Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Czech out the Kolaches

 When you fall in love with a Texas Czech, there are a few things that are bound to happen.  The sunshine will seem brighter, the love songs on the radio will all make sense, and … you will want to learn everything there is to know about kolaches.

A staple of the Texas Czech population, available at any Shipley’s or Kolache Factory in the area, you might think that there isn’t much to learn about this simple semi-sweet treat, but our quest across the Texas hill country in search of the perfect kolache yielded surprising insights.

To start with, any knowledgeable Czech can confirm that there is no such thing as a sausage kolache. A piece of sausage covered in soft bready dough is called klobasniky. Using a small piece of sausage that is basically the size of a cocktail wiener is completely unacceptable.  A klobasniky needs at least a two inch piece of a regular size sausage link split lengthwise.  Fortunately, there are almost as many sausage alternatives in the area as there are kolaches.

I discovered that there are in fact a number of different styles of kolache and the characteristics of the dough seem to vary widely.  Some kolache dough seemed to be more like a danish while others had a yellow cake-like quality.  We’ve traveled to kolache festivals and found that the pastries had every fruit filling imaginable including the traditional prune or poppy seed. Just about any type of filing that can be used in a pie is fair game for kolaches.  Our favorite commercially made kolaches are found at either Praske’s or Hruska’s, but nothing can beat homemade. The favorite kolache dough for Al’s family is light bready dough with only a hint of sweetness.

When Al first shared his mother’s kolache recipe, I will admit that I saw it as an opportunity to quickly impress my new beau. It turned out to be quite a journey.  The recipe was little more than a simple list of ingredients.  As any baker will tell you, that is not sufficient information to recreate a cross between bread and pastry in a way that would live up to childhood memories. Like a mad scientist creating potions in a lab, I put my degree in chemistry to good use as I embarked on a number of experiments to perfect my ability to make this family favorite.

I tried a variety of different rising times for the dough, experimented off and on for 2 years with the proper time to knead the dough.  Then of course, I had to recreate the fillings and the posipka topping. The secret to the dough turned out to be a fairly long time kneading in the stand mixer (about 12 min.) followed by at least 1.5 hrs for the first rise in a slightly warmed oven.  Like a bread recipe, the dough must rise a second time after the egg size dough balls are formed and I let the kolaches rise one final time after I fill them before baking in a 350 degree oven.

So, was all that time researching recipes and experimenting with my kolache making technique worth it?  Well, the kolaches are delicious and it seems that I’ve passed this family initiation rite because I’m lucky enough to be engaged to the love of my life! So, I’d say it was well worth the effort.  The sun is indeed shining brighter as I see Texas Thru My Backdoor.

P.S. If you want Al’s family recipe (with instructions!), either leave a message in the comments on the blog site or drop me a line on Facebook.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The French Legation House in Austin

There are many historic sites from the Republic of Texas era and one of the more interesting ones is also one of the less well known locations, French Legation Museum in Austin, Texas. The guided tour of this museum by one of the trained docents is a must.

The French have a long history of interest in Texas.  When Texas became a republic, the king of France sent Alfonse Dubois to investigate creating an alliance with the new nation. With Alfonse’s recommendation, the king acknowledged Texas as a sovereign nation and signed a treaty of amity, navigation and commerce with the Republic of Texas. 

Dubois was promoted to ambassador (“charge d’ affairs”) in 1839 and tasked with building a Legation in Texas.   When he could not find a suitable place, he had builders construct a new house. But before the house was completed, Sam Houston was re-elected president of the Republic of Texas in 1841 and moved the capitol to Houston. 

With the Legation house location no longer viable due to the moving of the capitol and personal issues with the locals, Alfonse sold the unfinished house to a Catholic bishop. The house changed hands many times before being bought by the state of Texas and run by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. One of the more prominent owners was Dr. Joseph Robertson. Dr. Robertson had  who had hoped to run a girl’s school at the facility, but instead it became the home for his large family.

The architecture of the house, both inside and out is what draws many visitors to the museum. The Creole vernacular style home is a fascinating place to view. While most homes of this time period were log homes, the French Legation house was the first house in Texas to use milled wood siding. One of the other unique elements of the home’s design is the wine cellar.   I was also impressed by the attention to detail as seen in the ornate door hinges. Suzanne was more attracted to the furnishings and dishes. If you enjoy period architecture and furnishings, this is definitely the place to visit.

The grounds of the complex are as beautiful as the interior. It is amazing that after all these years, no high rise has ever been built in an area that would interfere with the view of the capitol from the grounds of the French Legation house. Our guide informed us that there is a law prohibiting obstruction of this wonderful view. After our tour, Suzanne and I walked around the grounds. The flowers and trees put us in a tranquil mood completely separated from the frantic movements of Austinites just outside the gates.

 Retiring to the porch for a little rest seemed like a perfect end to our day. So, as I sit here on the porch of the Legation house enjoying the view of Austin, I practice my French in the back of my mind as I see Texas Thru My Back Door!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Presidio La Bahia – Goliad, Texas

Walking along the stone walls of the Presidio La Bahia, I think about the early Texans who gave their lives for Texas Independence. I wonder if Colonel Fannin walked these same walls encouraging his men to be ready for battle.  Perhaps he stood where I step today. I wonder if these men waited for destiny to silently slip into the Presidio and engulf their souls. Would these brave men be accepting of what Texas has become today? 

