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!

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