Poppy and Sweet Cheese Koláčky

by meike peters

What is it that makes us chase our dreams? That makes us go beyond just dreaming and drag our fragile vision into real life? To leave all our doubts and insecurities behind and rise above them is one of the hardest but also most rewarding experiences in life.

There are so many inspiring, creative people around me. Many have vibrant visions and ideas, building up exciting projects in their minds, and what they all unite, is a surprisingly ambivalent feeling: at the same time, they hope and fear that it might work out. A notion particularly present amongst women and, unfortunately, often the reason why many don’t even start chasing their dreams. Torn between the two, hope and fear, which is human after all, there’s only one way: belief in yourself, trust in yourself, and surrounding yourself with people who support and encourage you to do so.

One person who’s been in my life for quite a few years now and who’s been at my side like a rock, like a guide I can trust and rely on any time, and who makes sure that I always chase my dreams, is the baker Laurel Kratochvila. Born in Boston, she left the US in her early twenties as her heart felt a strong pull towards the European continent, a Czech man in Prague (who she married just months after meeting), and also European bakeries and baking traditions. In the end, she built up her own bakery in Berlin, Fine Bagels, and a wine bar, Le Balto.

Laurel is the kind of person who gives you the feeling that nothing can sweep her off her feet. Always guided by deep trust, precise instinct, and a good portion of healthy humor, Laurel learned to deal with anything that the universe throws at her. Yet when I told her that she needs to write a cookbook about baking, that she already is an author even when the pages weren’t written yet, she first refused to see it. Luckily, after even more encouraging words from other authors, like Helen Goh and Adeena Sussman, Laurel gave in, set down, and started writing. 

And here it is, her first book baby! New European Baking – or Neues Backen in German – an honest masterpiece. The book is a stunning collection of very accurate and thought-out recipes, covering sourdough bread, brioches and enriched doughs, laminated pastries (Laurel teaches you how to master croissants!), tartes and biscuits, plus 11 features of some of Europe’s most thriving bakers. Roberta Pezzella (PezZ de Pane – Frosinone, Italy) shares the recipe for her Wild Fennel Bread, Xavier Netry (Boulangerie Utopia – Paris, France) teaches you how to make his Caramelized Coffee Bread, and Ben McKinnon and Eyal Schwartz (e5 Bakehouse – London, England) share the secret for their Spelt Fruit Galettes.

New European Baking is one of the most exciting cookbooks in 2022 – and Laurel also proves, chasing dreams does make sense.

I baked the Poppy and Sweet Cheese Koláčky from the book, a sweet, soft, and fragrant yeast bun, filled with poppy seeds and sweet cheese. It’s one of the most popular pastries in the Czech Republic, I’m not surprised as it tastes heavenly, and you can find the recipe below.

You can buy – or order – New European Baking (and Neues Backen) by Laurel Kratochvila (Prestel Publishing) at any book shop all around the world, or online. And if you live in Berlin, you can buy the book straight from the author: Shakespeare and Sons is Laurel’s and her husband Roman’s book shop (in the same rooms as the bakery/ café Fine Bagels).

Poppy and Sweet Cheese Koláčky

by Laurel Kratochvila / New European Baking (Prestel Publishing)

Makes 14 koláčky

Day 1

For the basic milk dough

  • 520g (4 1/3 cups) all-purpose flour
  • 20g (1 ½ tbsp) granulated sugar
  • 7g (2 ¼ tsp) instant yeast
  • 9g (heaping ½ tbsp) table salt
  • 240g (1 cup plus 1 tbsp) whole milk, cold
  • 2 large eggs
  • 100g (7 tbps) unsalted butter, cubed and room temperature

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, combine the all-purpose flour, granulated sugar, yeast, salt, cold milk, and eggs and mix on medium-low for 6 minutes, or until the mixture comes together in a solid, medium-stiff mass with no dry bits. Reduce the speed to low, then gradually add the butter, a few pieces at a time. Continue mixing until no butter is visible, then increase the speed to medium and knead for 5–7 minutes, or until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl, forms a smooth, shiny ball.

Form the dough into a ball and let it rest at room temperature for 30 minutes. Reform the dough into a tight ball, then place it in a lightly oiled bowl with room for expansion, wrap airtight, and refrigerate overnight or for up to 2 days. It will expand somewhat and stiffen during that time.

For the poppy seed filling

  • 150g (1 ½ cups) ground poppy seeds
  • 75g (⅓ cup plus 1 tbsp) granulated sugar
  • 210g (¾ cup plus 3 tbsp) whole milk
  • 2 tsp unsalted butter
  • ½ lemon, juiced
  • 2 tbsp honey

In a thick-bottomed medium saucepan, bring the ground poppy seeds, granulated sugar, milk, butter, and lemon juice to a gentle boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until thickened. Remove from the heat, stir in the honey, and refrigerate overnight.

For the sweet cheese filling

  • 300g (1 ⅓ cups) cream cheese (or quark or tvaroh)
  • 16g (2 tbsp) all-purpose flour
  • 16g (2 tbsp plus 2 ½ tsp tsp) confectioners’ sugar
  • 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • Zest of ¼ orange (optional)

In a medium bowl, combine the cream cheese, all-purpose flour, confectioners’ sugar, vanilla, egg yolk, and orange zest, if using, and whisk until smooth; refrigerate overnight.

Day 2

For the egg wash

  • 1 large egg, plus 3 tbsp whole milk, whisked

To shape your koláčky, divide the chilled dough into 14 equal portions, about 70g (2.5 ounces) each. Preshape into tight balls and arrange smooth-side up (you’ll find very helpful instructions, including pictures, for shaping dough in Laurel’s book). Cover loosely with a damp towel and let rest at room temperature for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, reshape the koláčky by pressing out the center of each ball with your thumbs and flattening the middles until each kolaček is about 10 cm (4 inches) across with a 1.25cm (½ inch) lip around each flattened center. Place the shaped koláčky, 4 cm (1 ½ inches) apart, on a parchment paper–lined baking tray, brush with the egg wash, and let rest at room temperature for 2–2 ½ hours, or until the dough is puffed and light and springs back slowly when pressed with a finger; cover lightly with a towel and set the remaining egg wash aside.

Just before you want to bake the koláčky, make your Streusel.

For the streusel

  • 50g (3 ½ tbsp) unsalted butter, cubed and cold
  • 50g (¼ cup) granulated sugar
  • 100g (¾ cup plus 1 tbsp) all-purpose flour
  • ¼ tsp ground cinnamon (optional)

In a small bowl, rub the butter, granulated sugar, all-purpose flour, and cinnamon, if using, between your thumbs and forefingers until it has an even, crumbly texture. 

Preheat the oven to 170°C (340°F) (preferably convection setting).

When the dough is ready, brush your koláčky with egg wash a second time. Use a fork to gently poke holes in the flattened centers of each bun, being careful not to deflate the puffed rims. Spoon a generous amount of the sweet cheese filling in the middle of each bun, followed by a large spoonful of the poppy seed filling. Sprinkle all over with the streusel, then bake for 10–12 minutes, or until golden brown.