Carrying on a Sweet Tradition
Everything had been going so well. The dough: chilled in the fridge for an hour. The fillings: ready to be placed on the little circles of dough I would cut out. The wine: next to my mixing bowl, because I needed liquid courage. I cut a third of the dough from the bowl, laid it out on my floured surface and went to town with the rolling pin. And … the dough started to stick to the pin.
Such was the scene in my kitchen Dec. 23, the day before my big family Christmas gathering, for which I had committed to making dessert. And not just any dessert: kolacky (pronounced ko-LOTCH-key), a pastry of Slavic origin that I had enjoyed since I was a wee girl. Every year my mom would make them for Christmas and Easter, and maybe other special occasions—if we were lucky and asked nicely. The cheese variety was my favorite. She also would make apricot, cherry, almond and maybe prune (for the, uh, older folks in our crowd, no doubt).
I had paid close attention to the process of making the kolacky last April, when my mom was baking a full batch for Easter. I asked her to let me help her as much as possible so I could take mental notes for when I maybe would bake them myself. And she did—to a point. She made the dough without me. That day, I thought: It’ll be fine. How hard could it be? Well, fortune may favor the brave, but I found out she also smacks down those who don’t speak up.
I thought I was ready. I was using my mom’s rolling pin and the baking surface, along with her baking pans. I read the recipe, which she had emailed to me at Easter, at least three times. I double-measured all the ingredients (a cup of flour after sifting, not before). I had prepared for everything—except, of course, the chance that the dough wouldn’t do what I wanted it to do.
The logical next step would have been to call my mom, right? Of course. But that was not an option. My mom died last May after fighting lung cancer for almost two years. It had been a painful, deeply sad seven months. We missed so many facets of what made my mom who she was: her selflessness, her generosity, her love of the holidays and everything that went with them (including cooking and baking). I was determined to carry on some of what she did for us. Making kolacky was literally the least I could do to help us get through our first Christmas without her.
So there I stood, in a trashed kitchen, splattered with flour and who knows what else, drinking wine and trying not to cry. I couldn’t call my mom. I couldn’t call my sister, because she had never made them either. But I had one more place to turn: My Aunt Annrose, my mom’s sister, had promised to be on call for me. I grabbed the phone. Thankfully, she picked up right away.
“Add more flour! Don’t be afraid to add more flour to the surface and to the rolling pin,” she told me. More flour it was. And, like magic, the dough began to behave. I rolled it out and cut 12 circles. (See photo.) After I topped them, I took a deep breath and shuttled them into the oven.
Fifteen minutes later, out came the first batch. I let them cool, then dusted some powdered sugar onto one of the cheese. I took a bite ... and I smiled, relieved. And I thought about how nervous I had been to make them, and I realized that I had stressed about it way too much.
It’s not only about how we carry on traditions. It’s how we move them into the next generation, and how we leave our own mark. I made the executive decision to forgo the cherry kolacky for a new variety: raspberry. And when I presented them to my family the next day, I heard “You did your mom proud” a few times. (They all liked the raspberry as much as I did.)
That fateful day, as I took the last batch of kolacky out of the oven and finished my wine, I raised the glass and toasted my mom. Even though she wasn’t there with me … well, she really was.