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Kolaches: Pastries Filled With Family History

Jessica Samuelson

Many communities in the Northwoods are descended from eastern European immigrants.  

Those with a Czech background may be familiar with the traditional pasties called kolaches.  WXPR Contributor Jessica Samuelson wanted to hold onto that piece of cultural history, so she went to visit her grandmother, Alice Klimesh.

Everyone has their own traditions—a way of keeping in touch with their roots.  One family may tell cultural stories.  Another may play a certain game that ties them to their heritage. Something simple to remind themselves of the many mothers, fathers, and crazy aunts that made up their family long, long ago. My family achieves this through my Grandmother’s kolaches. 

Kolaches are soft pastries with a dollop of apricot, cherry, prune, or poppyseed filling.  They originate, like half our family tree, from Bohemia, which is now known as the Czech Republic.  

Interestingly, the only person in my family who knows how to make this traditional Bohemian food is a full-blooded German.

Credit Jessica Samuelson / WXPR News
Alice Klimesh, maker of kolaches, isn't actually Czech at all.
Jessica: “Why did you want to learn how to make kolaches? Alice: Because my husband is Czech. Jessica: So you wanted to pass it on to your children? Alice: Well my children are learning, grandkids are learning, yeah.”

She turns on electric mixer and I watch the dough get pulled and stretched.  She will then roll out the dough and cut it into squares.  

“The way it looks we’re not gonna get 36 this time because of how we spread it out. This shouldn’t look like this, should be nice and smooth here – just a nice little square. That’s how you learn – by your mistakes. If you wouldn’t make mistakes, you wouldn’t learn.”

Ever since I can remember, every family get-together—every Christmas, Easter, graduation, wedding, and First Communion has included Kolaches.  The cherry-filled ones are always the most popular.  Apricot is the next to disappear.  A few people, like my mother, will eat the prunes.  No one ever eats poppyseed, but they’re usually around anyway.  Over the years, these fluffy pastries have become a part of my family—something we all have in common.

We used to have something else in common, too.  Almost seven years ago, my grandfather lost a long battle with leukemia.  Grandpa had learned how to speak Czech as a young boy from his father. Now that he is gone, none of us understand our own family’s language. We’ve lost that link to our past.  

Credit Jessica Samuelson / WXPR News
Kolache dough is rolled out and cut into squares.

  I think that may be part of the reason I asked Grandma to teach me how to make kolaches.  Someday, I may be able to carry on that tradition myself.  It’s going to take a while though!

“You learn by making em often– you know what the dough looks like. You just have to figure that out yourself after a while. The recipe gives you an idea – you don’t want to put too much flour in, because then it gets too stiff.”

According to Grandma, practice is what makes perfect, or at least better:

“Ok, get your recipe, start all over again!”

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