Cheese Kolach

An entry on “Kynuty kolac s tvarohem”–in which I expose myself for a true language dork (among other types of dork). 

Before law school, after college, I lived in the Czech Republic for two years.  I was not always the biggest fan of the more savory aspects of Czech cuisine.  Let’s face it, how many celebrity central european-style chefs do you know of–there’s a reason the big bucks are made on the cookbooks that focus on the food of the more temperate climes.  This is not to be unfair to the Czechs–you just can’t grow anything in winter so it’s root vegetables for a good portion of the year.  For the same reason I get frustrated with many of the food celebrities exhorting us to “eat local” and then tell us about how easy it is.  They all seem to live in California.  Try Massachusetts, where we just got another 15 inches of snow dumped on us.  I actually started liking Czech food more and more once I got used to it–I was a lot more picky in my previous life and would turn up my nose even at sauerkraut (not having ever eaten it of course)–that prejudice had to go pretty quickly (thank goodness–sauerkraut is yummy!).  When you have months of cold cold weather that kind of food is really what you want to eat, it turns out.  (Yes, fried cheese with french fries and mayo, pickled herring with pilsner beer, and preserved beets!)

On the other hand, I immediately fell in love with Czech sweets.  These are more in the variety of baked goods (with some excepts, such as the creamy pastry venecky):  buchty (little jam filled sweet rolls), vanocky (a Christmas sweet yeast bread you can always find, a whole loaf of which I may or may not have eaten in a weekend), and kolacky.  Some people may have heard of these as the Czechs that settled the midwest have kept the tradition alive–apparently there are kolac festivals in Texas Hill country, for example.

On a more recent trip to the Czech republic I decided I had better buy a cookbook.  This was the beginning of my idea to buy cookbooks as souvenirs.  Since I only did this on my last few trips before we moved back to the US it’s pretty paltry a collection, especially when I think of the cookbook library that “might have been.”  For instance, no cookbook from the year I spent in Spain, no cookbook from my summer in Sarajevo, etc.  So it goes. 

My Czech cookbook is specifically devoted to desserts and includes all these sweet bready desserts I’ve been talking about.  I finally decided to attempt one of these recipes–you guessed it, cheese kolac.  I wrote the first batch off as a learning experience.  Thus the warning is that I don’t have a full recipe here as there are several kinks to work out.  However, so that next time I don’t have to wrack my brain wondering what it was I wanted to change, I’m recording here for posterity (and any of you who care to read further).

The first problem is substituting the ingredients.  First, flour.  Yes, flour.  Czech flour is sold not by protein content (as here–AP, bread, pastry, etc), but by fineness of grind.  Hruba (rough) polohruba (semi-rough) and hladka (fine).  Well, I went for AP figuring any dessert would probably want finely grind flour, and there’s a reason it’s called all purpose.  Plus these are not cakes so there’s no reason to use cake flour, nor are they really breads that need lots of kneading, so bread flour is not required. 

Also, it’s not really cheese that is the filling but “tvaroh” a.k.a. quark (for the Germans and Austrians in the audience) a.k.a. something like a cream cheese but not quite, and like a yogurt, but again, not quite.  I had seen somewhere that the best substitute is farmer’s cheese, and it did seem to be the closest.  I know I could find tvaroh at a Russian store in the Boston area but that will have to wait for another time.

Here’s my final ingredients list (sorry for the metrics, like I said this was a first attempt.  Later on I’ll figure it out in our system, but for the meantime I’m so glad for our electronic kitchen scale that does grams and ounces!)

Make a starter and dough:  mix 1 dL of lukewarm milk, 7.5g of yeast, 5 g of powdered sugar, and 30g of flour and allow to rise–about 20 minutes, maybe less.   Beat an egg into the starter (I halved the recipe so only used one egg; but ideally one yolk and one egg should be used).  Add in 140g of flour, .375 dL of milk, 30g powdered sugar, and 40g melted butter or vegetable oil (I used vegetable oil).  Allow to rise.  (This took hardly any time at all).  The dough was very wet, nearly like a batter but not quite. 