For those who don’t remember or know, Colonel Fannin and his men captured the Presidio from the Mexicans. Then, General Sam Houston ordered Colonel Fannin to leave Goliad before the arrival of the Mexican Army. As they fled from Goliad, the Texas army was caught out in an open valley about two miles from the timbered Coleto Creek area. They bravely held the Mexican army off the first day, but after consulting with his officers Fannin decided to surrender under honorable terms.

Colonel Fannin and his men were marched back to Presidio La Bahia. They assumed they would be allowed to leave safely and return to the United States. Sadly, they were mistaken. A week later the healthy soldiers were marched out of the Presidio on Palm Sunday, March 27, 1836 and massacred. The wounded soldiers along with the wounded Fannin were shot inside the Presidio. General Santa Anna reneged on the promises of the Mexican Army to the Texans. Along with “Remember the Alamo!”, “Remember Goliad!” became part of the now famous battle cry of the Texans as they routed Santa Anna and the Mexican Army at the Battle of San Jacinto.

Now that you know some of the history of the Presidio La Bahia, you can appreciate the beauty of the architecture of the place. The Presidio complex has been restored to its original glamour. Our Lady of Loreto Chapel is the most outstanding of the stone structures. The first declaration of Texas Independence was signed inside the chapel. Relics and other historic items can be viewed inside the museum in the Officer’s Quarters.  While browsing the museum one can only imagine the resilience of its inhabitants and the difficulties they endured. 

The Presidio is the most embattled fort in Texas and deserves a visit from those interested in Texas history. As I stand on the wall of the fort and gaze at the end of the day with its firework display of colored sky, I relish the opportunity to view Texas Thru My Back Door!

Join in our fight against breast cancer.  Visit Suzanne's new blog "My Equations for Life" as she reflects on life B.C. (before cancer) and A.D. (after diagnosis) and help support new early cancer detection research at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center with our Go Fund Me project below.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Off the Grid

Driving along Highway 71 outside of Columbus you might have noticed a unique complex with large metal art pieces alongside a row of solar panels facing the highway. This intriguing business was so puzzling that one day we decided to pull in and check it out. The name on the sign read “Industrial Country Market”.  Pulling into the rough gravel driveway lined with a row of bottle trees, we didn’t quite know what to make of this marketplace. Although clearly a store front, it was a far cry from my favorite corner Walmart and we never suspected the wide variety of treasures to be found inside. 

As soon as we stepped through the door, the staff behind the checkout counter greeted us enthusiastically and even offered us a free bottle of water. How nice is that? Surveying the store, Suzanne and I were unsure what to think. They have such an eccentric choice of items. The only way to know what they have is to walk around the huge building and look down every aisle. Now I know why they offered the water. 

I felt like a kid in a toy store. There were so many interesting items to inspect. Humorous gift items, toys, folk art items, kaleidoscopes, model steam engines, science kits, spices and food, jewelry, electronics and even hardware stuff. As for us guys, this is a great place to bring your wife or girlfriend.  Touring the Industrial Country Market is much better than finding a bench to sit on while your lady shops in a crowded mall or winding your way down narrow aisles of dusty glassware in the antique stores.  There are many man-friendly items to check out so both guys and gals will find it entertaining.

Just when you think it can’t get any better, I recommend that you head out the back door into the outdoor gardens. In addition to the beautiful plants and the water gardens, you will find beautiful yard art, indoor hydroponic gardens and an art studio.   Then of course there’s the outdoor display of all the unusual sculptures made from every type of recycled/re-purposed material imaginable.  It’s like walking through a modern art museum. 

Although it may not be obvious at first glance, this complex is entirely off the grid. If you are interested in their water conservation methods or solar electricity setup, you can tour all the intricate parts either on your own or one of their staff. They will be happy to answer any questions you may have.  In fact they hold classes on the various aspects of going off the grid. Even the power building was cool to look through! (I know, it’s a guy thing but ladies, you’ll enjoy browsing the outside gardens, yard decor and art room)

As we checked out with our Christmas bounty, we met the owner, Dan Bretch, and found him to be as charming and eccentric as his business. Down to earth and friendly best defines this guy who really enjoys his work and sharing his knowledge. I hope you get a chance to meet him as well!

So if you want to experience a unique Christmas shopping journey, venture on down to the Industrial Country Market near Columbus and see Texas Thru My Back Door!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving!

Suzanne and I would like to extend our best wishes for a great Thanksgiving holiday to all our readers, friends, and family. This year has been a fantastic journey for us in so many ways. When we first thought about writing a travel blog, we did not know if others would be interested in reading about our travels and adventures. Drawing inspiration from a love of the history of Texas and its people, we embarked on our journey. 

We have met some fantastic people and learned so much about this great state. Our travel blog readership is growing by leaps and bounds! We would like to invite all of our readers to provide us with feedback or to share your favorite travel destinations, food ideas, or other adventures by leaving comments here on the blog page or posting on Facebook.

With a fabulous turkey dinner waiting to be savored, we hope you will enjoy a wonderful holiday family and friends as we share Texas Thru My Back Door!