According to Bon Appetit magazine, my grandmother is a trend-setter for 2015 — even though she died in 1975.
Bon Appetit restaurant editor Andrew Knowlton listed kolaches, the Czech pastry, in his 13 food-world predictions for the upcoming year. Under the heading “Kolache Triumph Over Cronuts” (getting old-school there, using kolache as a plural), he wrote: “These filled dough pockets are a Texas-by-way-of-the-Czech-Republic tradition. Whenever I’m in Houston, I grab a few stuffed with things like jalapeño, cheese, and sausage.
“The kolache craze is spreading as spots like St. Philip in Austin and Kings Kolache in Brooklyn push the envelope with fillings like black beans, corn and chorizo.”
Kolache traditionalists will probably be both amused and appalled to read that (black beans!?) — especially in Texas, where according to the Texas Almanac, Czechs began immigrating in the mid-19th century.
Their influence still shows in pockets such as Ennis and West, where I-35 travelers create long lines for kolaches at the northbound Czech Stop, or try to avoid those lines by visiting the newer and more spacious Slovacek’s on the south access road.
My grandparents were among one of the waves of Czech immigrants that would come later, eventually settling in Fort Worth, where my mom grew up. My grandmother, a plump, affectionate woman with an old-country accent, would have kolaches ready whenever we came to visit.
Because my family lived in El Paso, nearly 600 miles away, we only visited every couple of years or so, and because I was still a teen-ager when she died, my memories are somewhat limited, but I recall really loving her poppyseed kolaches, which have become my acid test for any kolache bakery.
But how trustworthy are 40-year-old memories? The last time we went to Austin, we stopped at Slovacek’s, where I picked up a couple of poppyseed kolaches. They were OK, but they didn’t seem to come close to my grandmother’s. Was the store out of her league, or was I remembering hers as better than they were?
I asked my older sister, Dee, who has my grandmother’s kolache recipe, and my cousin, Robert, who grew up in Fort Worth and saw my grandmother often, to fill in a few blanks. They disagreed on a couple of minor details, but they did agree on one thing: They’ve yet to find a store-bought or bakery-made kolache that’s as good as Grandmommy’s were.
“Close, maybe,” said Robert, who now lives in the San Antonio area and whose maternal grandmother was also Czech. “There was a kolache shop in Halletsville that was REAL close but it closed. ... There are some kolache festivals around and that would be the best place to find them. Nothing beats hand/homemade. The stuff the doughnut shops call kolaches aren’t.”
Beside poppyseed, my grandmother’s fillings included prune, apricot and cottage cheese — not, Robert emphasizes, cream cheese, which has become a popular filling.
“I asked her one time about how they picked the fruit filling, and she said that on the farm they used what they had,” Robert says via email. He’s made them a few times and says they pretty much take up an entire Saturday.
I should emphasize that my sister has the dough recipe.
“[Grandmommy’s] were topped with a butter, sugar and flour crumble,” Dee says. “She made all her fillings from scratch but I don’t have her recipes.” She doesn’t find them that difficult to make, although since she doesn’t always make the fillings from scratch, that does save some time.
When I moved to Fort Worth in 1989, I was surprised by the dearth of good kolache shops at the time, and even now, it’s hard to find one with an authentically Czech background. But with the recent opening of Pearl Snap Kolaches in west Fort Worth, and the recent move of Duffey’s Kolache Bakery in far north Fort Worth, it was time to go on a kolache quest.
I’m still not sure I found kolache nirvana, but I did find some interesting places that are trying to fly the kolache flag high — even when they’re not Czech. (And if you know of a Czech one that I missed north of Ennis, I’d like to hear about it. This quest hasn’t ended.)
Duffey’s Kolache Bakery, Fort Worth
Erin Duffey, a former commercial pilot for an oil-and-gas company, founded Duffey’s in 2011. When the company closed, he decided to do something different, something that would allow him to spend more time with his children.
