Czech Mate

How did such a humble, unassuming Czech pastry become so deeply intertwined with Texan foodways that it became an inextricable part of southern culture itself? While it remains largely unknown just beyond state borders, kolaches are serious business to any conscious eater. I had never heard of such a thing before visiting the Lone Star State, but kolaches are as essential to the local cuisine as barbecue. Arriving along with European immigrants in the late 1800s, central Texas became the nexus of kolache creation.

Technically, the savory version most popular in my immediate area are klobasneks, NOT kolache. Both employ a lightly sweetened, buttery yeasted dough, stuffed with a variety of fillings, but genuine kolaches are sweet breakfast treats, employing fruit preserves, cream cheese, or poppy seeds for flavor. Klobasneks are arguably more popular in these parts, calling for any sort of meat, from sausage links to ground beef to shredded chicken, cheese, jalapenos, and sometimes even egg and potatoes. Truth be told, any sort of stuffing might reside within these baked buns. For the sake of simplicity, they all get wrapped up under the kolache moniker. Those wise enough to tell the difference are also smart enough not to pick a fight.

Terminology aside, what makes for the best kolaches? It’s all in the dough. Supple, pillowy soft, catching the light with a subtle buttery shine, the tender bread should practically melt in your mouth. Impossibly light for such a rich mixture, it’s a delicate balance of art and science to achieve the perfect crumb. Years of experience with tireless practice are the secret ingredients; otherwise, the standard recipe is largely unexceptional. Flour, sugar, yeast, butter, and all the other usual suspects are present.

The key is all in quantity. Speaking with chef Craig Vanis of Bistro Vonish, his carefully honed formula makes liberal use of butter, both in and brushed on the rich dough. Coming from a long line of Czech bakers, his recipe reflects that heritage to create the best version around, vegan or not.

“When I said I wanted to open my own place, one of the first things I did was make and sell kolaches at various events in an effort to get my name and face out there,” chef Vanis explained through email.

“Before that, when I lived in Houston, I would occasionally pick up work at a bakery that made kolaches. Even though grandma always had kolaches made and on hand, I was never a part of making them, like I sometimes was with cinnamon rolls. I think that’s a large part of why I enjoy them so much now. My grandparents passed away many years ago, but as I think about the baking and enjoyment of kolaches, there’s an opportunity to create new memories that are connected to grandma’s house. I don’t feel like I missed out on a chance to bake them as a child. I do feel grateful that I have those fond memories attached to them now.”

According to Craig, poppyseed or plum are the most traditional fruit fillings, but the sky is the limit. Any jam or preserves will bake in beautifully to make sweet pastries, and any sort of savory meatless or vegetable stuffing can create a hearty stuffed bun.

What remains a mystery is why the art of the kolache has stayed contained within the Texas Czech Belt, when the base formula is infinitely adaptable, and its appeal so universal. If you’ve never been so lucky to see them in local bakeries, do yourself a favor and start your own family tradition, baking from scratch.

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Supernatural Supper

Night slowly descended and glowing orange lights flickered on as the witching hour drew nearer. We donned capes and pointed hats, impractically sloped heels and brittle broom sticks, preparing to take the town by storm. It was Halloween night, better than Christmas Eve in my young mind’s eye, and it was almost time for the show to begin. Untold treasures awaited at every turn, the thrill of the hunt pushing caravans of candy-crazed children deeper into the bowels of the city, seeking a sugar high that comes but once a year. Oversized empty bags at hand, we were ready to cause mayhem.

But then the doorbell rang. It wasn’t an early batch of trick-or-treaters beating us to the chase, but the pizza man. One can’t plunder on an empty stomach, after all.

Equally important to the ritual and tradition, my family always ordered pizza before embarking on the annual Halloween candy crawl. Turns out I wasn’t alone; the busiest night of the year for pizza delivery and takeout is Halloween, beating out even Super Bowl Sunday.

Like ordering Chinese takeout on Christmas Day, I thought it was something quirky and unique to my family, but it turns out everyone else was hip to the trend all along. Of course, these old school pies were nothing special; just your average cheese and/or pepperoni options. Maybe it would have been more remarkable if there was a more thematic meal to suit the moonlit masquerade ahead.

Something with a mysterious, mischievous black crust, dark as night, perfumed with a hint of smoke enhanced by a lightly charred surface. Thin, crisp, yet structurally sound, it has no trouble bearing the weight of abundant autumnal toppings. Classic red sauce can take the night off when pumpkin steps up to the plate. Spread richly over the surface, that creamy, garlicky sauce combines the natural sweetness of everyone’s favorite orange squash with the savory flavors of nutritional yeast. Tender sweet potato slices seal the deal, contrasted with sharp red onion slivers and a touch of hot red pepper flakes for a devilish finish.

Before you send your little ghouls and goblins off to collect their sugary plunder, don’t forget to fill them up with something a bit more satiating. The witching hour will come to pass in the blink of an eye, but the memories of the time leading up to it will last a lifetime.