Make the filling:  Shred 250g of tvaroh (about 8 ounces), mix in 1T of cream, lemon zest (I used zest of half a lemon), 1 egg, and 40g of oil or melted butter.  (Because the mixture was already so creamy I omitted the oil.  Czech tvaroh can be “hard,” which is feta-like in consistency or “soft” which is more like a very thick yogurt, so perhaps the oil was  meant to add smoothness to a drier tvaroh.  It just seemed like it would have become too runny).  You are supposed to sprinkle on vanilla sugar at the end of baking, but since I don’t have vanilla sugar I added 1/2t of vanilla extract at this stage.

Press the dough out onto a cookie sheet and then add the filling.  Then “bake until done.”  I tried 375F and baked for 30 minutes.  (See why I have to adapt this recipe?  Not only do I have to translate it, but it just tells me to “bake it in a hot oven”–no temperature, no timing!)

Here’s the assembled kolac:

Ready for the "hot oven"

Ready for the "hot oven"

And the end result:

Tvarohovy kolac

Tvarohovy kolac

The end result?  Not quite right, but not (I think) that far off for a first attempt.  Here’s the run-down:

1.  The filling was not at all sweet.  I started to wonder if I should have used regular and not powdered sugar.  My dictionary says “mouckovy cukr” means powdered sugar but I’m still not sure it’s the right substitution.  On the other hand, an equal weight of granulated sugar would probably deliver the same amount of sweetness in just a lesser volume, and since I’m measuring by weight, should it matter?  In any case, I’m upping the sugar next time.  (I also don’t see what powdered sugar would do differently here from regular sugar in terms of “performance”–any similar recipe you would expect to use granulated sugar).

2.  The crust got a bit dark.  I don’t know if this is because the oven was too hot (I had to leave it in long enough for the filling to set) or if I could have just taken it out sooner.  I know  I could have simply covered the rim with aluminum foil, but I hope a tweak to the oven temperature could fix this.

3.  Farmer’s cheese seems a good substitute.  Also I don’t think there was any problem caused by not adding the oil to the filling mixture.  The baked consistency seemed right.

4.  I used vegetable oil instead of butter (frankly, because I was rushed and couldn’t melt butter and wait for it to cool enough to not nuke the yeasts).  Who knows, but I’m sure it would be better with butter.  What isn’t?

5.  The bread part of the kolac seemed rather dry.  I don’t know what caused this.  Was the dough too wet (does that matter?)  I don’t think it was the oil over butter because fat is fat, as long as we’re talking about melted butter of course. 

6.  The dough rose REALLY fast.  It occurred to me that the recipe was probably calling for fresh yeast, which you have to use a lot more of.  I will have to lower the amount of yeast next time.  Who knows, maybe that impacted the dryness (though I don’t know). 

7.  The dough remained dry even under the filling and did not fall apart from the weight of it upon slicing, which was a net positive.  (You know how pizza toppings sometimes make the crust all soggy and the topping slips right off?  That’s what I was worried about).

This was also very fast to prepare, which was a nice surprise.  This may have been due in part to the fact I suspect that I used too much yeast, but even so, there is no kneading required and only one rise–I had expected to be embarking on a longer endeavor when I saw yeast listed on the ingredients.

So there it is–awaiting further refinement.  “Stay tuned.”

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9 thoughts on “Cheese Kolach

  1. Oh yes, that is next on the list. Actually, there were even the three-color kolaches: tvaroh, poppy seed, and plum jam.

  2. Sounds delicious! Topfen golatsche is actually Stefan’s favorite Austrian pastry. He will go crazy when he sees that you made one! Also, you can buy quark at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Granted, it costs approximately $1 million/pound. We’ve used Ricotta as a substitute. If you put it through a food processor, it’s quite similar!

  3. The Slovak tvaroh cakes I remember loving had raisins in them – maybe you could try that one time. The photo of your cake looks pretty spot on though – I’m getting a craving for some cake as I type…

  4. Pingback: Poppyseed Plum Swirl Bread « Three Clever Sisters

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