Saturday, October 10, 2009

Conquering the Nut Roll Koláč

Nut-roll koláč is probably the most commonly-known Slovak dessert. For me it had become a mountain to climb and conquer. Why? Making good koláč is not easy, at least it’s not easy for me. To get the dough just right you have to know what you are doing and that takes experience. Additionally, any time you are dealing with yeast things get exponentially more complicated. For me the risk that my entire attempt may be sabotaged by uncooperative yeast always looms.

Since my Slovak in-laws are visiting, I asked my aunt-in-law to show me how to make koláč, working in my kitchen, using American ingredients. This has probably been the best learning experience with Slovak baking thus far.

But let’s start with the name. Though “koláč” (or the anglicized “kolach” or “kolachy”) is a general word that could be used to describe many kinds of dessert cakes or pastries, the more precise Slovak word referring to a rolled pastry would be závin. Among my Slovak-American acquaintances I’ve never heard of “nut-roll zavin” but in Slovakia orechový závin is definitely what we are referring to as nut-roll koláč.

Regarding the recipe and baking it just right, let me tell you this has been one heck of a learning experience. First, I had issues with translating Slovak recipe ingredients:
  • How much is a half kilo of flour if I don’t have a weight scale at home?
  • What if I’m using dry yeast instead of cake yeast? How do I compensate?
  • What kind of oil do I use?
Then I had to translate Slovak bakers’ interpretations such as the following:
  • For the filling, add as much sugar as you want
  • Bake it on medium heat until it’s done
Hmm. Ok.

I was also surprised to see that the recipe I ended up using doesn’t use eggs. How can that be? Almost every Slovak recipe, or Slovak-American recipe, I’ve ever read for nut-roll koláč calls for an egg or two. My aunt says eggs make dough more dense. If you want the dough to bake light and puffy with a good height then don’t include egg.

Another important step I learned is how to work the dough. What my aunt showed me is how dough is supposed to look once you mix the yeast with the flour, and then what it’s supposed to look like once the dough has been worked.

Here’s another secret: never slice the koláč until it has completely cooled. If it is cut while still hot, it will flatten. Instead, once you take them out of the oven, leave them in the baking sheet and cover them with a clean kitchen towel.

So here it is, folks; the recipe for nut-roll kolač:

Ingredients for two rolls

  • 1 envelope of dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup of milk, slightly warmed
  • 1/2 teaspoon of sugar mixed in the milk
  • 4 cups of all-purpose flour
  • 12 teaspoons of sugar (slightly rounded)
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup milk slightly warmed
  • 1/2 cup of oil (canola oil is best)
  • 2 1/2 cups crushed walnuts
  • chopped apple (optional)
  • 2/3 cup powdered sugar
  • added milk until walnuts and sugar are moistened but not runny, about 1/4 cup

-In a mug, warm the milk to just above room temperature and stir in the sugar. Add the yeast, briefly mix it, and let it rest for 15 to 20 minutes.
-In a medium-sized bowl, measure out the flour, add the sugar and salt, and then mix it with a wooden spoon. Add the yeast mixture and then the oil and mix, making sure to scrape the sides of the bowl with your spoon.
-Here’s an important part: once all the dough ingredients have been incorporated you’re going to have to work the dough by hand (this is when using a bread maker machine would come in handy if you have one). The most comfortable place is to sit in a chair and work the dough for 5 to 7 minutes by using your fingers to pinch and pull the dough together. Work the dough around the bowl until it becomes smooth and begins to pull cleanly away from the sides. The dough is ready when it doesn’t stick to your palm.
-Lightly dust the dough with flour in the bowl and leave it in a warm dry place for an hour, covered with a cloth.
-After the dough has risen, dust your working area with flour and cut the dough into two pieces. Roll your first piece out into a rectangular shape approximately 1/2 inch thick.
-Spread half of your filling over the dough making sure to leave about an inch of dough visible from all four sides.

