Every year, my friend Andrew throws a Slovak Day party. If you’re Slovak(ish), don’t freak out that you forgot to send your grandparents a card; at this point, Slovak Day is an excuse to get together, enjoy the sunshine, drink Golden Pheasant (Zlatý Bažant) and eat loads of sausage and kraut and stuffed cabbage. It is not (yet) a globally recognized holiday.
I am part Slovak and part Czech, so this year I felt I had what it takes to make a culturally-significant dish to bring to the celebration.
(And here’s where I know my millions of readers will gasp.) But I didn’t quite make a Slovak dish. Instead, I made kolacky, using a recipe from my Czech grandmother. I had recently baked with her and as such, had some hands-on training fresh in my mind that made me feel prepared to tackle a yeast dough.
Quick background before I ramble on about my baking experience: kolacky originated as a semisweet wedding dessert from Central Europe, and is described as a pastry that holds a dollop of fruit rimmed by a puffy pillow of supple dough. Very poetic, Wikipedia. If you are from, or have family from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland or pretty much anywhere in that vicinity of the world, you are probably familiar with kolacky. What you may not know there are many, many derivations of this traditional treat. Take a look at a few photos.
The full recipe is at the end of the page, but if you’re interested in some color commentary, keep on reading.
The first step in the process was the one that made me the most nervous: the whole yeast + warm milk thing. So the science part, I suppose, is what I presumed most difficult to manage. Many yeast dough recipes suggest combining the lukewarm milk, yeast and sugar in a bowl, but my grandmother combines the dry ingredients (sans yeast) in a bowl and makes a little ditch in the middle, into which she adds the milk and the yeast to let them bubble and do chemistry.
Next, you add the one cup of melted butter. As you may know, I have fallen victim to anti-animal fats propaganda, and have lots of fun experimenting with butter alternatives. It took actual effort to not replace half the butter with grape seed oil, but I was reminded by my helpful kitchen helper that this is a traditional recipe with which I needn’t tamper. And really, would my grandmother’s grandmother sub plant oil in her kolacky? I don’t think so.
Once all your ingredients are mixed together, your dough should be slightly sticky. Put it on a clean, floured surface (a big, wooden pastry board, perhaps, if you are so blessed with a kitchen large enough to house one). Knead the dough for a few minutes, adding flour to it as you go. It’s less of a knead, and more of a roll and fold, as the photo below suggests. This is truly the technique portion of the baking competition, and I really can’t put the instructions into words; it requires in-person training. Over the winter, my grandmother demonstrated and tried to teach me, but I have yet to master. My helpful kitchen helper is actually pretty good at it, though, so I’ll let that be his thing.
After the dough has been kneaded for a few minutes and is less sticky, plop it back in your mixing bowl and let it rise. Cover it with your Chicago Triathlon kitchen towel. If you don’t have one, an ordinary kitchen towel will probably suffice.
Let the dough rise until it has doubled in size, then roll dough into 1.5” balls and place onto greased cookie sheets. Cover them again with your Chicago Triathlon kitchen towel and let rise for 20 minutes.
Get out your favorite shot glass; it’s going to be your handy dandy tool to create little pits in the dough into which you’ll add your fruit.
Traditionally, the filling in kolacky is dried fruit, preserves, pastry cheese or canned poppy, but I didn’t have any of that. Also, it’s summer, so I need to eat at least a pint of fresh berries a day, which means I have to put berries in my desserts to get full intake. In two separate bowls I added sugar to raspberries and diced strawberries, let them sit and then drained them of their sugary juice. I don’t think the raspberries were drained enough, because their juice was pooling a bit once the fruit was added to the kolacky.
I also added a streusel to a few of the kolacky, thinking the fresh fruit would need a sweetening agent. Then I remembered I had sugared the fruit already so I stopped what I was doing and saved the streusel for some sort of rainbow-berry dish to be made later this week for Pride.
The final step before putting the goods in the oven is to use a brush to coat the edges of the kolacky with egg. I am not yet cool enough to have a pastry brush made of feathers, so I attempted it with a fork. It didn’t work. I need a brush.
Bake for 10-12 minutes. You’ll know the kolacky are done when the edges are a gleaming golden brown. If you didn’t adequately brush the dough with egg (ahem, me), then your edges won’t quite be golden brown, but they’ll still taste good.
My first attempt at kolacky yielded a product that didn’t look anything like my grandmother’s but I promise they tasted really good. And to quote my grandmother, the master baker herself: “the main thing is that they taste good.”
Here is the full recipe:
4 cups flour
½ cup white sugar
¼ cup lukewarm milk
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 egg yolks
¾ cup lukewarm milk
½ teaspoon salt
½ lemon rind (optional)
1 tablespoon vanilla
2 tablespoons run (optional)
1 cup melted butter (or ½ cup butter plus ½ cup olive oil)
Combine flour and sugar in a bowl. Make a ditch in the middle of the dry ingredients and add ¼ cup lukewarm milk and yeast. Let stand at room temperature until foamy.
Mix together salt, egg yolks, vanilla, rum and ¾ cup warm milk. Add mixture and melted butter to the flour. Mix with a wooden spoon about 2 minutes to make soft dough that’s slightly sticky, then put on a floured board and mix/fold/knead with your hands for another 2-3 minutes, adding flour a little bit at a time.
Cover with a towel and let rise until mound of dough has doubled in bulk. Roll dough into 1 ½ inch balls.
Place on greased cookie sheet 3 inches apart. Cover with towel and let rise for about 20 minutes. After they have risen, use a small glass or fingers to make an indentation in each. Spoon 1 teaspoon of your favorite filling into each. Beat one egg and brush edges with a pastry brush.
Bake a preheated oven at 425 F for 8-10 minutes.
Sprinkle with powdered sugar before serving.
Filling for Kolacky:
You can use canned peach, apricot or prune.
If you’d like to use dried fruit, soak the fruit at least 1 hour, then cook in ½ cup of water on a stovetop for about 10 minutes. Blend to puree, stir in ¾ cup sugar, ½ teaspoon vanilla and a dash of cinnamon.
Canned poppy seed is another option. If you’d like to make your own poppy, cook 8 ounces of poppy, ½ pint of milk, ¼ sugar (or honey), a dash of cinnamon and 1 tablespoon of preserves (strawberry or prune).
The final option is to fill with cheese. To make the pastry cheese combine 8 ounces cream cheese, 1 cup cottage cheese (squeeze excess water until it’s dry), ½ cup sugar and ½ cup raisins. If it’s runny, add 1 tablespoon of minute tapioca pudding.