Prune and cream cheese kolaches
In our series Saving Southern Recipes, Associate Editor Kate Williams explores the deep heritage of Southern cooking through the lens of passed-down family recipes.
Frito pie. Chile con carne. Chorizo breakfast tacos. Brisket. I'm willing to bet that simply reading the name of these dishes conjures up an image of Texas, big and proud and full of meat. But they're not the only quintessential Texan delicacies. There is, in fact, a truly Texan dish that has its origins not in cowboys and giant steaks, but in Czech immigrants and, well, not meat.
I'm talking about kolaches.
Kolach-what, you ask? These hand-held treats are a specialty of the central Texas "Czech Belt," which spans the area between Houston, Austin and Dallas, and is centralized in the small town of West. A typical kolache (pronounced koh-la-chee) is made from a tender, enriched brioche dough, shaped into a dimpled circle and filled with some kind of sweet filling, often made from dried fruit and/or cheese. Think of them as a sturdier, breadier (and more delicious, in this writer's opinion) Danish. And while you'll now find kolaches with fillings as wide ranging as chorizo-jalapeno, boudin, and chocolate-cream cheese, the original baked goods were always slightly sweet and totally meat-free.
Czech immigrants brought kolaches with them when as they immigrated to Central Texas hill country during the late 19th century railroad boom. Many settled in and around West, located about 70 miles south of Dallas-Fort Worth, 20 miles north of Waco and 120 miles north of Austin. Today, Czech-Americans make up the vast majority of residents in West, and kolache bakeries dominate the landscape.
You'll find kolache bakeries in all shapes and sizes; some, like Kolache Factory, have franchised expanded and expanded far outside of the state, while others, like The Village Bakery, maintain a single location. They're popular enough in the state that, a few years back, much of the food media was predicting a kolache takeover of nationwide breakfast snacks. Alas, this explosion of popularity never really happened; instead, we were inundated with far-less delicious concoctions like unicorn bagels and Doritos Locos tacos.
If you don't live in the Czech Belt, or can't afford to make the trip, it is, luckily, easy to find great recipes for kolaches all across the internet. They're not the simplest things to bake, but, with a little patience and some enthusiasm for kneading, you can certainly whip up a batch for your next brunch party or even just to eat for breakfast, all week long.
My favorite recipe is a hybrid of a few different sources, and I like to mix and match fillings between dried fruit and cream cheese. Try the classic prune filling for a tangy-sweet treat. Amp it up with a few tablespoons of rum or brandy if you're feeling frisky. My cream cheese filling evokes a classic Danish and comes together in a jiffy. Whatever you do, make sure to let the dough rise and proof as directed — these kolaches are worth the wait.
Note: The two filling recipes each make enough for 18 kolaches. Feel free to make one or the other. If you'd like to make both, you can cut the filling amounts in half. Baked kolaches freeze well; to re-heat, stick the frozen pastry directly on the rack in a 400 degree oven and bake until hot.
Makes: 18 kolaches
Hands-on time: 1 1/2 hours
Total time: About 4 hours
8 ounces pitted prunes (dried plums)
1 cup water (or 14 tablespoons water and 2 tablespoons rum or brandy)
1 teaspoon sugar, plus more to taste
Zest of 1 lemon
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Cream Cheese Filling
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup sugar
1 large egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
Pinch ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature
1 cup milk, heated to 105 to 115 degrees
1/4 cup sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading
12 tablespoons (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus more for greasing
2 large eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons kosher salt
To make the prune filling: In a small saucepan, bring the prunes and water to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium low and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until the prunes are very soft, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat. Use an immersion blender to blend the prunes and water until smooth. Stir in the sugar, lemon zest, cinnamon and salt. Season to taste with additional sugar, if desired. Let cool to room temperature.
To make the cream cheese filling: Using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and sugar on low speed until smooth, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the egg yolk, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Continue to beat on low speed, scraping down the sides as necessary, until smooth, 2 to 3 minutes.
To make the streusel: In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, sugar and cinnamon. Cut the butter into the flour mixture and, using your hands, mix thoroughly to form a sandy meal.
To make the dough: Grease a large bowl with butter. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a second large bowl, stir together the milk, sugar and yeast. Stir in 1 cup of the flour, cover lightly with plastic wrap, and let sit until very bubbly, about 40 minutes.
Stir 8 tablespoons (1/2 cup) of the butter and the eggs until smooth. Stir in the salt, followed by the remaining 2 cups flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until a sticky dough forms.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and knead, adding more flour as needed, until the dough is elastic, just barely tacky, and springy to the touch, about 10 minutes. Transfer to the greased bowl, cover lightly with plastic wrap, and let sit until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Punch the dough down in the bowl. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and roll out to about 1/2 inch thick. Using a 2 1/2- to 3-inch biscuit cutter, cut the dough into 18 rounds. You will need to re-roll the dough once. Evenly spread the dough rounds out between the two prepared baking sheets. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and let sit until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Meanwhile, heat the oven to 375 degrees.
Once the dough rounds have proofed, use your fingers to create an indentation in the center of each round, leaving a 1/2-inch border around the edges. Place about a tablespoon of filling in the center of each round. Brush the edges of the rounds with about half of the remaining melted butter and sprinkle with the streusel.
Bake until golden brown, 15 to 17 minutes. Brush the edges with the remaining butter and serve hot.
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