“The rhubarb is here, the rhubarb is here!” I exclaimed (quietly, to myself) in the nearly empty Whole Foods produce section. Rhubarb recipes have started popping up on my Instagram feed and I have been patiently waiting for my time to come. Finally, it has.
At first, I wasn’t sure what I would make. Pie? Too easy. Jam? Maybe we’re on to something here. Finally, I settled on making kolaches, a Czech pastry that is now popular in the plains states and Texas, filled to the brim with rhubarb compote.
I first learned about kolaches from my husband’s grandmother, Mary Alice. Her mother’s parents moved to Wahoo, Nebraska, from Sweden to work on the railroad before becoming homesteaders. In the late 1800’s, the United States government offered cheap or free land to anyone, with a few restrictions, who was willing to work and develop the land for a certain number of years. This was a time when the plains states, such as Nebraska and the Dakotas, would have been relatively undeveloped. Many immigrants arriving in America took the government up on their offer of land. In Saunders County, where Wahoo is in Nebraska, a majority of those immigrants were Czech and Swedish. With their cultural differences, the two groups were sometimes at odds. Mary Alice said, “The first generation of Swedes and Czechs would have fist fights. The second generation started to intermarry.”
When Mary Alice had a chance to visit Wahoo with her mother, they attended a Ladies Farm Extension Meeting, where the ladies would dress up and give cooking demonstrations. Which sounds fab! After she left Wahoo, her aunt started regularly sending her cookbooks from the Ladies Farm Extension (and she began a collection). In many of these were recipes for kolaches, with a variety of fillings, prune and cottage cheese the most popular. The desert was apparently a staple at celebrations in the area–Swedish or Czech–because the Czech women would cater all the weddings.
Mary Alice hasn’t had a kolache in Wahoo. But while she was traveling in Europe with her husband, they found themselves at the Hotel Continental in Prague. At the end of a luxurious breakfast spread was a table of baked goods. And in the midst of the extravagant offerings, in her telling, “Here were these lumpy little things, sort of off to the side–and tears came to my eyes. ‘Here are the kolaches,’ I thought.” They went to the hostess to confirm, and the stylish, young woman sniffed. “Oh, those are kolaches. That’s what old grandmas make.”
Kolaches are still fairly popular in the United States in places like Nebraska, Minnesota, Texas and Wisconsin. Mary Alice mused that recipes like the kolache came over with immigrants in the 1800’s and were frozen in time in the United States. In Prague, in the late 20th century, they had become passé. Meanwhile, in the United States, they were an important family tradition. My guess is that it’s not so different for a lot of recipes.
Now let’s get started on these kolaches! Which I did by first making my rhubarb compote.
We throw the ingredients in a saucepan and cook them down.
Rhubarb Filling ingredients:
2 1/4 cups chopped rhubarb
1/4 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp orange zest
2 tbsp and 2 tsp of fresh orange juice
Rhubarb Filling instructions:
Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil.
Turn down heat to low and let simmer for 45 minutes to an hour.
Let cool completely before using in your kolaches.
Leftovers can be stored in a disinfected mason jar. And, P.S., those leftovers also go great on buttered toast!
Kolache Dough ingredients:
1 package dry yeast, pinch of granulated sugar
3 1/2 cups flour
1 cup warm whole milk
10 tbsp softened, unsalted butter
1 large egg, plus 2 egg yolks
5 tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp salt
Egg wash ingredients:
1 tsp milk
Streusel ingredients (optional):
3 tbsp flour
3 tbsp granulated sugar
1 tbsp of butter cubed
In a small bowl, combine the package of yeast with 3 tbsp of the warm milk and a pinch of granulated sugar. Whisk the mixture together until it becomes frothy.*
In a medium bowl, combine the remaining milk, butter, and eggs in a bowl.
In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Whisk together until combined.
Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and then add the yeast mixture.
Combine the ingredients until it begins to form a ball in the bowl. When thoroughly combined, the dough will be quite sticky and may stick to the bottom of the bowl.
Lightly oil another bowl and place the ball of dough inside. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and drape a dishtowel over the top. At this point, you can allow the dough to rise in a warm place for about 2 1/4 – 3 hours. The second-best option is to allow the dough to rise in the refrigerator overnight.
*Hint: When mixing the yeast with warm milk, you may experience that the mixture seizes up. This happened to me the first time I made this recipe. However, if you allow it to sit for a few minutes, (my suggestion would be to walk away ranting and raving about how that was your last packet of yeast and now it’s too late and the nearest grocery is closed, but you can really do whatever you’d like to with this time,) then try whisking the mixture again until it is fully combined. It should turn out just fine.
Cover two large cookie sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
If you have allowed the dough to rise overnight in the refrigerator, remove the plastic wrap from the bowl, recover with the dishtowel, and allow the dough to warm up a bit before trying to roll it out, about 20 minutes. If the dough is already at room temperature, remove it from the bowl onto a lightly floured surface. Begin to slowly push out the sides of the dough with your hands. Lightly flour a rolling pin and roll the dough out until it is a rectangle, approximately 10 x 12 1/2 inches.
Make one horizontal cut down the center of the dough. Then make five even vertical cuts across the dough. You will then want to cut each of the strips into 4 equal parts, so that you have 20 fairly equal pieces of dough.
Begin folding the corners in on each of the rectangles, then roll them in your palm on your work surface until they form a ball and place them on the parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Make sure you don’t overcrowd them. These puppies are going to grow!
Once you’re finished with the dough, cover the cookie sheets with dish towels and allow them to rise in a warm place for about 1 1/2 hours.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
About 20 minutes before your dough is done rising, put about 3-4 tbsp of flour in a bowl and set aside. In another bowl, whisk together one egg and 1 tsp of milk for your egg wash and set aside. If you are including streusel on your kolaches, combine the flour, sugar, and butter in a bowl. Mix with your fingers until it is a sandy texture.
Now here’s the fun part! When the dough is ready, lightly oil the back of a 1/4 cup measuring cup, then lightly press it into a bowl with a little flour in it. Push the back of the measuring cup into the center of each ball, making a little bowl in the center, re-oiling and flouring your measuring cup, as needed.
Brush the egg wash around the edges of each of the dough bowls on the cookie sheet. Fill each bowl with rhubarb filling. Top with streusel.
Bake for about 20-25 minutes. Keep an eye on them during their last five minutes. They should be a nice golden brown at the edges when you take them out of the oven.
Allow them to cool for about 20 minutes and then they’re ready to eat!
And that’s that. Reminiscent of a danish, but puffier, chewier, more doughnut-like and, arguably, more delicious. You don’t drizzle these pastries in a super-sweet icing, so you have to make sure that the filling, as well as sweet dough, tastes amazing. Spoiler alert: it will. Go have one! Or, like, 20. Serving size: 20.
As a side note, completely unrelated to rhubarb kolaches, June 6, today, is the beginning of Negroni Week! Negroni week is possibly my favorite of all weeks. Not because I’m a drunkard. But because you can have one of the best cocktails that has ever been created imho, the beautiful Negroni, and some of the proceeds will go to a good cause. You can find out which bars in your area are participating here.
Even if you aren’t near a participating bar, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a Negroni in solidarity. Keeping with the theme of this post, I’m excited to wet my whistle with this rhubarb variation from Imbibe. I’m sorry Campari, sweet love, but you’re left out of this recipe. I got you next time.
Guys, why are you still here? Go have a Negroni!