(by Ann Stout)
Neither my daughter Emma nor I wanted to move back to Texas. I was born and raised in the flatlands of Houston, and happily left for the West Coast when I was 29. (I was ready to trade in my cowboy boots for hiking shoes and eschew mountains of barbecue in search of the crunchy lifestyle I longed for ever since I saw my first Euell Gibbons commercial for Grape-Nuts cereal.) Emma was born and raised in the hills of Oregon, and cried when we uprooted her at 14. But my husband’s (her dad’s) new job and my aging father (her grandfather) pulled us back like cattle to the stockyard.
I drove her to and from her new school over familiar old streets domed to shed the water from the sudden thunderstorms. Never in her young life had she experienced such a deluge. It was easier for me to take the high road with my car than with my conversation. She complained about the newness of it all—her school, the weather, the people, and the food. I listened, silently agreed, and swallowed my own anger and unhappiness about the old.
I looked for familiar things to bring us solace, but Shipley Do-nuts could not hold a candle to Voodoo Doughnuts, and weren’t even spelled the same. Grudgingly we tried to find a substitute. That’s how we discovered kolaches. These yeasty pastries were introduced by another group of displaced people, Czech peasants leaving the Austrian Empire after the revolution in 1848. Whether they came willingly to the fertile Texas hill country in search of wealth, or fled political and religious persecution, they brought their comfort food from home.
When we had time, or during a particularly stormy week for one of us, we would stop for breakfast at the Kolache Factory on the way to school. As we opened the door, the homey smell of fresh yeast rolls wafted over us. We salivated, anticipating the soft sweet flavor. We became connoisseurs about the roll that surrounded the filling. On especially humid days, the dough over-proofed, and the rise was poor, leaving a thin skin of bread that was overpowered by the filling. But perfection was a quarter inch of soft, warm bread around an edible treasure. “A proper bake,” we would say, imitating the judges on “The Great British Bake Off.”
The original kolaches were small, flattish, round rolls with a stingy spoonful of fruit jam or soft cheese on top. Now kolaches have been super-sized like everything else and are often filled with meat—chicken, beef, pork, even turkey dinner at Thanksgiving. Emma liked sausage and cheese. Although I gave up meat years ago (not easy to do in Texas), I appreciated the egg and cheese option.
By the time Emma got her license and started driving herself to school, she had mostly made her peace with Houston, and so had I. Sometimes I still visited the Kolache Factory after my morning gym class, hurrying to get home before she left for school. I would scribble “I heart U” in purple marker on the small white bag with the logo of the red baker and leave it on the kitchen counter next to her keys while I went up to shower.
When she left Texas for college, I drove with her again. It took us three days to get to Boston. We packed an ice chest with snacks and a tub of kolaches, carrying a bit of home with us. We ate them at a campsite in the hills of Kentucky, sharing something old and something new again.
Ann Stout is a physician and writer who lives in Houston, Texas. She can be found on Instagram.
For the dough:
1/2 c. milk
1/2 c. white sugar
1 t. salt
1/4 c. unsalted butter
1/2 c. warm water
2 packages active dry yeast
2 large eggs beaten
4 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
additional softened butter or oil for coating dough
For the filling:
8 oz. vegetarian breakfast sausage
8 oz. block sharp cheddar cheese
Heat milk in a small saucepan over medium heat until it begins to bubble.
Remove from heat immediately.
Stir sugar, salt, and 1⁄4 c. butter into the milk, and stir until sugar is dissolved.
Set aside to cool to room temperature, about 10 minutes.
Combine warm water and yeast in the large bowl of a stand mixer, and stir until dissolved.
Stir in cooled milk mixture, eggs, and 2 c. flour.
Beat using the dough hook attachment until smooth.
Add remaining flour, mixing as you go, just until dough is elastic and slightly stiff, but not dry.
Turn dough out onto a floured board, and knead until smooth and very elastic, 10 - 15 minutes.
Coat dough lightly with butter or oil and place in a bowl.
Cover with plastic wrap or a damp towel, and let sit in a warm place to double in size, about an hour.
Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Scramble eggs until dry, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Cook veggie sausage per directions, and use a paper towel to soak up a lot of the grease and moisture.
Chop into small pieces or crumbles.
Grate cheese, and combine with eggs and sausage.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Lightly oil a baking sheet.
Turn risen dough out onto a very lightly floured board.
Roll into a log, cut into 5 equal pieces, and cut each piece into quarters to make 20 equal sized pieces of dough.
Use the palm of your hand to flatten and press 1 piece into a circle or oval.
Place the circle on the board and add a heaping tablespoon of filling.
Roll dough around filling and very tightly pinch all seams together to seal.
Smooth seams down and place kolache on prepared baking sheet.
Repeat with remaining dough and filling.
Bake until golden, 12 - 15 minutes.