Early morning kolaches
It’s just 3 a.m., but Barbara Vratanina’s already up and headed to Barb’s Kolache Bakery in Shawnee. By 4 a.m., she’s pulling trays of dough from the fridge and sliding them into the proofer. At 5 a.m., the first kolaches go into the oven, along with a batch of cinnamon rolls and meat-and-cheese pastries. Not that I saw her do any of this—I didn’t arrive for a recent interview until 5:30 a.m. The air was already filled with a bakery sweetness, the coffee pots were full and Vratanina was so cheerful it was hard to believe her when she said she wasn’t a morning person. So what, exactly, is a kolache? The answer is fraught with peril. While Czechs like Vratanina claim them, kolaches are also found throughout Poland and other Slavic countries. She pronounces the word ko-latch-kee, but you hear it other ways, too. The pastry is a rich, yeast dough, filled with a variety of Danish-like fruit and cream cheese fillings (poppyseed seems to be the most traditional). Everyone agrees it’s a time-consuming process, but that’s where the consensus ends. Kolaches can be tiny (for weddings), pizza-sized or somewhere in between. They’re plain or decorated with nuts, streusel or other toppings. Ask anyone who makes the best kolaches, and the answer is likely to be Grandma, or Mom. Indeed, Vratanina says memories of those kolaches are her biggest competitors. Not that she minds. Most mornings, her bakery’s filled with retired men chatting over cups of coffee, folks grabbing breakfast on the way to work and moms with small children in tow, all of them making their own delicious memories with Vratanina’s kolaches.