You might not think it to look at them, but koláčes are about as hot as it gets right now. From the Deep South in America to London’s East End, this simple-looking pastry is big business, championed by those in the know as being the cake choice of the uber-cool. It has been branded the ‘hipster donut’; the new snack for the discerning that deliciously treads a fine line between bread, sweet pastry and self-contained little treat, perfect for snacking on at any time of the day with a good brew – be it morning coffee or post-work beer.
As such, you might assume that koláče were only dreamt up a year or two ago in a trendy bakery somewhere in New York City – like that unholy food-fashion fusion the ‘cronut’. But in reality, these delicious, traditional Czech specialities have been a home-cooked kitchen table staple for many hundreds of years, migrating to the New World in the mid nineteenth-century with eastern European settlers in a move that would begin what has been a slow rise to worldwide fame. Yet despite becoming the latest designer pastry for many top bakeries, few would argue that uncovering the best koláče recipes and learning to cook them the traditional way still requires a trip back to the old country, back to where it all began.
Borovany, ten minutes drive from České Budějovice, is a great place to start – a small South Bohemian town famed for the blueberries that grow wild and plentiful here throughout the summer. I arrive to find it looking pretty under a midday July sun. Brightly painted buildings cluster around two central, dominating features: a handsome Augustinian monastery and impressive church. Wandering through a sun-drenched courtyard into the quiet, lawned gardens at the back of them, I’m greeted Edenka Brecková and Eva Tyrnerová, two masters at creating authentic koláče from scratch who are going to show me how its done.
Like most Czech koláče makers, neither of these warm, friendly, apron-wearing ladies is a ‘professional’ baker; rather they have long histories of cooking this delicacy for family and friends, both – they tell me – being by far the hardest audiences to please.
“I’ve been baking koláče for as long as I can remember,” says Eva as they spread a tablecloth over a wooden table under a willow tree and set up ceramic bowls and ingredients. “It’s just what we do here. You start at a very early age. I learned to make koláče from my mother and my grandmother, both of whom were excellent bakers.”
More recently, Eva and Edenka have branched from supplying just their nearest and dearest; they are committed to turning long lineages of expertise into something that helps the wider community. They are members of a Borovany baking circle, fittingly titled ‘The Traditions Club’. This uses the church hall behind where we’re standing as a base to create these outrageously good Czech delicacies, entering them into national koláče competitions and selling them to raise money for local charities.
And the secret to creating prize-worthy pastries? “Well,” says Edenka, “It always starts with the quality of the dough. Good leavened dough is essential. You have to get it right.”
To show me, she fetches a large bowl and crumbles 40-50g of fresh yeast with a good glug of warm milk, stirring gently. “Now we set this aside somewhere warm to come alive.” Says Eva, covering it with a towel and placing it on a bench in the sun. As she turns her attention to grating lemon zest, Edenka starts deftly separating egg yolks from their whites. The speed with which they both tackle each element of the preparation is impressive, and speaks volumes. Chatting between themselves, the ladies barely seem to register what their hands are doing. And when I try to take down precise measurements in my notebook, both smile.
“All the old recipes are done by sight and taste,” laughs Eva. “A handful of this; a pinch of that. I can say I’ve never written down a koláče recipe in my life. It’s all in here and here.” She says pointing to her head and heart, before grinning.
After about fifteen minutes, I start to see what she means. Retrieving the livened yeast from its sunny spot, she stirs in (about) half the flour, 150g of castor sugar, a decent pinch of salt, the melted butter, the egg yolks and more of the milk. Attacking the mixture with a wooden spoon, she tips in the remaining flour and the rest of the milk until it’s a workable dough she’s happy with. Then it’s patted into a ball and popped into a bowl, covered with a towel again and ready for proving in the warmth of the church hall’s kitchen.
“We must leave it alone for an hour now,” she tells me. “You must give it sufficient time to rise. But after that, it’s ready to bake with.”
Part of the beauty of koláče is undoubtedly this simple base. Eva informs me that, from one dough mix, we will be making of three different batches of these authentic Czech pastries anyone could try at home: a traditional, flat, square blueberry ‘tray bake’; a round koláč with curd cheese filling, and a local speciality called koláč ‘Peter Vok’ – an intriguing-sounding poppy-seed-filled, rose-shaped pastry with a rum-soaked cherry on top.
