Sunday, December 03, 2006

Christmas Memories Vol. 4

My last name is Czech.

As with many Americans, the ethnicity gets diluted pretty quickly as immigrants marry other nationalities and kids try to blend in at school, and pretty soon all that's left are a few rituals and traditions that incorporate the family background.

For my family, most of these are food related. My dad's Czech grandmother lived with his family when they were growing up. She did a lot of the cooking, and my dad learned to love the breads and meats and soups she made. Therefore, Christmas is a time for baking the treats of my dad's childhood and trying to evoke a bit of the heritage of our hard-to-pronounce name. Our primary baked goods are kolaches, rye bread and houska. (Houska is a braided sweet raisin bread glazed with powdered sugar icing, candied cherries and almonds, which, like fruitcake, looks better than it tastes for most people.) Houska and rye bread are the more complicated ones so they have fallen by the wayside in recent years. I think they'll see a revival eventually, but for now kolaches are the attraction.

My father, displaying a prize houska AND my santa-mouse-stocking in the background. Bob's perfect sock is over to the left, cut out because it detracts from the houska.

On Christmas Eve, my dad was baking at the crack of dawn. (Kolaches have some serious rising to do.) We make open-faced ones, not the ones that look like little pouches. Kolache making is a very precise science and I used to BEG to help, but Dad would have me demonstrate my technique each year before roping me in. If I wasn't up to the task, I would be sidelined as his chief companion but would not be allowed to touch them.

Proper kolache technique: The dough is sticky, light and airy, and so you have to be careful not to overwork it. Dad sections the dough, rolls it into a tube, and cuts it into balls the size of a good sized matzo or golf ball. You must flour your hands lightly, cup each one around the ball, and press lightly as you move your hands in circles in opposite directions. The ball smooths out into a perfect little orb. These are placed on a greased tray, brushed with melted butter and allowed to rise for an hour or two. We used the "first bathroom," our term for the one used for guests and kids, as the dough-rising room. My parents have electric baseboard heaters in each room of their house so we'd turn it up to 80 and the room would become a little sauna. We'd cover them with tea towels while they raised.

Next phase: dip your index and middle fingers (both hands) in cold water, and press evenly into the little ball. It makes an ever-so-faint deflation noise (Fssssssst!), or so my childhood ears imagined. You carefully tap to create a circular reservoir with a lip around the edge to keep the filling in. The finer the bottom and the more subtle the edges, the better the final product. Preferred fillings were cherry pie filling, apricot pie filling or a homemade prune thing. (In my college years I tried for ethnic authenticity by adding a cottage cheese filling to the mix, but it sucked. We've reverted back to the core three, with an occasional foray into blueberry or raspberry at the whim of a grandchild.) Filling is applied with a teaspoon, and one must be VERY CAREFUL not to color outside the lines with the goop. You finish that off with a sprinkle of butter/sugar/flour mix and another brush of melted butter. In for another rising.

Last year's proper reservoir-creating technique. Can you hear my dad yelling, "GENTLY!"?

You can feel the anticipation mounting as they go in the oven. The best kolache is a piping-hot-fresh-from-the-oven one. The men in the family compete to see who can eat the first one without burning their mouth on the piping-hot filling. I think the record for kolache snarfing fresh from the oven sits with my brother, who has downed at least half a dozen before the baking is done. It might actually be more, but I don't want to shame him publicly. I've already shown you his charming smile-for-the-camera look.

Everyone has a favorite flavor. Cherry is the gateway flavor, a crowd-pleaser that leads to the more hardcore apricot and prune. I hate, positively HATE the prune ones. My sister-in-law loves them. My nephew Joe doesn't really like kolaches at all...but he seems to love making them, as do his brothers. Somehow my dad has gotten more lenient on the precision, though. My nephew Nick has been known to slop cherry filling across three kolaches and to dump practically half a can in one. From him, Dad thinks it's funny.

Grandkids get away with murder. This is so not fair.

My nephews, sloppy technique and all, sharing a kolache moment with their proud grandfather last year.

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