-From one of the longer sides, roll the dough without leaving pockets of space.
-Lightly pinch the ends and tuck them under.
-Place the rolls on a baking sheet lined with baking paper or greased to keep the roll from sticking.
-Bake at 400 F for 20 to 25 minutes until golden brown.
Note: Since we’re not using eggs for this recipe there are no egg whites to coat the top of the roll before baking. Brush on a bit of milk, or when the rolls are done baking and you have just removed them hot from the oven, lightly brush them with oil.
Note: If you have apple added to the filling, bake at 375 and for a longer time, probably 30 minutes or so.
I hope all my notes and lengthy descriptions aren’t discouraging or off-putting as seemingly too much work. I’ve written in such detail because they were points that stood out in my mind.
I hope you have success with this. If you have feedback, let me know.
Good luck!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

World War II and the Jews of Slovakia

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of World War II, a fight against Nazism and totalitarianism that cost the lives of more than 50 million and destroyed the lives of many millions more. A ceremony took place earlier in the day in Poland to mark the date and remember. For most people, remembering WWII also means remembering the ethnic Jewish population in Europe that was all but decimated within those five and a half years.

I’m not Jewish. As a matter of fact, before I moved to Europe I had little reason to ever think about Jewish life or the Jewish people. But over the few years I lived in Central Europe I couldn’t help to become interested in the story of the Jews. Why? Because at times it’s possible to actually feel the void of an ethnic group who once inhabited Europe, and who are overwhelmingly gone.

The signs of former Jewish life in Slovakia are there if you look for them. For example, a monument in Bratislava Old Town with a large etching on marble of what used to be the main synagogue in the Jewish Quarter, almost all of which was torn down to make way for the new Nový Most (pictured right); In Zlaté Moravce, a small town I’ve spent a lot of time in, the building of the former town synagogue is now a rock climbing gym; and Jewish cemeteries can be found across the country. But still, almost no one talks about the Jewish people or of what Slovaks saw or heard before and during World War II.

People forget. I believe that honestly happens, especially to the older generations as they age. But also, often people want to forget. I remember one adult student of mine told me that the Second World War ripped a gaping hole in the hearts and minds of people and that some families still have not recovered to this day. He told me that he personally lost uncles and for some it is still too painful to talk about, and he wasn’t even referring to the Jews. Often I’ve had to make myself remember his words because sometimes I’m frustrated about people’s reluctance to talk about what Slovak life was like during World War II and what was happening in their towns and villages. I have to remember that there is still a rawness. Unfortunately it’s difficult to balance sensitivity with the need to record information coming from credible sources before there is no more opportunity to do so.

My grandfather-in-law has an amazing memory. He loves to tell stories about his youth and about his service in the Slovak Army at the close of World War II. My husband and I like to hear his stories, mostly because he so enjoys recounting them. One afternoon he was telling us about being “on the front” and of his military days. Just because I was curious, I wanted to ask him about the Jews in the Zlaté Moravce area and in his village of Žitavany. Of course, because he has an excellent memory, he was able to tell us specifically that there were three Jewish families taken from his village and that after the war only a single man returned. The man didn’t stay but instead immigrated to Israel. He also said many of the shops in Zlaté Moravce were owned and operated by Jewish people. What he didn’t have to say was that everything was confiscated and given over to Slovaks and that the Jews were taken away to concentration camps.

What was interesting to me was that he recounted all of this simply as historical fact, no judgments, no comments. It made me think, why don’t young people ask more questions? My grandfather-in-law didn’t have difficulty in the telling. Maybe it simply was a matter of someone asking a straightforward question to get a straightforward answer. Ask and you shall receive? Possibly.

In The Foreigner’s Guide to Living in Slovakia, I wrote a short section about Germans in Slovakia (called Carpathian Germans), and also about Jews in Slovakia. In that section I included the following powerful statistics:
  • According to the Czechoslovak census of 1930, 136,737 Jews lived in Slovakia and 102,542 in Subcarpathian Rus, which was more than 4% of the population in Slovakia and more than 14% of the population in Subcarpathian Rus.
  • Today there are approximately 2,300 Jews living in Slovakia.
There are many painful stories that have not yet been told, but there are also good stories of non-Jews helping Jews and other targeted groups during World War II that have not yet been told. I think I’m open minded to hear both, not to judge, but simply because we – citizens of the world – need to know more, and move beyond the feeling that people are holding back important information and want to forget about the past.

Note: The photo is taken by Griffindor who added the following description in Wikipedia Commons:
Image of the Holocaust monument in Bratislava. The Reform Synagogue used to stand there and survived the Nazis but not the Communists after World War II. The synagogue was torn to make way for a highway. Only after the fall of Communism was a black granite plaque (visible in the back) and a monument constructed for the murdered Jewish population of Bratislava. However no sign in English explains the meaning of the monument to anyone.