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Noshtalgia: Hunting the Elusive Kolache

A dearth of Czech bakeries in the area means a displaced Capitol Hill staffer is not alone in her excruciating longing

Warren Rojas/CQ Roll Call
For those who migrate to the D.C. area and long for a taste of the Tex-Czech treat, Kolache Kreations is one place offering the grab-and-go snack, with varieties such as blueberry, country ham and cheese, and mushroom, egg and cheese.

“Find me authentic kolache!” Shana Teehan, spokeswoman for Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, pleaded while we discussed my idea for a new, semi-regular food feature about reuniting displaced congressional staffers with the foods they miss most.

Teehan feasted on kolache, a Czech-born pastry, during her early years in Texas.

“I’ve never had a flavor I didn’t like, whether it was a sweet, fruit-filled bun, or a savory option filled with sausage, cheese or peppers,” she shared of her affinity for the flavor-filled dough balls.

A move to Alabama did nothing to diminish her habit, since Southern mainstay Shipley’s Donuts dabbles in Tex-Czech delicacies as well.

But migrating here has proved excruciating. “Since moving to D.C., I’ve been sadly kolacheless,” Teehan said.

Addie Broyles, food writer at the Austin American-Statesman, can understand that type of separation anxiety.

“Kolaches are absolutely a mainstream part of the Central Texas diet. Not quite up there with breakfast tacos, but many bakeries, even the non-Czech ones, carry them,” she said of the proliferation of the grab-and-go snack. She ticked off a number of renowned Texas bakeries — The Czech Stop in West, Hruska’s in Ellingeer, Weikel’s in La Grange (“We Gotcha Kolache” is their tagline) — but admitted to knowing little about ex-pats developing pastry pipelines to other states.

Kolache Factory Vice President Dawn Nielsen, on the other hand, is well-versed in feeding the kolache-crazed masses. She said the Texas-based baking outfit has shipped its signature pastries to the farthest reaches of Alaska. “Some areas are so remote, overnight takes two days,” Nielsen said.

She was unaware of any standing orders from Capitol Hill but dangled the hope Washingtonians might one day sample the goods. “We definitely have fans that cannot wait until we get there,” she suggested.

But what to do in the meantime?

Ellicott City Via Houston

Our investigation led us to the Maryland suburbs, where we connected with Kolache Kreations co-founder Ileana Fernandez.

The native Houstonian said she moved to Maryland just less than a decade ago. And where once she could feed her pastry fix by popping into any one of her many go-to bakeries, Fernandez soon discovered she’d either have to make her own or learn to go without. “I wanted to buy them already made, but there was none to be found,” she said of the initial culture shock.

Those hunger pangs eventually morphed into inspiration.

She and her husband opened their kolache-centric shop in October 2010 but were unable to crank out the promised goodies until a kitchen build-out was completed. But just knowing they were in the works was good enough for some people.

“We had customers coming in and pre- ordering them,” she said.

Although she’d never worked in the hospitality industry before, Fernandez was confident that the area, with its inherently transient population, would provide an adequate customer base. “It’s kind of neat that the locals have adopted us  . . .  and have made it their breakfast food,” she said.

Fernandez said she produces around 75 kolaches — based on a family recipe she cribbed from a Czech in-law — each morning, Monday through Thursday. The baking escalates to 125 every Friday and rockets to 150 to 300 each Saturday and Sunday. She offers at least 16 different flavors per day, a roster that ranges from toothsome kielbasa- and cheddar-filled numbers to apricot- and prune-based treats.

When the mood strikes, she typically reaches for a cream cheese (she makes her own) pastry, or sausage, egg and cheddar bolstered by pickled jalapeno slices. She noted that customers tend to gravitate toward her strawberry-cream cheese creation as well as a breakfast sausage, egg and cheddar offering. Fernandez is still experimenting with seasonal varieties (she rolled out pumpkin-cream cheese kolache this past Thanksgiving) and affirmed that her boudin-packed pastries — forged from a liver-pork sausage imported directly from Louisiana — remain special-order-only.

Taste Test

We are pleased to report that Fernandez’s cream cheese version (Teehan’s self-described all-time favorite) is delightful. The ethereal dairy, sprinkled with cinnamon and smeared atop the semi-sweet roll, trumps your average Danish every day of the week.

A blueberry offering was even more enticing. The wide band of syrupy jelly bisects the thick but moderately fluffy roll, which also sports a thin sugar glaze.

Our sweet tooth sated, we moved into savory territory.

We devoured a breakfast banquet weaving together tender egg, slightly crispy bacon and bubbling cheddar cheese (Fernandez’s default cheese; mushrooms, however, are partnered with melted Swiss) within a dulcet, cushiony roll. A kielbasa-filled offering delivered plenty of wood-smoked sausage, but we much preferred the spiciness of the jalapeno-sausage combo.

Our least favorite: the ho-hum mushroom and cheese. The roasted garlic sprinkled onto the bun was actually the best part. Adding egg into the mix, though, proved much more palatable.

Reality Czech

As the business has blossomed, Fernandez has met a whole new universe of kolache lovers — including South Dakotans, Chicagoans and Pennsylvanians — all eager to reminisce about their first time. Some of those encounters have bordered on confrontational, given that some folks have very distinct ideas about what constitutes authentic kolache.

Count Barbara Karpetova, cultural consular at the Embassy of the Czech Republic, among the strict constructionists.

“Did you say meat? Absolutely not. Kolache is a sweet thing,” she declared of her native ceske kolace.

She listed the base ingredients as flour, sugar, butter, eggs and yeast, while traditional fillings include: cottage cheese with raisins, almonds and poppy paste, and plum marmalade.

“Kolache in the Czech tradition is a sweet pastry,” she asserted. “There is never, ever any meat or vegetables in it.”

According to Karpetova, knedliky, a Czech-style dumpling, can accommodate a much wider range of flavors, sweet or savory, a universe she said ranges from savory bacon or tangy sauerkraut-filled productions to pastry pockets bursting at the seams with frothy, warm whipped cream.

She said embassy staff must make kolaches if they ever crave them — a yearning that has at least twice benefited sweets-starved attendees at the annual Kids Euro Festival — because of the scarcity of the stuff.

“There is no such thing in American tradition,” Karpetova said of the dearth of Czech bakeries here in D.C.

For the most part, Austin food blogger and Czech food ways scribe Dawn Orsak tends to agree with Karpetova.

According to her lifelong research, which began when Orsak first gobbled down the prune, apricot or poppy seed kolaches her nana would bake from scratch, “traditional” kolache fillings are restricted to fresh fruit, dried fruit, cream cheese, cottage cheese, poppy seed and nuts. The only outliers she has found would be cabbage — which she said Texans, over time, expanded to include sauerkraut — and sausage.

For now, Fernandez appears to have a monopoly in this area.

But that could change if Hill Country, a New York-based Texas-style barbecue chain with an outpost in Penn Quarter, ever decides to pluck the coveted pastry from its Hill Country Chicken carte.

“It’s possible that kolaches might make an appearance on the HC Barbecue menu at some point,” Hill Country owner Marc Glosserman hinted. “But we try not to duplicate menu items at restaurants.”

Kolache Kreations: 10455 Frederick Road, Ellicott City, Md.; 410-988-3193; kolachekreations.com Got a long-lost repast you want found? Put our food sleuth on the case by nominating your most sorely missed meal(s) to gastrohunt@cqrollcall.com.

An earlier version of this article misstated the geographic origin of the barbecue restaurant Hill Country. The company is based in New York City.

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