His great-grandfather came from Europe and settled in Nebraska, which is where his grandmother grew up. She married a man named Duffey, which is where the Irish surname comes from.
“She learned how to make kolaches from my great-grandfather, so it’s through family ties that the recipes passed through generations,” he says. “The techniques and procedures as well. I learned a lot of what I know from both family and from friends.”
One of the friends was David Kenner of Kenner’s Kolache Bakery in Arlington (profiled below), who persuaded Duffey to follow his heritage into a business.
The store opened in far north Fort Worth strip shopping center to good reviews in 2011, but its entrance faced away from the street, so in late 2014, Duffey moved to a nearby location on North Beach Street across from a Wal-Mart. He says his volume has doubled since he made the move.
Sweet memories: “My grandmother would come in from San Francisco every year and visit with us around Labor Day, which was during WestFest,” Duffey says. “She purposely came to Texas to visit [then].
“So every year, they would drag me down to WestFest, do all the festival stuff, get tons of kolache and bring them back and stock up and take them back to San Francisco with her.”
She taught Duffey many other Czech dishes that he still makes at home.
“The kolache kind of filters through all of that,” Duffey says. “Due to the fact that I was a kid and didn’t have much say in the selection, they would stock up on poppyseed. So if I wanted a kolache in my house, it had to be poppyseed.”
Czech cred: “My greatest challenge for this North Texas area is competing with the doughnut shops,” Duffey says. “All the doughnut shops carry one item, which is a pig in a blanket, and they’re trying to do it with doughnut dough, which does not work
“Unfortunately, they’re doing a disservice, because all the people that grow up in this area, if they don’t know anything about West or WestFest or anything Czech, all they know is that pig in a blanket. We get tons of people that come in, asking, ‘Where’s your kolaches?’
“I know what they’re asking, but I do a tremendous amount of historical effort in educating people what a true kolache is.
“It traditionally started as a fruit-filled pastry, then it branched out there as the klobasnek, which is the meat-filled ones. Texans have pretty much adopted both versions as a kolache.”
First kolache attempt: “I tried it at home, in my oven,” Duffey says. “Grandma had shown me her methodology, the way that she rolls her stuff out, the way she does her rise methods. I tried to apply that at home, and I was successful, I was able to make it happen and work, but I didn’t have the professional equipment to maintain consistency needed for a good, solid product.
“ … Grandma used to do it without a lot of [professional] equipment, and she did it at home, and it took her all day long.”
Favorite among his kolaches: “The poppyseed, because it’s what I grew up loving.” (Duffey special orders his poppyseed filling from a vendor.) But Duffey isn’t so traditionalist that he won’t explore: He had a candy-cane cream cheese during the Christmas season, and does a seasonal filling as well.
He also has plans for some more savory fillings, although they stretch the definition of what a kolache is.
Our favorite: Duffey won first place for best fruit-filled kolaches at last year’s WestFest, and the apricot, blueberry and cherry ones we ordered were sweet and rich. But I have to go with his poppyseed, which reminded me more of my grandmother’s than any others I’ve had.
Kolache nirvana: “Now that I’m making them and it’s my craft to perfect what I do, I find it difficult to reach out — but I love tasting everybody else’s to compare to my own. It gives me a good sounding board to see if I’m headed in the right direction.
“You have to be careful, though, because you don’t want to innovate so far that you’re not even related to the Czech culture anymore.”
Bohemian Cafe, Dallas
Jason Horne’s long road to opening Bohemian Cafe on hip Lower Greenville begins with his mother’s Czech family and with his own last name.
“We didn’t have much on my father’s side of the family, so all of the family reunions were with Czech family,” he says. “We always made kolaches, and we did always stop in West. We’d go to Czech Stop if the one in town was closed, but ours were always better.
“My mom and my great grandmom would make them, and I was always up in their business trying to be a part of it.”
Horne adds that he loves Czech Stop, and that he wouldn’t be doing what he does if it wasn’t for them.
