Courtney Stefan made the most of her downtime during the pandemic. Her creative efforts helped earn her the title of Kolache Queen for the 26th Annual Hallettsville Kolache Fest.
The festival on Saturday will kick off with a 7:30 a.m. 5K run and walk and a 10 a.m. parade, both at Courthouse Square in Hallettsville. A “42” domino tournament will start at 8:15 a.m. at KC Hall. After the parade, about 11 a.m., the hall will become home to the rest of the festivities, including live music, food vendors, children’s games, a barbecue cook-off, car show, arts and crafts, a kolache-eating contest and kolache-baking demonstration.
Stefan, 34, a cattle nutritionist who has lived in Hallettsville since marrying her husband Trevor Brier about five years ago, generally has enjoyed baking since college. Yet, it was not until the long days of isolation created by COVID-19 that she began challenging herself to explore new, difficult-to-make recipes. She tackled time-consuming croissants and a host of different breads ranging from healthy protein, gluten-free to cheddar, bacon, jalapeno varieties.
“I start off with a generic bread recipe and add everything and the kitchen sink to it,” Stefan said.
However, kolaches are the baked goods for which she has gained recognition in Hallettsville’s annual Kolache Fest baking competition. Perfecting the recipe became a fun-filled family affair that brought out the inner child in Stefan. Stefan’s 4-year-old son, Dean Brier, enjoyed helping his mother bake the Czech pastries, while her 1-year-old son, Silas Brier, participated as resident pot-banger and taste-tester.
“It really was a lot of fun for our family. We have young children, and Dean, being 4, was all about it, invested in it, and excited about the kolaches he helped make,” Stefan said. “We worked on numbers and following instructions. He put a lot of work into it for a 4-year-old, and it was exciting for me to see how excited he was.”
As the 2021 Kolache Queen, Stefan will ride in the Kolache Fest parade and provide the kolache-baking demonstration during the festival. Dean, in his chef’s hat and apron, will accompany his mother in the parade and help her teach her culinary techniques to festival-goers.
Stefan found a kolache recipe in Texas Monthly a couple of years ago, and she modified and tweaked it until her dough reached the desired consistency and fluffiness. She assumed the Texas-oriented magazine would publish a recipe that remained true to the traditions of the pastries baked way back when.
To add her own twist, Stefan added cinnamon to her kolaches. She filled the well in the center of the fluffy pastry with cinnamon-infused cream cheese and lemon-raspberry preserves, which she made from scratch. She hoped her lemon and cinnamon touches would help her pastries stand out without being too radically different. She sprinkled homemade streusel on top for the perfect “not too sweet and not too tart” pastries.
During the trial-and-error phase of her kolache-baking extravaganza, Stefan worked to perfect the bread-to-filling ratio because the perfect balance of the fluffy bread to the creamy filling is important to the overall taste of the pastry. Many members of the community reaped the benefits of her labor with kolache deliveries that she said did not look as pretty as they tasted.
“I was lucky to have enough time to learn to capture a lot of tricks of the trade from past generations and to be able to spread happiness, joy and smiles to people with the amount of baking done in our house during the pandemic. It was a lot of fun to spread it around our little community,” Stefan said. “I was able to use my time wisely, learn a new skill, and learn from past generations about a highly traditional recipe.”
Stefan and three other contestants each submitted a dozen homemade kolaches to the Hallettsville Chamber of Commerce for a chance to be Kolache Queen.
Glenna Brown Sims, one of the kolache judges, called Stefan’s bread-to-filling ratio “perfect.” The judges examined the pastries for taste, texture and presentation.
“We look for a lighter, airy dough — not heavy or dense — and hers was perfect in that respect, too,” Sims said. “She did not use typical everyday flavors. She used a lot of imagination, and we really liked that.”
Sims said that baking kolaches brings people together, and the Kolache Fest is special for this reason.
“Kolaches are not made in small batches. They are so labor-intensive. You need a couple of people to bake them, and that’s why they are so popular in the Czech culture,” Sims said. “When I think of kolaches, I think of family and quality time spent together, and it’s very endearing.”