The Blue Ribbon Bakery in Prairie Lea between San Marcos and Luling is a hobby that turned into a full-time job for Maurica and Nils Boothe. The name comes from the more than 50 ribbons and seven trophies adorning the walls in the small shop that the Boothes have won in baking contests around the state for their kolaches.
For those of you new to Central Texas or to the state of good eating, a kolache is a traditional Czech pastry with a meat or fruit filling. The fruit filling sits in the middle like an open-face jelly donut while the meats are wrapped inside the same dough.
In this part of the country kolaches are nearly as important as barbecue, chili, and Lone Star beer (before they moved the brewery out of San Antonio). The pastry is so revered that the town of Caldwell near Bryan had the state Legislature declare them the "Kolache Capital of Texas." It was at the Caldwell Kolache Festival (held annually on the first Saturday of September) that the Boothes had their greatest triumph when they won the 1991 State Championship Kolache Bake-Off.
One taste of the Blue Ribbon Bakery kolaches and you can tell how they won. When Virginia Wood, food editor for the Chronicle, included the kolaches for a Best of Austin issue she described them as "imperial pillows." The size of a rich man's pocket wallet, the spongy pastry has enough filling to last to the last bite. "We put as much filling in as we can," Maurica says. Then they let the raw kolaches sit for a while so the dough can rise around the fruit fillings.
"We make them like we would make them for ourselves," Maurica says, divulging her secret to producing award-winning pastries, "and we use only fresh ingredients." The Boothes started the bakery in the home 10 years ago and it grew to the point that they needed to buy another little house on the south side of TX80 in Prairie Lea to hold the big ovens.
It is a wonder that a town of 250, 16 miles from the interstate, could support such a business venture. There isn't much in town except a post office, store, and a high school that graduates four or five students a year. But if you build a better kolache, Texans will beat a path to your door. A patron from Houston said his family stops by the bakery anytime they're in the area. "You can't buy kolaches like these anywhere in Houston," he said. His wife added, "And they freeze very well too."
Maurica loves to tell a story about one of her neighbors who was at the airport in Tahiti when someone asked him where he lived. "A little town in Texas that nobody's ever heard of," the man replied. When he finally admitted that his hometown was Prairie Lea, one of the other passengers waiting for the airplane said, "Isn't that where they make kolaches?"
Not only did the Blue Ribbon Bakery put Prairie Lea on the map, but "we're the bakery to the stars," Maurica says with a laugh. Actress Jacqueline Smith, best known for her role in the television show Charlie's Angels, stops at the bakery during holidays when visiting her brother, who has a ranch nearby.
The Boothes tried about eight different kolache recipes before finding just the right combination. They offer 11 different flavors of kolaches. They stew the apricots themselves to get just the right flavoring. The cherries come from a special vendor in Michigan. The blackberries (called dewberries in Texas) are grown locally. Only the apple kolaches use a commercial filling. "They're all award-winning," Maurica says without bragging, but she admits that her favorites are the cinnamon rolls and brownies.
She says that the employees all like the blueberry and cream cheese kolaches the best. The Czech/Polish community in the area prefers the traditional flavors of poppy seed, prune, and apricot. Kolache means "little bread" in Czech. "We try to make them like their grandmothers did," Maurica says.
The Boothes are always busy with some project, whether it is fixing up an old house or caring for their home aquariums. Nils is the son of a local rancher who also has a large pecan orchard. Maurica is from Galveston.
In addition to the pastries, the bakery also makes a variety of breads. "We couldn't get a good pizza out here," Maurica says, so they added pizzas to the afternoon and evening menu. The big ovens that are perfect for baking pastries are also perfect for pizzas. "We had a guy named Gino with a local food company help us develop our recipe," she says.
The coffee at the Blue Ribbon Bakery is always fresh and hot; a perfect complement to the fluffy pastries. Get there early for the best selection, but there is always something good in the glass cases. The bakery opens at 8am, Fridays through Sunday. They serve pizzas 6pm to midnight on Thursday, noon to midnight on Friday and Saturday, and noon to 8pm on Sundays. To have them save you a favorite pastry or to order a pizza, call 512/488-2222.
Coming up this weekend ...
Admiral's Birthday Ball at the Admiral Nimitz Museum in Fredericksburg features the big band sounds of Ted Conerly and the Sentimental Journey, Feb. 20. 830/997-4379.
Gem and Mineral Show at the Community Center in Georgetown's San Gabriel Park includes vendors from all over the Midwest, Feb. 20-21. 512/869-4711.
Market Days in Gruene sells foods and new, used, and handmade crafts, Feb.20-21. 830/629-6441.
Coming up ...
Celebration of the Whooping Cranes at the Civic Center in Port Aransas includes seminars, arts and crafts, and bus and boat tours. 800/452-6278.
Desert Survival Workshop at the Big Bend Ranch State Park is a three-day program about plants, navigation, and shelter, Mar. 12-14. 915/229-3416.
Western River Expeditions begins their 1999 rafting season in March with runs down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, Green River, and Salmon River. 800/453-7450 or http://www.westernriver.com.