CEDAR RAPIDS — When I arrived to help bakers prepare for this weekend’s Kolach Festival, I was expecting to interact with familiar kitchen utensils. I wasn’t expecting the drills.
Those drills, with long mixers attached, were used to combine a sugar and starch mixture in tubs of fruit and juice to create fillings for the thousands of kolaches that will be baked in the St. Ludmila Holy Family School basement and sold this weekend.
On Wednesday, seven volunteers and I began preparing cherry and strawberry filling for the Czech pastries.
Baking coordinator Karen Billick explained that the process of making the filling has changed over the 11 years she’d been heading the kolach baking. A suggestion once of mixing the filling like mixing paint has proved efficient.
“We want to work smarter, not harder,” she told me and other volunteers multiple times throughout the morning.
The volunteers I was with worked systemically, each person filling a specific role to help move the process along. Billick said there are 11 shifts of seven people each working throughout the weekend, and some volunteers help cover more than one shift.
Colleen Knipper was one of the volunteers working on the filling, and this was the first time she’s taken this shift. Usually, she works on packaging finished kolaches or helping on the festival grounds.
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Since her family moved to Cedar Rapids a decade ago, she’s tried to help with the Kolach Festival in some capacity, as it is St. Ludmila’s biggest fundraiser of the year.
“It’s a tradition in the community,” she said. “This was one of the first things we were told about when we moved here.”
Part of my job in the assembly line was to add starch to sugar in a garbage can-sized tub, which resulted in an encompassing powdered cloud when poured. That mixture was then added to tubs filled with fruit and juice and mixed with a drill until it was thickened just right.
The actual baking of the kolaches begins Thursday, Billick said, when volunteers start stockpiling the pastries for Friday morning’s kolach drive-through sale.
Then, she said, baking is almost constant over the weekend. And it can be hard to keep up with demand. Sometimes, she said, the sales are suspended to catch up.
Billick said the group on average sells 5,000 kolaches over the three days, but she has supplies for 6,000 if needed.
Supplies include 8,500 pounds of flour, 144 pounds of butter, 300 pounds of poppy seed filling, 500 pounds of apple filling, 800 pounds of strawberry filling and 3,000 pounds of cherry filling, the festival’s most popular flavor.
Overall, the process to make, bake and package 15 dozen kolaches takes about four to four and a half hours, Billick said, but volunteers work in a constant flow to keep rolling fresh pastries out of the oven.
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One comment Billick recalls kolach buyers saying throughout the years is that the pastries taste “just like grandma’s.” However, she hears that comment less often as time goes by and fewer people keep up the tradition by baking.
That’s one reason Billick feels it’s important to continue the homemade baking process.
“I don’t want it to die out,” she said.
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IF YOU GO
The annual Kolach Festival will be held Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the St. Ludmila Catholic Church and St. Ludmila Holy Family School, 211-215 21st Ave. SW, Cedar Rapids
Hours: 5-9 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday
Kolach sales: Drive through 6-9 a.m. Friday (cash only). Sales in the school basement 5 p.m. until sold out Friday; 7 a.m. until sold out Saturday and Sunday
Cost: $12 per dozen and $6 per half dozen