Horne worked in advertising for years, but still made the kolaches at home and taught his daughters how to make them. He’d been complaining for years that he couldn’t get a real kolache in the Dallas area.
His friends, who called him Horne Dog, encouraged him to open a gourmet hot-dog joint called Horne Dogs. That was six years ago, and the plan was to have kolaches as a side item.
Horne put off the idea a couple of times, partly because his mother received an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. He took her a homemade batch in May 2014, and she told her son he should open a kolache bakery.
He found a space for lease, and stayed the course in what is now one of Dallas’ hottest food areas. He sells more than kolaches — inlcuding, yes, Horne Dogs — and his homey store has a small music stage (where Horne himself sometimes performs), but kolaches are its reason for being.
And he’s just signed a lease on a second location in the upcoming Dallas Farmer’s Market.
First kolache attempt: “It was a nightmare,” Horne says. “I got in trouble because I trashed the kitchen. I want to say I was probably about 9. Mom wasn’t home.
“I got in trouble for cooking quite a bit, because kids cooking with fire is not good in retrospect. But I was convinced I knew how to do it. I did come out with a somewhat successful batch. It was very flat, but I cooked them, and they were edible, and I enjoyed them.”
After that, he made them with more adult supervision.
Czech cred: Horne makes some of the largest kolaches we’ve tried, and is very particular about his dough. He has the poppyseed, prune and apricot — the most traditional Czech flavors.
But he’s also willing to go pretty far out there with his klobasneks, which include chicken and waffles, pepperoni pizza and his own invention, the Monte Czecho, a take on a Monte Cristo sandwich.
“I took turkey, ham, Swiss and provolone and then did the top like a regular kolache, and put raspberry at the top,” Horne says. “Christmas about five years ago, my daughter and I made cookies and kolaches and took them out to our friends.
“People were going crazy over the Monte Cristo.”
He and his chef have also concocted a turkey-and-cranberry klobasnek for Christmas, a Jack Daniels/chocolate-chip pecan pie one, and recently introduced a Nutella, peanut butter and bacon flavor.
“I have some hard-core traditionalists that are from LaGrange and Ennis and West that have come in, and some of them give me criticisms on how the dough should be,” he says.
“And I’ve had one guy say, ‘How can you call that a kolache?’ He was talking about the Jack Daniels/chocolate-chip pecan pie one. I told him the backstory and tried to give him a taste. He wouldn’t budge.”
His favorite: “My go-to is usually the Monte Czecho. I’m on the go constantly. It’s really convenient. Just grab it and go.”
Our favorite: On a breeze-through visit, we tried his apricot, which had the full flavor of fresh apricot preserves. Horne says that everything in the restaurant is made from scratch, and this certainly tasted like it.
Kolache nirvana: “There used to be. It was Kolacek’s in West, across the railroad tracks. They closed down. But that was the closest to ours.” Horne adds, however, that he believes that Czech Stop has raised its kolache game now that it has across-the-highway competition from Slovacek’s.
Pearl Snap Kolaches, Fort Worth
Wade G. Chappell and his business partner Greg Saltsman aren’t Czech, but they did a lot of kolache research before opening this shop (named for the snap buttons on a Western shirt) at the bend of White Settlement Road in west Fort Worth.
“We never endeavored to make a traditional kolache once we did the research,’ says Chappell, who along with Saltsman spent two years visiting kolache shops along I-35, east of the Hill Country and in Houston, getting tips from the bakers.
“There’s two different schools of thought. You go to West, there’s people who go to Czech Stop, and there’s people who go to Gurlick’s and Slovacek’s and all the interior bakeries that win all the awards, because they bake what is more commonly referred to as a traditional kolaches.”
Chappell and Saltsman decided to model their business after Czech Stop, with larger amounts of kolache filling and spicier sausage in the klobasneks. Because Pearl Snap opened only a few weeks ago, there isn’t a big selection — the current kolache selection consists of cream cheese and apricot flavors, and the klobasneks are similarly limited — but it has some of the most generous filling I’ve encountered, atop a pastry that has a texture more like a sweet roll than traditional kolache dough.
