116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
It may not be the most popular pastry in the rest of the country — but in Cedar Rapids, the kolach is king.
The popularity of kolaches — pronounced ko-LAH-chee — reaches its pinnacle in early June, when St. Ludmila Catholic Church in Cedar Rapids hosts its annual Kolach Festival, which typically includes a carnival, silent auction, entertainment, raffles, food and — most importantly — fresh-baked kolaches.
If you’ve never had a kolach, there’s no better time or place to try one.
“The kolach is a Czech pastry with a combination of sweet bread and fruit or other flavoring,” said Seth Vander Tuig, co-chairperson of the festival. “The typical kolaches over the past several years have included cherry, strawberry, apricot, rhubarb, poppy seed and prune.”
Cherry is the most popular flavor, though many patrons like to sample a variety of flavors. The pastries are sold individually and in packages of six or more.
Vander Tuig and his festival co-chairperson, Paul Zillman, heads a committee that plans the event each year, and the parish has a large crew of volunteers who work to make it a success. At the heart of the event is a committed group of people who spend many hours baking thousands of the pastries.
“It requires roughly 80 volunteers per four-hour shift for the entire process to bake kolaches,” Zillman said. “The baking is coordinated by Karen Billick and Carolyn Schulte. They rely on seasoned veterans to volunteer for the core job duties, and additional signup forms are also used to recruit volunteers.”
They begin with the raw ingredients — more than 8,000 pounds of flour, plus sugar, yeast, butter, water and flavored fillings.
After nearly 50 years of the Kolach Festival, the process is down to a science.
“It starts by mixing the ingredients for the dough,” Zillman said. Using large-scale equipment and tools that look like they may belong in a workshop instead of a kitchen, the batter is mixed.
“Then three pounds of dough is placed on a specialized tray, which goes on a ‘rounder’ machine, which turns the three pounds into 35 dough balls. The dough balls are placed on a different tray to be placed in a proofer for the dough to rise,” Zillman said. “Once the dough balls have risen, volunteers flatten the inside of the dough ball and add the filling.
“The kolaches are placed into the ovens and when they are finished baking, they are removed from the ovens and buttered. They are then set aside to cool before they are packaged.”
Then the process starts all over again. After numerous shifts over several days, the crew ends up baking roughly 5,500 dozen kolaches for the festival.
“It varies, but in a normal year, we typically bake somewhere between 65,000 and 70,000 kolaches,” Vander Tuig said.
The recipe they use is tried and true, but both co-chairs agree the key ingredient is one they’re not short on.
“In all honesty, the secret is our volunteers,” Zillman said. “You cannot make a great kolach without great people.”
Something that many festival-goers don’t know about is the at-home option for aspiring bakers. “The mix can be purchased by those who want to bake at home,” Zillman said.
Over the years, festival organizers have gotten to meet plenty of returning kolach-lovers, as well as first-time kolach-buyers.
“More than anything else, the festival is an opportunity to bring people together,” Vander Tuig said. “Each year, we get visitors from coast to coast and from all corners of the state of Iowa.
“Some visitors haven’t missed many opportunities for kolaches over the years while others taste their first kolach,” he said.
“From the community to the members of the parish, it’s a chance to interact, enjoy some nice weather, and enjoy music, food, conversations and probably more kolaches than they plan on.”
The festival — and the kolaches — hold a warm place in many people’s hearts.
“There was one woman who called me in 2019 from the airport in Las Vegas,” Vander Tuig said. “She was on her way to Chicago to rent a car to drive to Cedar Rapids and wanted to make sure we wouldn’t be sold out of kolaches by the time she arrived.”
The pandemic put a stop to the festival in its traditional form last year, but the parish came together to bake kolaches to sell at the drive-through downtown farmers markets in Cedar Rapids.
This year, plans are still pending, but the Kolach Festival will go on in some capacity.
“In general, we just hope to have the ability in 2022 and beyond to get back to a normal festival,” Vander Tuig said.
“Anything we do is obviously centered around the kolach, but from the bands to the food, the entire weekend is an opportunity to bring people together to experience some fun and conversation,” he said. “Whatever we can do to continually provide that experience of bringing people together in the safest way possible is our top priority.”
When: June 11 to 13 (if the pandemic allows, check online for updates)