Two months ago, if you had asked me to describe Willa Cather, I would have pictured her writing in the middle of the Nebraska farmland, surrounded by as many sheaves of paper as sheaves of wheat. I didn’t realize that, when she was 33, Cather left the Great Plains for the big city; she moved to Pittsburgh and then to New York, where she lived for the rest of her life. She didn’t publish her first novel until 16 years after the move, when Fifth Avenue must have been just as familiar as the farm.
It’s no wonder, then, that food played such a major role in Cather’s writings: She needed it to bring her back to life on the frontier. With their incredible power to conjure up a time and place, food memories are some of the strongest associations around. More than anything else about a trip, I remember the meals: crabs in Baltimore, étouffée in New Orleans, pain au chocolat in Paris. When I left home in California for the unknowns of the East Coast, my mom sent me off with a bound compilation of our family’s favorite recipes. Seven years later, in my New York kitchen, I still flip it open when deciding what to make for dinner. It’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten.
In Nebraska, Cather drew her cooking inspiration from Annie Pavelka, a Bohemian immigrant to the town of Red Cloud whose life (and food) would serve as the basis for My Ántonia. In her own New York kitchen, hundreds of miles from home, I imagine Cather consulting her recipes and rolling out her pastry dough like Annie did, mentally recreating the pioneer communities of her childhood.
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The foods that filled Annie’s kitchen had a strong connection to the local German and Czech families who settled in Red Cloud: rabbit with gravy, dumplings, sauerkraut. Those are all familiar, but I had never heard of kolache until I read My Ántonia. The slightly sweet, yeasted pastries filled with spiced plums that Cather described made me curious enough to try them myself.
Everyone seems to have her own way of making kolache, and one of the “great kolache controversies” is their shape: round and flat, with the filling plopped in the middle, or square and folded, with filling peeking out from inside. According to an interview with Annie’s granddaughter, Antonette Turner, there are even variations between successive generations of bakers. I just like the look of the squares, not to mention the confused stares they got from my boyfriend (“HOW did you get them to stay like that?”). And anyway, the important thing, Turner notes, “is not to be stingy with the filling.”
Spiced plum filling:
1 pound plums, quartered, pits removed
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
Kolache dough: (adapted from Simply Recipes)
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, divided, plus more for kneading
1 package active dry yeast
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup whole milk, plus 1 tablespoon for egg wash
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs, plus 1 for egg wash
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1. Make the filling: Combine plums and sugar in a small bowl and let sit 1 hour. In a food processor or blender, purée plum mixture. Combine plum purée, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves in a medium saucepan over high heat. Stirring constantly, bring to a boil and cook 10 minutes, or until mixture has thickened (and passes the plate test). Cool completely.
2. In a large bowl, combine 2 cups flour, the yeast, and nutmeg. Set aside.
3. In a medium saucepan, combine 1 cup milk, the butter, sugar, and salt. Warm over low heat until mixture reaches 120 to 130°F. Add milk mixture and 2 eggs to dry ingredients, stirring until fully combined; then beat with an electric mixer on high speed 3 minutes. Stir in lemon zest and remaining 1 1/2 cups flour.
4. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead until dough is soft and elastic, adding additional flour if necessary. Place in a lightly greased bowl, turning once to grease the surface. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
5. Punch dough down and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide dough in half and roll out each half into a 16×8 inch rectangle, about 1/8 inch thick. Cut each rectangle into 8 4×4 squares.
6. Place 1 heaping tablespoon of plum filling on center of each square. Brush the corners of each square with water, draw them up, and gently press together. Secure with a toothpick. Place on 2 greased baking sheets, 2 inches apart. Cover and let rise 30 minutes.
7. Preheat oven to 375°F. In a small bowl, beat remaining egg with 1 tablespoon milk and brush over each square. Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until golden. Transfer to wire racks and cool 10 minutes. Remove toothpicks.
(Photo of Willa Cather by Carl Van Vechten)