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Czechoslovakia is probably not the first country that comes to mind when people set out to identify the ethnic influences on Texas food. However, any Central Texan who has ever sunk their teeth into the soft, yeasty cloud of a fruit kolache knows that Czechs bring a delicious contribution to the Texas culinary table.
Czech immigrants began arriving in Texas during the mid-to late nineteenth century entering through the busy port of Galveston and spreading out though the central part of the state. At one point that area had over 200 Czech-dominant communities.
They settled in rural areas and became farmers and craftsmen whose society revolved mostly around family life and the Catholic Church. The Czechs rich cuisine was based on roasted meats with noodles and dumplings; homemade sausages, potatoes, and sauerkraut; and baked goods such as fruit strudels and kolaches.
Kolaches came to the Lone Star State with 19th-century immigrants from Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia and continued making their native pastries over wood stoves when they settled in Central Texas. The kolache is the most prominent edible symbol of Texas Czech culture.
Kolaches are made with sweetened yeast dough formed into rolls and filled with fruit or cheese before baking. Classic Czech fillings are prune, apricot, poppyseed, and cottage cheese though other fruit fillings such as cherry, peach, and apple have become popular as well.
Just as the Czech koláč became “ko-lah-chee” on the tongues of Texans, kolache fillings evolved over time. As the pastry grew in popularity bakers developed new flavors from cream cheese and lemon to Philly cheese steak and the distinctly Texan sausage known as Klobasnikies (Pigs-in-a-Blanket) even though no kolache would contain meat in Eastern Europe. It is a taut-skinned, rugged-textured kielbasa sausage fully encased in a tube of tender-crumb bread that is finer than any hot dog bun we’ve ever eaten.
No true Czech wedding feast would be complete without a bountiful supply of kolaches on the dessert table and the homemade varieties are always a fixture at Czech church functions and heritage society gatherings. Now that kolaches are also available in local bakeries, they can be a delightful everyday treat.
Just north of Waco the small town of West (known for clarity’s sake as “West Comma Texas”) is the state’s kolache capital where descendants of Czech immigrants make these little square pastries that hold a dollop of fruit rimmed by a puffy pillow of supple dough.
“Koláče are sold warm from the oven,” assures the sign above the counter at the Village Bakery, a shop with three small tables and one circular ten-seat table that hosts a community coffee klatch most mornings. Apricot and prune are the flavors favored by old-timers along with poppy seeds and cottage cheese. Tourists tend to like fruitier versions—apple, strawberry, blueberry—as well as those made with cream cheese.
Like any baked pastry the fresher the kolache the better it is. Philip Weikel, of Weikel’s Bakery in La Grange once had a customer pay $80 for overnight air shipping of $5 worth of kolaches. But ground service works too—Weikel’s dough defies the laws of staleness. It stays light, moist, and soft for four or five days something he attributes to the way it is made and handled. “That’s the secret that separates us from bakeries that buy kolache mix in fifty-pound bags: tenderness,” he says. “Tenderness now and tenderness tomorrow.”
Czech-Americans throughout Texas have given Weikel’s kolaches the thumbs-up.
There are no kolaches anywhere more beguiling than Weikel’s little apricot rectangles in which the fruit’s sunny sour taste accentuates the sweetness of the pastry around it.
A word of warning: Weikel’s bears little resemblance to the charming old-world kolache shops in West and elsewhere in Texas. You could walk in for a Coke and a beef stick and not notice that there is something extraordinary at the back of the store where the bakery does business. The place looks like a gas station, which is what it is.
Weikel’s Bakery prides itself in making authentic, from scratch, Czech pastries. Weikel’s second location in Brenham features a full-scale baking operation, indoor seating for 16, and a menu of an extensive assortment of kolaches, klobasniky (pigs-in-a-blanket), sweet rolls, pies, bread, muffins, cookies, and cakes as well as a coffee, tea, and soft drinks beverage counter.
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Worth Pondering… Eat dessert first. Life is uncertain.