New to Slow Food’s Ark of Taste are kolace (pronounced “ko-LA-chee”) from Scio, Oregon, my home for 21 years. I’m proud to have nominated these filled sweet yeast buns whose history is so tightly bound with that of the little town.
Kolace are made from a sweetened yeast dough enriched with eggs, milk, and shortening (butter, lard, or vegetable shortening). Proportions vary somewhat among recipes. After the dough has risen, it is rolled out and formed into small rounds. When the dough has risen a second time, it is brushed with melted shortening, indented in the center, filled, and baked. The most common kolace fillings, traditionally, are ground and sweetened poppy seeds and a jam made of prunes or apricots. Other fruit jams can be used, or a filling made from cottage cheese. Sometimes streusel (posipka) is sprinkled on top before baking, or the baked kolace are topped with powdered sugar or glaze.
Still popular in the Czech homeland as koláče, these little buns migrated with the Czechs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to communities across the West and Midwest, Scio (pronounced “SIGH-oh”) among them.
Now a village of some eight hundred people, Scio was established in 1866 by Oregon Trail pioneers around a water-powered grist mill built ten years before. The city soon became the commercial center of a region of fertile farm land known at the time as “the forks of the Santiam.” When Czech settlers began arriving in the area in 1888, Scio already had a population of more than five hundred, and the city was beginning to boom. The Czech newcomers established farms, stores, and other businesses, and more Czechs came. By 1937 there were 170 Czech families in the Forks.
In 1922 the ZCBJ (Zapadni Czechoslovakia Brakaska Jednota, or Western Czechoslovakan Fraternal Association) Lodge No. 226 built a gathering hall in the center of Scio. The ZCBJ Hall was intended primarily for lodge meetings and Sokol activities (the Sokol program trained children in precision drill and gymnastics). But since its early days the ZCBJ Hall has been Scio’s main gathering-place for both Czechs and non-Czechs, for dinners, weddings, funerals, flea markets, plays (in Czech and in English), concerts, and, above all, dances. The hall had its own accordion band, and from the 1930s through the 1950s people throughout over the Willamette Valley knew the ZCBJ Hall as an outstanding venue for dancing.
A feature of all these events, at least when Czechs have been involved, has been kolace. Before lodge events people would order kolace by the dozen. When soldiers came to dances from Camp Adair, north of Corvallis, during World War II, they were given kolace for free.
Today most of the Scio Czechs have died or moved away, and in 1993 the ZCBJ Hall was given to the Linn County Lamb and Wool Fair. But some non-Czechs have learned to make kolace, and Scio residents continue to learn from the kolace recipes that have been passed along or published in community cookbooks. And so kolace are still made, now and then, for community events at the ZCBJ Hall. These treats help keep memories of the town’s past alive.
Scioans aren’t the only Americans who still love kolace. The buns are popular in many places where Czechs settled in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But kolace have evolved differently in different surroundings. Montgomery, Minnesota, for example celebrates Kolacky Days ]with squarish buns, whose dough is gathered at four points and stretched to the center, to cover most of the filling. Texas kolache are sometimes filled with sausage, which is completely enclosed in the dough, like a hotdog in a corndog. Scio’s kolace have their filling entirely exposed, which means the cook must take extra care to keep the filling from running, falling out, or scorching.
Here’s my own recipe for kolace. I’ve adapted it from one in Carol Bates’s Scio in the Forks of the Santiam; Carol took it from the Scio Centennial Cook Book, published by Scio Home Extension in 1966. The original recipe calls for “shortening” instead of butter and “vanilla or any other flavoring,” amount unspecified. Over time, I have doubled the number of eggs and increased the amount of fat by half. I have also found it easier to cut pieces of dough from a rope than to roll out the dough and cut it into circles, as specified in the original recipe, and I’ve added a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar.
Remember, there is no single recipe for kolace; cooks have always improvised a bit. Possible additions include grated lemon peel and mace or nutmeg in the dough, and a sugar glaze, powdered sugar, or streusel on top of the buns.
¼ cup lukewarm water
4 teaspoons dry yeast
1 teaspoon plus ½ cup sugar
2 cups lukewarm whole milk
14 tablespoons (1 ¾ sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
4 eggs, beaten
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
About 8 cups all-purpose flour (about 2 ½ pounds)
About 1 cup jam (preferably prune or apricot, without much added sugar) or poppy-seed
Pour the water into a large bowl, and sprinkle the yeast over. Stir in 1 teaspoon sugar, and wait a minute or more for the mixture to bubble.
Add the milk, the remaining sugar, all but 2 tablespoons of the melted butter, the eggs, the salt, and the vanilla. Stir in enough flour to make a ball that pulls away from the side of the bowl. Turn the dough out onto a floured board, and knead the dough for several minutes, working in more flour as necessary, until the dough is smooth and only slightly sticky.
Place the dough in a greased bowl. Cover the bowl, and set it in a warm place until the dough has nearly doubled in bulk and fails to spring back when poked with a finger.
Punch down the dough, and form it into two long ropes. Cut each rope into 20 equal pieces, and roll them into balls. Place the balls on greased baking pans to rise.
Heat the oven to 400 degrees F.
When the kolace have nearly doubled in bulk, brush them with the remaining butter (you may need to reheat it first). Hollow out the center of each kolace with your fingers, leaving a border of no more than ½ inch. Fill each center with about 2 teaspoons poppy-seed filling or jam, and sprinkle the kolace with cinnamon sugar. Put the pans into the oven, and immediately reduce the temperature to 375 degrees F. Bake the kolace for about 18 minutes, rotating the pans about halfway through the cooking, until they are lightly browned.
Makes about 40 kolace
Poppy Seed Filling for Kolace
Hand-cranked metal grinders for poppy seeds are widely available in Europe but harder to find in the United States. Some people manage with an electric coffee grinder or a mortar and pestle. I’ve had best results by soaking the seeds overnight and then grinding them in a powerful blender.
1 cup boiling water
1 cup poppy seeds
¾ cup milk
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons honey
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
Pour the boiling water over the poppy seeds, and let them sit overnight.
In the morning, pour off the water through a fine-mesh strainer. Grind the poppy seeds in a blender (I use a VitaMix) with the milk and sugar. Transfer the mixture to a small saucepan, and cook the mixture over low heat, stirring constantly, until it is thick, a few minutes. Stir in the honey, spices, and vanilla, and remove the pan from the heat.