A few months ago, my dad showed me a cookbook that he found in my mom’s collection. I’d never noticed it before, although she must have had it for years. I never paid much attention to her cookbooks, since she usually cooked from clippings from magazines, or later from recipes printed from the internet, all of which she kept organized by category on the kitchen counter. (Basically, she was pinning before Pinterest was a thing.) But I wish I’d noticed this book, which must have originally belonged to my grandmother, sooner: The Anniversary Slovak-American Cook Book, published in 1952 by The First Catholic Slovak Ladies Association. It is a treasure trove of both traditional Slovak and mid-century Slovak-American hybrid recipes. It is 75% breads and desserts. It has eleven separate sections for different dessert categories. How had I not noticed it before?? So now I’m making up for lost time and starting a new recurring Sunday feature on the blog, where I’ll cook recipes from the book. First up: kolač.
I wish I could remember more about my grandmother’s cooking. She, my grandfather and my aunts were born in Slovakia and moved to the U.S. in 1950. My mom was born three years later. I never thought of that as being out of the ordinary; I only realized that they spoke with accents after someone else pointed it out to me. And I definitely was not wise enough to ask all of the questions I wish I had, about her life in Europe, her experiences during World War Two, or the cooking she grew up with. I remember that I loved her mashed potatoes, and that she and my grandfather ate cream of wheat in the morning instead of oatmeal (which seemed so exotic at the time), and that they ate fish on Christmas Eve and on Fridays during Lent. By the time I was old enough to be able to appreciate how different dishes come from different cultures, my mom was the one hosting big family dinners while my grandparents came to visit. But on one of my last visits to my grandmother, who by then was in assisted living after my grandfather passed away, I remember her telling my husband and I that she really wished she had some good salami and a nice beer to offer us on such a hot afternoon. So I think it’s safe to say that I get some of my tastes from her.
I’m not sure if she ever made kolač when I visited, but since there are eight different entries for kolač in the book, I have a feeling this was a popular traditional recipe in the Slovak-American community. The book’s editors assume that whoever is reading it already knows Slovak cooking, so there are no preambles to any of the recipes explaining what the dishes actually are or pictures to show what they should, you know, look like. But all of the kolač recipes are variations on a theme of an enriched dough rolled around a nut, poppy seed, or fruit filling. I decided to cook the first kolač entry, and after one not-so-successful test run, the second batch turned out delicious.
To call this dough enriched would be like calling Game of Thrones a little bit dark. The original recipe made six giant loaves and called for a half pound of butter and a pint of milk. I suspect that the intended audience for this book made this for community gatherings and church coffee hours, so the six loaves make sense. My grandparents sang in their church choir and attended regular weekend fish fries, and I think providing food for a community is at the center of this cookbook. But since I’m feeding a family of four and whoever happens to visit, and I didn’t have any big events to host or attend this week, I cut the recipe down to make two loaves.
On my first attempt, I left the dough too wet and it was hard to roll into its final shape. The next time around I learned and added an extra quarter cup of flour and kneaded the dough for fifteen minutes instead of five. I also decided to let the dough rise in the refrigerator overnight rather than on the counter for two hours; the dough still doubled in size and it was much easier to work with in the morning. After separating it into two equal sections and making them into rectangles by hand rather than with a rolling pin, I spread one loaf with a walnut filling I found in another recipe in the book, and the other with apricot preserves. I’d highly recommend going with the walnut filling, since the nuttiness balances the sweetness of the dough nicely, while the preserves ended up being too sweet and sticky in the finished loaf.
I am sold on the finished loaf. The dough is rich and the walnut filling is hearty, but since you slice the loaf into small pieces, it feels like the perfect sweet indulgence without seeming over the top. I’ll definitely be making this again – I found it to be the perfect mid-morning snack with my second (okay, my third) cup of coffee.
- 1 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast (half of a standard packet)
- 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons milk, lukewarm (I used 2%) (heated in microwave for 10 seconds)
- 1 teaspoon plus 2 ½ tablespoons sugar
- 2¼ cups flour
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ⅔ cups milk
- 1 egg, beaten
- 5 ⅓ tablespoons butter, softened
- 2 cups walnuts
- 6 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons milk
- In a measuring cup, stir 1 teaspoon of sugar in the 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons of milk and sprinkle the yeast over the top. Let stand for five minutes, until bubbly.
- Put the ⅔ cup milk in a small saucepan and heat to a lukewarm temperature. Add the eggs and whisk together.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer or large mixing bowl, stir together the flour, salt, and 2½ tablespoons of sugar. Pour in the milk and egg mixture and stir. Add the yeast mixture and butter.
- With a dough hook on a stand mixer, or by hand, knead the dough until smooth and springy, which will take ten to fifteen minutes. Spray the bottom of a mixing bowl with oil and place the dough in it. Turn the dough over to coat both sides, then cover with a kitchen towel. Place in a warm spot in the kitchen and allow to rise for 2 ½ hours, or in the fridge overnight.
- When ready to bake the dough, prepare walnut filling (see instructions below) and cover a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Divide dough into two equal parts, sprinkle wth flour, and roll each part into a rectangle. Spread walnut filling over each rectangle, leaving ½ inch of the dough uncovered on all sides.
- Starting with the longest side, tightly roll up each rectangle. Place seam-side down on the baking sheet.
- Bake for 30 minutes, until golden brown.
- Put walnuts in a food processor. Pulse until the mixture is finely ground. Add sugar a tablespoon at a time, until the mixture reaches your desired sweetness. Add milk and pulse until combined.