“There are many types of koláč in the Czech Republic,” explains Eva. “Every region has its own recipes with different fruits, fruit jams, nuts, raisins or curd cheese fillings, depending where you are. The koláče you find down here in South Bohemia or Moravia, for example, are different to those you find in the north.”
The ‘Peter Vok’ pastry is a great example; particular to this area and notable for its flower shape, it typifies the kind of deep connection that you tend to stumble across in the Czech Republic between food, history and place. Vok was a nobleman, politician and world traveller who visited Elizabeth I as a member of the aristocratic Rosenberg family in the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-centuries. Just as they did with numerous swathes of South Bohemia, the Rosenberg’s owned the land in and around Borovany; hence the Peter Vok koláč was named in honour of the man himself, suggesting it may date back at least four hundred years, with its flower shape directly echoing the Rosenberg’s family symbol: a five-petal red rose.
There are those that speculate that koláče have even earlier origins. The name is thought to originate from the old Slavic word kola, meaning ‘wheel’ or ‘circle’, with round breads being used in rituals throughout early European cultures to denote and celebrate elements of the natural world, such as the sun or moon.
Today, in Borovany, nature plays no less of a starring role in the creation of the fillings. While the dough proves in the kitchen, Edenka tells me that we’ve just enough time to get out into the woods and gather some of the fruits her town is famous for.
A little way from town and up a track into a curtain of pine trees, the floor become thickly carpeted with wild blueberry bushes. I adjust focus and get my eye in; then I can see how thoroughly distributed the bushes are. Edenka weaves between the tree trunks, stopping and stooping, dropping to her haunches and picking handfuls of the little purple berries to put into a cup. I do the same, inspecting (and trying) a few along the way. They’re like the farmed blueberry in shape but smaller and more reminiscent of the delicious little wild bilberry you find on UK moorland. The colour of Indian ink, they are a deep purple-black with a vivid inside that stains your fingers (and tongue) the colour of Ribena. Sweet, fresh and piquant.
We fill an old ice cream tub and make our way back to the church hall and the garden outside. The dough has risen beautifully in the meantime and Eva wastes no time in poking it back, deflating it, before rolling it back into a ball and splitting the whole lot in half.
“As you have brought us blueberries, we should make the blueberry koláč first,” she says. Obviously, where there aren’t always the wild ones to hand, you can use supermarket blueberries, or – as Eva tells me – frozen blueberries.
Eva quickly cuts and sets one half of the dough aside and rolls the other out with a roller into a rough rectangle. She’s already greased a large, square, shallow oven tray with butter and now lifts the dough into its centre. After rollering it thinly to fit the tray exactly, she pushes the dough into the corners and up the sides: “So the blueberries don’t fall out.” Then she shakes fine breadcrumbs across the lot.
“For a tray this size, you need about a litre of blueberries,” Edenka chips in. When I ask how she knows that if she never measures anything, she points to the side of the blueberry filled ice cream tub Eva is now busily decanting over the dough. “It says on here.”
Once the blueberries have covered the dough and lie stacked almost up to the lip of the tray, Eva shakes some sugar over them, before adding a classic koláče topping – the ‘crumble’. This is not crumble as you might understand it, but a combination of flour, butter and castor sugar ‘crumbled’ together by hand until it has the consistency of finely grated Parmesan cheese. Roughly sprinkling this over the top, the tray bake is ready for the oven.
Up next is the curd cheese and blueberry ‘round’ – the classic-looking koláč. Dividing the remaining half of dough into half again, Eva and Edenka roll each quarter into a sausage shape and then cut ten sections along it. These are then rolled in the hand into little dough ball-sized balls. Each is pressed into a flatter shape, like a thick, flat bowl, with an indentation in the middle. Then something unexpected: a cluster of goose feathers is brought out of Eva’s apron pocket. These are dipped into a beaten egg and the tips carefully but liberally brushed around the rim of each bowl.
The curd cheese filling – which has a mild lemony, sweet, smooth soured cream taste – has already been prepared and Eva scoops it into icing bag and squeezes a neat spiral into the centres, before a final flourish: dotting a few blueberries on top of every one. “You don’t have to use blueberries,” she explains. “You could add raisins or nuts instead.”