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Feta Accompli

Feta, the stuff of myth and legend, has been a hot commodity since Byzantine Greece, first appearing in written record in Homer’s Odyssey. Loosely described as curdled sheep’s milk, it was the Cyclops that began what could be considered the first cottage industry business out of his cave.

Not to discount the early efforts of an innovative entrepreneur, I just can’t help but think it’s high time to stop following the herd. Over 6,000 years later, we ought to collectively crawl out from under that rock and start a new narrative for feta. No more sheep, no more strife.

Celebrating a robust 50-year heritage, Follow Your Heart may not have quite the same storied lineage, but they’re certainly out there making history. Introducing the very first dairy-free crumbled feta on the modern market, the “alternative” is one so good, it’s really impossible to justify traditional methods.

Firm, squeaky curds, briny and and slightly sour, like buttery unsweetened yogurt, they’re good enough to Greek out about. Each package contains diverse proportions of gleaming white morsels, ranging from nuggets the size of marbles to tiny specks akin to sea salt or coarsely ground pepper. This varied consistency is ideal for most applications; the smaller pieces evenly coat the vegetables, grains, or proteins in the mix, while the heftier chunks stand out for bold bites of concentrated cheesy flavor.

It’s a good thing there’s such a wide range of particle sizes, including such a fine spray that defies roving fingers, because it would otherwise be too tempting to simply eat out of hand.

This feta was born to be used in recipes, and not just salads, either. Blending Greek origins with Italian inspiration, it’s right at home in pillowy soft planks of fresh baked focaccia. Here, it gets mixed into the dough itself to infuse that distinctive umami flavor throughout, with more sprinkled directly on top for an irresistible browned surface. Nothing more is needed to dress up such a simple but bold bread, though it would be pretty incredible sliced in half and filled with your favorite sandwich fixings.

Soft, tender, and buttery slabs of flat bread would be hard enough to resist, but when each slice has morsels of compellingly salty feta embedded into every bite, no amount of willpower stands a chance. Give in and take a big bite; as your teeth sink into the crisp, caramelized crust, pushing past toasted garlic and aromatic herbs, you’ll wonder why you don’t bake bread everyday. That is, until you polish off a pan in record time, perhaps. It might be dangerous to make a regular habit. The feta is both the cherry on top, and part of the essential foundation. No other cheese will do, and certainly not one made from conventional dairy.

Follow your heart, mind, and stomach to a better feta. This will go down in history as yet another innovation that makes milk moot.

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Warmest Wishes

Winter weather advisories are in effect, sounding the alarm about snow, sleet, freezing rain, black ice, and pretty much any other blizzard conditions that might strike terror in the heart of any warm blooded mammal. Accumulation could range from bad to worse with no end in sight.

Scrolling through these dire reports, squinting at the sun-drenched screen, I squirm uncomfortably in my t-shirt and shorts. It’s February, historically known as the coldest, harshest month of the year, and yet I’m still too hot. Sub-zero winds may be howling through the Midwest and East Coast, but here in California, it feels like we’ve skipped right into late spring. The golden state, the place that winter forgot, is erupting with early flowers, perfuming the air with delicate scents of jasmine and lavender. Kids frolic home with a carefree easy typically reserved for vacations, peeling out of over-protective jackets the minute the school bell rings.

But no, it is winter. Firmly, definitely, still winter. Sorry for the remaining 49 states, to say nothing of the rest of the world.

My heart goes out to all of you out there in the brutal frozen tundra. You’re made of stronger stuff than me, so averse to the barest chill that 60 degrees sounds like sweater weather. While I can’t say I know how you feel, toughing it out in the elements like that, I can offer a bit of solace- Or perhaps more accurately, a bite of solace.

Nothing warms the heart and the house quite like lighting up the oven. Stay inside, get cozy in thick thermal underwear and floppy slipper socks; you’ve got everything you need right here.

Classic cinnamon rolls are hard to beat, slowly rising as the yeast comes alive, becoming lighter, more tender and softer by the minute. Buttery pockets of gentle spice and brown sugar spiral hypnotically in the pan, all shades of golden brown and delicious. Well, let’s take that same concept and simply apply a touch of chocolate instead, shall we?

Digging into the pantry for inspiration, an open bag of Rodelle Organic Hot Cocoa Mix seemed to be purposefully poised, ready to infuse this classic comfort food with an extra dose of warmth. With pure vanilla, dark Dutch-processed cocoa, and sugar all in one, the only thing you need to add are the marshmallows. Easy to drink, bake, and simply fall in love with.

As if it wasn’t enough to wrap springy cylinders of mini mallows right inside that swirling dough, sticky melted marshmallow glaze seals the deal with a sweet, juicy kiss.

For those of you facing single digit temperatures or worse, just stay inside. Keep warm from the inside out. You aren’t missing anything when a fresh batch of hot cocoa rolls rises to the occasion.

