Sunday, April 14, 2024

In which I reconsider the hill I said I would die on.

I may have mentioned that I'm Czech on my mother's side. My maternal grandparents came over from the province of Bohemia in the late 1800s and very early 1900s. My grandfather's family settled in southwestern Wisconsin and then moved to the Chicago area; my grandmother's family migrated to Chicago and stayed there.

Mom's family was closer geographically to us, so we spent a lot of holidays with her side of the family. And of course Mom did all the cooking at home. So I have a fair acquaintance with Czech foods -- particularly baked goods. 

Besides the Chicago area, Czech immigrants to this country settled in several other states, including Iowa, Nebraska, and Texas. (The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library is in Cedar Rapids. I've never been, but I should probably visit sometime.) The Texas Czechs apparently came from the province of Moravia, arrived in America through the port of Galveston, settled in west Texas, and about 50 years later, started churning out kolaches for sale. Except these Texas kolaches are not the same as the koláčky I remember from my childhood. Ours were cookies. The Texas variety are more like Danish -- some with the fruit and cheese fillings I remember and some filled with stuff like sausage and jalapeños.

To me, this has always been WRONG. I could stretch my personal definition of koláčky to the bigger fruit buns, but savory ones are right out.

Yesterday at the grocery store, I saw some of the savory ones in the freezer section, and it just caught me at the wrong moment. I posted this on Facebook: 
In the ensuing discussion, during which certain of my friends stood up for the Texas kind, I stumbled across a website called Cook Like Czechs. And that's when I figured out where I'd been going wrong. 

It turns out that there are two Czech pastries with similar names:
  • the kolache -- the Danish-like yeast bun, which in Czech is spelled koláč in the singular and koláče in the plural; and 
  • the koláčky -- the cookies -- of my youth. Here's the thing: koláčky is the plural form; the singular is koláček.
When I read that, a light bulb went off. See, in English, we add "little" before a noun to show that something is a small version of something else. Spanish does the same thing by adding a diminutive suffix: -ito or -ita. With me so far? Okay. Well, in Czech, the diminutive suffix is -ek. So a koláček is a little koláč

I'd never heard the singular form -- they were always koláčky in our family. Mom might have used koláč to mean one cookie, which would have added to the confusion.

Anyway, Petra at Cook Like Czechs lists similar traditional fillings for both kolaches and the cookie version: apricot, peach, cherry, prune, poppyseed (my all-time fave), and cream cheese. Petra uses a sweet yeast dough for her kolaches and a cream cheese dough for her koláčky. My mom used yeast dough for her koláčky but made them square and folded the opposite corners in, like in the photo of the recipe at Cook Like Czechs. I make mine with a cream cheese dough but cut them into circles and put a dot of filling in the middle, like thumbprint cookies. 
Lynne Cantwell | 2015 or so
You have perhaps noted that so far, I haven't mentioned any jalapeños. 

So there is a thing called a klobasnek (in Czech, klobásník). It seems to have been invented by those Czech immigrants in Texas. It uses kolache dough as the wrapping; originally the filling was chopped meat, but over the years it has expanded to include all sorts of savory things, including eggs, cheese, sausage, and yes, hot dogs and jalapeños. Of course, because America, klobasneks became conflated with kolaches -- I guess because they use the same dough? 

Anyway, now "kolache" is the generic term for both the sweet buns and the savory things. Let's call them Tex-Czech, okay? Maybe it will keep me from stroking out when I see them in the grocery store.

Fun fact: I mentioned above that kolache is the Americanized form of koláče, which is plural. So people who say "kolaches" have pluralized the word twice. Considering there are Americans who routinely call an ATM an "ATM machine", I can't say I'm surprised.

I learned something else from the Cook Like Czechs website. There's a festive braided bread that's often made at the holidays. We've always called it houska. But this blogger says that's because our family immigrated around the turn of the 20th century. Later on in the Czech lands, the name of this bread changed to vánočka. It's the same thing, just called by a different name. If you go to Czechia now and ask for houska, they'll bring you a braided white roll. Times do change, don't they?

These moments of Tex-Czech blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Dobrou chut'!

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