The remaining dough balls are brought forward to make the Peter Vok koláč. On an oven tray, each is pressed into a flat disc before poppy seed filling is scooped into the centre. This is an addictively sweet, poppy seed reduction; the poppy seeds – also gathered in their hundreds of thousands from local flowers, but can easily be shop-bought – are simmered with milk until thick, before sugar, rum and a hint of cinnamon are added. Once dolloped into the dough, Edenka draws the edges of the koláč over the top of the filling, joining them together in the middle like a pouch. Flipped over, each is then patted down to achieve the iconic koláč ‘round’ shape and left to ‘rise’ a little again.
When all are done, Eva pushes a little indentation into its top and produces a pair of scissors to makes five cuts in the sides of each koláč, creating the flower-petal shape. Then she feather-brushes them with beaten egg, fills the indentation with a pinch of koláče crumble and pops a rum-soaked cherry on top. On each petal she places a sliced almond, and the ‘Peter Vok’ are also primed for baking. I watch as the ladies slide each tray into the oven. “Now it’s easy to remember,” says Eva. “Twenty minutes at 200 degrees centigrade. Then they’re all ready.”
We take a seat. Then Eve remembers something. ‘Pivo!’ She erupts. Rising again she pulls a few bottles of Budweiser Budvar out of the fridge and pops their caps, handing glasses of beer around. “Once you have finished, it’s time for a well-earned drink.” She says.
But Edenka checks the fridge and throws her a smile. “I think maybe you had one of these earlier, when we were out picking blueberries!”
Eva smiles and shrugs. “Oh yes. Did I? Maybe…”
Before we’ve even drained the last of our lagers, the koláče are out of the oven and filling the small kitchen with the utterly irresistible smell of warm pastry. Taking them outside, Eva cuts up the large tray bake and I bite into the overwhelmingly delicious sweetness of fresh, melting blueberries, underpinned with that crisp pastry beneath. It’s simple yet totally sublime; likewise the combination of the slightly soured creamy taste of the curd koláč married with the sweet cake-pastry around it, all topped off with the pop of fresh blueberries in the mouth.
Lastly I reach for the trademark koláč of Borovany – the Peter Vok. Biting into the crisp, golden pastry and into the delicious poppy seed filling, I slip into food heaven. There’s the butter, the sweetness of the poppy seed filling and the warmth of the rum; then, once I reach the cherry in the next bite, the rum swells beautifully in strength and flavour and combines with the almonds and the sugary crumble. I’ve tried a lot of cake in my time but one bite into this and I understand not only why Czech emigrants carried this cake with them to America, but also why a whole new generation of fans have become devotees.
I take one more and sit back against the willow tree to really enjoy another round. “Some more beer too?” Asks Eva, heading inside. Well, why not? Discovering the secret baking the world’s finest koláče?
That’s got to be something worth celebrating.
FOR THE KOLÁČE DOUGH:
1kg plain flour. 150g castor sugar.
150g unsalted butter (warmed and melted).
3-4 egg yolks.
40g fresh, live yeast or 2.5tsp instant yeast (added together with the flour).
Fine breadcrumbs (for the blueberry tray bake koláč).
FOR THE EGG WASH:
1-2 large eggs, beaten.
FOR THE KOLÁČE CRUMBLE:
80g castor sugar.
100g–140g plain flour.
FOR THE CURD FILLING:
250g soft curd cheese (if the curd is too dry, add a bit of milk or cream).
50g–70g castor sugar.
1 egg yolk.
Pinch of lemon zest.
1 whipped egg white.
Optional extras: raisins, cranberries, dark rum, vanilla.
FOR THE POPPY SEED FILLING:
250g ground poppy seeds.
100g castor sugar.
A dash of dark rum.
Optional extras: raisins, finely chopped walnuts or hazelnuts, cocoa, ground clove, plum jam.
You can use whatever you have ready-made around, such as fruit jams, for a really easy filling.
FOR THE KOLÁČE CRUMBLE:
Use good quality unsalted butter. Rub the ingredients together by hand until it achieves something like the consistency of grated Parmesan.
FOR THE CURD FILLING:
Mix curd with the egg yolk, lemon zest and sugar until it has a smooth texture. Add any extra ingredients and, finally, add a whipped egg white, gently folding it in.
FOR THE POPPY SEED FILLING:
Add the ground poppy seed mix to hot milk in a saucepan and simmer, but do not boil. When the mixture begins to thicken, add sugar and all the remaining ingredients. Leave to cool and use for filling.