“It was not out of disrespect in any way for the traditional kolaches,” Chappell says. “It’s just what we preferred. But we spent a lot of time doing research and talking to bakers and people in the community who have more of an appreciation for the older-school style of kolaches.”
Pearl Snap, which has a cozy, coffee-shop hangout feel, plans to steadily add more kolache flavors as well as other menu items.
Czech cred: “I can’t tell you how many times a day somebody comes in and asks, ‘What’s in your meat kolache?,’ ” Chappell says. “And I say, ‘Well, technically, they’re not kolaches, they’re klobasneks.’ And they’ll say, ‘Ah! I’m Czech, and I wanted to check and make sure you knew what you were talking about!’ ”
Sweet inspiration: “Greg was in between jobs, and I was working for an investment-banking firm,” Chappell says. “We got together and had coffee one day and started kicking ideas around: If we could wake up every day and be working in something that we’d think we’d be happy doing, what would it be?
“At some point, Greg mentioned sausage, and we thought, ‘You know, there’s not a good kolache place in Fort Worth. How hard would it be to put together a kolache place in Fort Worth?’ So we started looking at recipes.’ ”
Fort Worth chef Lanny Lancarte gave them some advice on presentation, and Erin Duffey of the above-mentioned Duffey’s Kolache Bakery provided some baking and business tips.
First kolache attempt: [Chappell laughs] “I could give you a picture of ’em,” he says. “I used a Texas Monthly recipe that I got online that called for all-purpose bleached flour, and all I had in my house was whole-wheat flour. Knowing an infinite amount more about baking dough now than I did then, [I know] that whole-wheat flour doesn’t rise, at least not like all-purpose flour does. So they looked like potatoes. I used different jams and jellies and meats that I had around the house. They tasted OK, but they were very ugly.”
Favorite among his kolaches: The cream cheese. “We only just added apricot when we opened on New Year’s Day, and it’s been a big hit,” he says.
“[For] the people who grew up eating prune and poppyseed and some of the more hard-to-find, unique flavors — we don’t want to rush into them. I’ve had to explain this to people, and they’ve been patient about it. But if I came out with a prune filling or something their grandmother used to make and it’s not up to my standards and theirs, that’s a big misstep.”
Our favorite: Maybe there’s not a lot of choice here, but the apricot kolache has good, strong flavor — and because of the generous filling, there’s a lot of it.
Kolache nirvana: “There’s always Czech Stop,” Chappell says. “That’s mecca for me. I grew up going to Texas games and we would always stop on the way there and on the way back and grab a couple dozen.
“... [But] by far the best that we’ve found in the state were Zamykal Kolaches in Calvert. The Crazy Kolache Lady who gets up at midnight.”
Kenner’s Kolache Bakery, Arlington
David Kenner’s Cooper Street bakery will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year, and he says he’s been called the granddady of DFW kolache shops. But he’s not Czech. He was just in the right place at the right time. He was working for Hobart Corp., which sold commercial kitchen equipment, when he encountered someone with a kolache bakery for sale. Unhappy working in a corporate environment, and knowing that growth was coming toward south Arlington, the then-29-year-old Kenner bought the bakery in 1985, before the Parks at Arlington had even opened.
“[The previous owners] weren’t Czech either,” Kenner says. “But the recipes, I believe, come from a guy in Houston. He bought a franchise, and the franchisor went out of business, and he was stuck with a kolache bakery in downtown Houston.
“So he would ask little Czech ladies about their recipes, and they’d go, ‘Oh, you need a little pinch of that’ or ‘You need a little bit of that,’ and out came this beautiful, light bread, slighty sweet, so everything blends in real well.”
Kenner says he has visited Prague — a large mural of the city adorns his bakery — but his kolache search there was, well, fruitless.
