Mick's Kolache Chronicles
Mick Vann and a Pal Stop in Ellinger for Kolaches
By Mick Vann, 11:30AM, Wed. Aug. 29, 2012
Art and I decided to check out the kolaches at Hruska's in Ellinger on the way to Houston. It was a toss-up between the big highway truck stop or Weikel's in downtown LaGrange. In hindsight, we should have pulled of the highway and gone to Weikel's instead.
Hruska's opened in 1912 and has grown through the decades to massive proportions, part of a 10-bay gas station complex with a huge interior space, grill, dining room, and multiple cash registers. They offers 16 different varieties of kolaches (along with some gooey looking cinnamon rolls. The pastries look delicious in the L-shaped corner pastry case, each shelf loaded with trays of the kolaches that have made Hruska's famous.
For the non-Centexans out there, a kolache is a Czech pastry that's made from a limited number of ingredients: flour, milk or cream, butter, eggs, sugar, and yeast. Like any sweet yeast pastry, it can be great, or mediocre, depending on the care that goes into making it (including the proofing of the dough and the punching-down), the quality of the ingredients, and whether corners are cut or not. The fillings can be fresh fruit, stewed dried fruit, or from a #10 can; cream cheese, poppy seeds, cottage cheese, etc.
The name originates with the Czech kolo, which means "wheel"; kolác is the proper term for the pastry, koláce is the plural (it's properly pronounced KOH-latch, not koh-LATCH-ee). The pastry was brought to East Central Texas by the Czech emigrants that settled in these parts in the 1800's, and any Czech-American Texas town worth its weight has a bakery making kolaches. At each of these you'll also find klobasniki, or what the youngsters call "pigs-in-a-blanket", a wrapper of the same or similar less-sweet dough encasing a spicy Czech sausage link. That's the background.
We ordered several types, hoping for sweet, yeasty, fruity bliss with the first bite. We both bit in, turned to each other and said two words simultaneously: Parker roll. The meaning was perhaps worse; we weren't referring to a yeasty, fragrant, complex, grandma-made Parker House roll, but closer to one that comes from a plastic bag in the grocery bread section. These technically covered the definition of the term kolache, but the pastry lacked depth and flavor, and was frankly a little lackluster. The cherry center tasted exactly like it came straight out of a can of cherry pie filling.
I had high hopes for the klobasniki that I ordered, but my heart sank when the counter gal popped it into the microwave. What should have been a coarse-textured, spicy Czech sausage bursting with big flavor tasted more like a packaged breakfast link, and the cheese tasted like a low grade processed cheese. Czechs historically make excellent sausages; this was sub-par. The microwave succeeded in toughening the dough, as I feared. We rolled on down the highway, with the remaining kolaches sequestered in their white paper bag. We were not tempted to eat more.
For an excellent kolache memoir by esteemed writer and fellow past UT Coop employee Stephen “Bronco” Harrigan, visit the March 2012 issue of Texas Monthly.
For a good article on kolaches by fellow Austin Chronicle food writer and my pal Mary Margaret Pack, go here.