 1 kg (2 lbs.) all-purpose flour
- 250 g (8 oz., 2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
Sweet Farmers’ Cheese Filling:
- 1 kg (2 lbs.) Farmers’ Cheese (see Note)
- 1 egg yolk + 2 egg whites
- 200 g (7 oz.) powdered sugar
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- (up to) 1/3 cup whipping cream (optional; to make the filling more spreadable)
- 250 g (9 oz.) ground poppy seeds
- 250 g (9 oz.) powdered sugar
- 100 g (3.5 oz.) honey
- 1 tablespoon of tart jam (raspberry, currant)
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ¼ – ½ cup milk (or cream)
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1 ½ cups dried plums, soaked in water for 30 minutes
- water as needed to process the plums
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons rum (or rum flavoring)
- ¼ cup each sour cream and whipping cream
- 2 tablespoons powdered sugar
+ raisins (soaked in rum/water); blanched almonds – for decoration
1 egg (beaten) – for egg wash
- To make the dough: Combine lukewarm milk, yeast, and 1 teaspoon sugar, and set aside to activate the yeast. Place all the remaining ingredients for the dough into a bowl of your stand mixer, fitted with a hook. After 10 – 15 minutes, when the yeast mixture looks foamy, add it to the ingredients in the bowl. Knead at a low speed for about 10 minutes until the dough is soft, smooth, and elastic. Transfer it to an oiled bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm spot for 45 – 60 minutes until it doubles in volume.
- While the dough is rising, prepare the fillings. For the farmers’ cheese filling, mix farmers’ cheese, sugar, egg yolk, vanilla, and lemon juice and zest. Beat egg whites until firm peaks form, and lightly fold them into the filling. Lastly, add as much cream until the filling is smooth and easily spreadable. Cover and refrigerate.
- For the poppy-seed filing, combine all the ingredients in a small saucepan and warm them up over a low heat, stirring constantly. If the filling seems too thin, add a small handful of cookie crumbs. The filling will firm up as it cools, and it needs to be thinner so it is easier to “paint” with. Set aside.
- For the plum filling, process the plums with water until thick mixture is achieved. Transfer to a bowl and thin with a little rum/water if needed – again, you need the right consistency so the mixture will pass easily through an opening in a Ziploc bag when decorating the kolache. Set aside.
- Turn the risen dough onto a work surface, punch it down, and divide it into 10 – 12 equal parts, about 200 g (7 oz.) each. Keeping the other covered, roll each one into a circle. With your fingers, form an edge, and coat the edge with egg wash. Transfer the circle onto a parchment paper.
- Spread the entire circle with farmers’ cheese filling. Transfer a little of the poppy-seed and plum filling into two Ziploc bags and “paint” the round to your liking. Decorate with almonds and raisins.
- Preheat the oven to 350 °F (180 °C). Bake the kolache for about 20 minutes until the edges are nice golden brown.
- For the glaze, mix cream, sour cream, and sugar, and coat the kolache while they’re still hot.
You can buy farmers’ cheese in Russian/European grocery stores. Some higher end grocery stores such as Whole Foods Market carry it as well. Farmers’ cheese is thicker than ricotta, so I don’t think ricotta would be a good substitute, but you can easily make farmers’ cheese at home, which is what I do now. The bonus is I have leftover whey from making the cheese, which freezes well and is wonderful for making pancakes or yeast baked goods.
Homemade Farmers’ Cheese
- ½ gallon whole milk (pasteurized is OK, but not ultra-pasteurized), or a combination of milk and a full-fat buttermilk
- scant ¼ cup white vinegar
- ½ teaspoon salt
Heat the milk over a low heat, stirring occasionally. When it’s close to a boil, take it off the heat and stir in salt and vinegar. Immediately you’ll see curds forming on the surface. Let the milk mixture stand for about 15 minutes undisturbed, and then drain it through a cheesecloth or a nut milk bag. (Reserve at least some of the whey!). Lift the cheese cloth up, wrap it around the cheese, twisting to expel the moisture. Store the farmers’ cheese in the refrigerator. (Makes about 1½ – 2 cups cheese).