When I was about 13 or 14, my parents shipped me to Youngstown, Ohio, to learn how to make kolache from my grandmother. Kolache (I say “Co-La-Chee,” but my grandmother always pronounced it “Co-Lawtch”) is the traditional family dessert that is always present at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other family events—even my wedding. My grandmother was Slovak, and learned the dessert from her mother. Our version is a nut-filled roll made with a buttery dough and filled with a walnut mixture scented with cinnamon and vanilla. It’s not too sweet, and hard to describe since I can’t compare it to any other popular dessert. The filling doesn’t have to be walnuts—I’ve made both a poppyseed and an apricot jam filling before—but the walnut filling is the favorite and our go-to.
My entire family was and is obsessed with kolache. It went beyond my mom and her brothers and sisters—my dad introduced his side of the family to the dessert and soon everyone was hooked. But in the late 90s, when I was sent to learn the dessert from my grandmother, she was the only one who knew how to make it. None of her children had learned the recipe, and my father started to get worried that the tradition would be lost. To rectify this, I, as the oldest grandchild, was chosen as the family representative and sent to learn.
The first time I made kolache with my grandmother, there was no written recipe to follow. We gathered in her small, sun-filled kitchen at the table covered in floral vinyl and set out our ingredients. I took notes as we went along, asking clarifying questions. How much butter? (A: a lot) How long should it rise? (A: Overnight, though Grandma agreed a couple hours was OK if we wanted to make it all in one day.) How did you know when the dough was ready? (A: It felt right.)
My grandmother certainly subscribed to the “a pinch of this” or “when it feels right” type of baking. In order to learn how to make our family dessert, you really had to have your hands in the dough. It’s hard to describe what the flour mixture looks like when the butter is cut in correctly, forming tiny pea-sized pieces after being attacked by a pastry blender for 20 minutes (a forearm-torturing device I had never heard of or seen before). The dough never looks wet enough, but you have to trust that if you keep kneading it will suddenly feel perfect. And the part I’m the worst at, pinching the rolls closed, my grandmother made look so simple. “Here, you just do it like this,” she’d say, but I still feel clumsy when I pinch mine up.
Over the next couple years, I made kolache a few more times with my grandmother, trying to get the hang of it…and recommending a few modernizations. Could we microwave the dough for a minute or so to speed up the rising? Grandma didn’t much like the idea, but we tried it (and still do it today). One update she did approve of: the food processor. For years, my grandfather had been grinding the walnuts by hand in a tiny manual hand crank. I whipped out our food processor, dumped the nuts in and gave it a whirl. “They’re so fine!” she said. “Very nice.”
I also acquired a baking partner: my aunt Laurie decided to learn how to make kolache, too. Our suggestion of adding chocolate chips to the recipe was met with horror (we never did try it). But it was nice to have a partner to wander through the baking dark with, and suddenly making kolache at Christmastime became a fun activity for the two of us to do together. We joked that we should start a kolache delivery company. I still remember the one year we decided to make a double batch of kolache AND clothespin cookies (another of my grandma’s specialties) and soon regretted our ambition as we spent hours in the kitchen wrapping dough around clothespins and slowly lost our minds. I have not made another clothespin cookie since.
Years later, I’ve learned that there are many regional variations of kolache. A version that’s very different from ours—it’s small square pastries filled with fruit jams—is apparently quite popular in Texas. I’ve shared kolache with friends and coworkers, brought it to holiday parties, and introduced it to my husband’s family. Just this year, I was instructed/encouraged to make it for his aunt’s Christmas present.
My grandmother passed away a few years ago, but making kolache always reminds me of her. Even the smell—butter, vanilla, cinnamon—brings back memories of our time together.
And a few years ago, I acquired an unlikely student: my dad. I started making kolache when I would visit my parents at Thanksgiving time (as my small New York City kitchens at the time were a bit confining for large-scale baking) and my dad decided to learn to make the dessert himself.
This holiday, he sent me pictures as he worked on a batch. He did a great job. In fact, he and my aunt both made kolache for my wedding… I did have to text him a picture of a pastry blender, though.