“I’m sure there are kolaches there, but I couldn’t find them,” he says. “They had a lot of kiosks with more of a Danish pastry, and it only had a little bit of filling in it, and it tasted more than three days old to me. But it was a great place to visit.”
Czech cred: “I’ve had a couple of negative reviews, because whoever had their kolaches earlier in their life, that to them was an authentic kolache. I didn’t cut it with them because what they had was what they thought a real kolache was, and their experience was better. I’ve gotten a lot of wonderful reviews, but those are the ones I think about.”
Kenner says that even “authentic” kolaches have a lot of variations, and what’s authentic to a Czech who grew up in one U.S. region might not be authentic to someone who grew up elsewhere. And because his clientele isn’t primarily Czech, he’s adapted to the diversity and change in south Arlington.
First kolache attempt: “I’ve not trained anybody who was as bad as I was. I was not a natural. But if you do something 5 million times, you get pretty good at it.”
Favorite among his kolaches: “I like the raspberry on the toppings, but the top-selling one is cream cheese, followed by apricot, cherry and strawberry-cream cheese.”
Our favorite: The woman at the counter when we ordered recommended peach. Good recommendation. Kenner’s poppyseed kolaches are also very good.
Kolache nirvana: “Kolache Shoppe on Richmond Street in Houston. It’s not real fancy or anything, but they’re good people, and they keep making a great product. They don’t really toot their horns. They’ve been there since 1968.”
Kasa Kolache Bakery & Cafe, Coppell
With a name like “Kasa Kolache,” it’s pretty easy to discern that this isn’t classically Czech, which is also clear from owner Enrique Barrera’s Latino heritage. But he’s been doing the kolache thing in Coppell for more than eight years.
His story is similar to that of Kenner’s Kolache Bakery: It was a kolache bakery that had already changed hands once when Barrera bought it in July 2006.
“It’s one of those ‘Be careful what you ask for’ [things],” Barrera says. “I was sitting in jury duty one day, and had nothing to read, so I found a newspaper and there was an ad in the back of the paper that said ‘Bakery for sale in Coppell.’ So I called the number up, and lo and behold, in about a month or two, we were signing papers and it was done.”
Czech cred: “I’ve met people from the Dakotas, from Nebraska, from down in Corpus — my ancestors actually came through there — [saying] how their great-grandmother actually grew poppies to use in the kolaches. So we’ve learned a lot. And we’re still learning.
“We even have people come in from the Czech Republic.” Barrera’s poppyseed kolaches please the die-hards — but he stopped doing another classic flavor, prune, because it wasn’t selling very well.
Sweet memories: Barrera grew up in Kerrville, and doesn’t have a lot of early kolache memories. But he did stop in for kolaches at his store’s previous incarnations.
“Out of high school I left [Kerrville] and joined the military, and I don’t recall many kolaches at all,” he says. “[Kasa Kolache] was my first baking experience — and my first retail experience. ... I’d been here like twice before, unbeknownst as to what was going to be in my future.”
First kolache attempt: “We basically bought everything inclusive, recipes and all,” Barrera says.
“We really didn’t know what we were getting into. It was a leap of faith, or blind faith. I did not know how to bake when we bought the place. But we loved kolaches, and it was small enough to where we could handle it.
“I had no baking history, and I have no Czech heritage, but it was just something that we fell in love with.”
One of the previous owner’s bakers hung around for a couple of weeks to help with training, and then the Barreras opened. They keep things small with a simple menu and 6 a.m.-1 p.m. hours on weekdays.
Favorite among his kolaches: Cream cheese.
Our favorite: We also loved his cream cheese, but then they were fresh out of the oven for a photo shoot (and the aroma permeated the car on the 40-minute trip to downtown Fort Worth, even though the kolaches were in the trunk). We also liked Barrera’s cherry kolache, which was delightfully tart.
Kolache nirvana: West. “We always stop there. I love their stuff.”