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Easy Like Christmas Morning

Light filters in through frosted windows, gently painting the tinsel-clad branches of pine, dancing across silken wrappings, glinting off glossy greeting cards. All is still, silent, and calm. The air is just a breath too cold for comfort, but nothing the sun won’t fix in another minute, glowing and growing stronger right before sleepy eyes, still clouded with dream of feasts from the night before. Christmas morning, in the best situation, is a magical time, the split second right before children squeal with glee to mark the start of joyous mayhem. Controlled chaos will soon describe the scene as paper is torn and tags go flying. The last thing you want to fuss with is a fancy breakfast that would tear you away from these fleeting moments, but a bowl of cold cereal just won’t cut it today.

Before calamity descends, take the wheel and prepare yourself well in advance. Sticky buns or cinnamon rolls are the classic daybreak decadence for this annual celebration, but who wants to wake up at 5am to start mixing dough? Not me, even if I don’t have children to beat down the stairs or a tree to furnish before Santa slacks off.

Save yourself some time and labor by turning out one giant, majestic, family-style spiral, rather than individual little buns. Dazzling with warm rivulets of cinnamon sugar goo dripping into every tender spiral of dough, wrapping around crisp pecans like a pillowy blanket, you’ll think you’re still dreaming when you take the first bite.

Perhaps it will be the scent of buttery dough or cinnamon spices that awaken Christmas spirits, rather than the sunrise this time around. All the hard work is done the night before, so in the morning, all you need to do is preheat the oven and pop in the pan. It’s not exactly holiday magic… But it may just taste like that.

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Challah at Me

Everything has meaning. Everything has a purpose.

Woven into the smooth, elastic strands of dough that compose a loaf of lovingly braided challah bread is a taste of history. Surviving centuries of strife, passed down by word of mouth like folklore, it’s more than mere sustenance, yet hardly given a second thought beyond the customary blessing, if that. Even I was surprised to learn that the term “challah” isn’t necessarily defined by the rich, eggy, soft, and sweet crumb that immediately comes to mind. Any bread that’s sanctified for Jewish observances, from high holidays to regular old week days, can be challah.

That’s only the beginning of my true challah education. Visiting the Chabad Jewish Student Center at UC Berkeley prior to Shabbat one day, I was greeted by the sight of overflowing bowls of dough, the smell of yeast and flour wafting through the windows, perfuming the whole neighborhood.

Traditionally, seven essential ingredients compose the tender crumb we all know and love: water, yeast, sugar, oil, flour, and salt. Eggs, though frequently included to represent renewal, are not actually a necessary staple. That’s right; I wandered into this enclave of busy bakers to find about a hundred pounds of “accidentally” vegan challah dough at my disposal.

As explained by den mamma Bracha Sara Leeds, all while deftly kneading and twisting strands of the soft dough into elaborate braids, each ingredient can be linked back to the tenants of Judaism itself.

Water, the single most important, omnipresent component, represents the Torah. Just as we cannot live without water, we also cannot live without this guiding scripture. Bringing life and nourishment to all, it represents generosity and kindness. Like water, we want kindness to be infinitely abundant, flowing freely through our lives.

Flour is sustenance, the foundation to build a life on, physically and emotionally through our relationships with family, friends, and the community at large. We must feed these relationships as we must feed ourselves to maintain a healthy, happy, stable existence.

Oil is included to represent anointing, or sanctifying, to signify this loaf as being special, holier than your average daily bread. Oil enriches our lives, making particular moments, or meals, a bit more special.

Sugar stands in for all the sweetness in our lives, of course, but in this case also represents faith. With faith (in the future, in ourselves) comes sweet rewards. Fear not the sugar! Though challah is certainly classified as a sweet bread, it’s always well-balanced, to be served with equal enjoyment with toppings as diverse as jam or hummus, at breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Yeast provides leavening, of course, allowing the dough to rise, grow, and expand. Whether that means growing in terms of our character, rising up above challenges, or expanding to reach our full potential, it only takes a small push to get started. Yeast is only a tiny piece of the recipe, yet completely transforms the finished loaves.

Salt, used sparingly but in fair measure, represents discipline or criticism. As difficult as it can be to accept, it’s necessary for contrast and proper perspective. Salt can also signify purification, removing toxins from the body, and anything that is toxic in our lives or minds.

Arguably the most ingredient is one absent from any written recipe. Patience, while kneading, waiting for the dough to rise once, rise twice, and again while baking, is indispensable. Have patience for yourself; don’t rush the process to reap the greatest rewards.

It’s my pleasure to share this simple, yet deeply nuanced, meaningful approach to challah for World Bread Day. As my 13th contribution to the effort, I wouldn’t miss this event for anything. Though I wish I could break bread in person with everyone in the blogosphere, I hope that sharing this little morsel of history might provide a bit of virtual nourishment, at least.

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