ELY– Anyone can postmark a card, send flowers and maybe even pay a short visit to friends who are under the weather or feeling blue.
But to bake a batch of kolaches? Now, that’s a heartfelt sentiment.
When Ely Presbyterian Church elder Lacey Stockdale was searching for new ways to reach out to the community, she and church member Joanne Chadima landed on a time-honored, generations-old tradition.
“We asked the deacons, who visit shut-ins and people in need of a visit, to deliver a plate of kolaches to each person,” said Chadima. “They reported that when they walked in with the kolaches, everyone’s faces just lit up.”
That’s because, unlike cookies and brownies, kolaches take an expertise and commitment of time that goes way beyond a casual baking session, Chadima said.
“Everyone knows that if they receive a plate of kolaches, that is a special gift.”
The kolach is, indeed, a special treat. Believed to have originated in the east-central European region of Moravia, the kolach is a Czechoslovakian favorite, dating back to at least 1700 and brought to America by Slavic immigrants in the 1880s and 1990s.
A slightly-sweet dough filled in the center with fruit filling, jam, creamy cheeses or nuts, the kolach appears to be a basic and simple pastry.
One taste– or one kolach baking lesson– will tell; there is much more to the kolach than meets the eye before it meets the mouth.
“The process is time consuming, and that’s perhaps the most difficult thing for people these days,” said Chadima, “and then, you have to know what you are doing.”
In other words, it takes experience and practice to make a melt-in-your-mouth kolach. The operation is complex. Timing is important. The dough is delicate.
“Really, every aspect of kolach baking is tricky,” said Chadima. “The learning process is total immersion.”
That’s one reason the art of kolach baking is endangered. Czech women have been handing down the secrets of kolach making for generations, but as times change and generations move farther away from their heritage, some traditions have also been lost.
Ely Presbyterian Church has its own Czech heritage. Founded in 1858, the church was started by the early Czech settlers in the area who came to America seeking their own religious freedom. Originally, the church was called the “First Bohemian & Moravian Brethren Church.” Members have strong pride in the church’s Czech background, and the church body has strived to keep their heritage meaningful and vital.
One tradition they have kept alive is kolach making. Many of the 20 to 30 proficient kolach bakers in the congregation help with “Kolach Kamp,” instructive sessions to teach anyone– not just other church members– the keys of kolach baking. About a dozen people took advantage of one recent Kolach Kamp, including Chadima’s neighbor, who was bringing her daughter-in-law and 5-year-old granddaughter.
“Our mission is to make sure the tradition is not lost,” said Chadima. “We bake several times throughout the year to keep members up on kolach baking for the soup supper.”
The church holds a community-wide soup supper– another long-standing tradition– each October. Some families bake kolaches together at home, and the church’s kolach matriarchs (and patriarchs, as kolach skills aren’t limited to females) gather to make about 150 dozen kolaches for the soup supper, where they are both served and sold for take-home.
The next Kolach Kamp is planned for sometime before Thanksgiving, and another will be held near Valentine’s Day. For information or to sign up for the session, call the Ely Presbyterian Church at 319-848-4624 and leave a message.
It’s an opportunity to learn from the best. Recently, members of the Ely church were invited to bake kolaches for BrewNost, a fundraiser for the Museum Guild of the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library.
“We were nervous because we wanted them to be perfect,” said Chadima. “The comment we heard was, ‘These are real kolaches.’ That was a huge compliment.”
In between the larger events, though, Chadima and others are continuing to make a little difference in the lives of others through the Kolach Kare program, one tasty pastry at a time.
For example, when Ron and Donna Reihman of Swisher, were grieving the loss of Ron’s mother in September, the Kolach Kare bakers got to work and delivered kolaches to the family. “Sometimes kolaches are better than a hug,” said Donna. “They were a great comfort to us and we devoured them with love. We understood the meaning behind these pastries and we appreciated the thoughtfulness of Kolach Kare.”
Chadima said feedback like that makes the careful work and extra time of kolach baking all worth it.
“This is a way to reach out to the community; not only our members, but anyone who might be cheered by a plate of kolaches,” Chadima said. “We think of the kolaches as a special way of caring about people in difficult circumstances.
“We feel like we are doing some good.”