By Lina Perkins Wilder
My family makes houska wrong.
- 2 cakes yeast
- ¼ c lukewarm water
- 1 c milk scalded
- ½ c sugar
- ¼ c shortening
- 2 t salt
- 4 ½-5 c sifted flour
- 2 T fennel seed
- 2 eggs
- ½ c raisins
- ½ c cut up almonds
In Czech, the word houska means roll, and as one might expect from such a pliant name, the bread has many variations. International cookbooks describe houska as a braided bread roll topped with seeds, salt, or cumin. All of these toppings suggest a savory rather than sweet bread. You can also find recipes for houska that are much sweeter and call for mace, coriander, or lemon zest. Some include citron peel or candied fruit in addition to the raisins. Marie, the proprietor of Little Prague Bakery, in Seattle, and an acquaintance of my mother’s, confirms that this sweet bread is normally called vánočka, but the internet abounds in Czech-Americans who inherited a recipe for a buttery sweet bread called houska. Marie makes vánočka at Christmastime in huge nine-strand braided loaves.
Our houska isn’t very sweet, but it is a Christmas bread (so Marie thinks it should be called vánočka). The recipe calls for braiding, but Mama always makes it in two large loaves. You can braid them, but it’s really too much trouble. It always burns. It is best eaten toasted, with butter and honey. It is flavored with fennel seeds. (Marie says that fennel would be too strong for her customers.) Our recipe comes from my great-grandmother, my mother’s father’s mother, Emma Helen Kolarik Sloan (1895-1992).
Emma Kolarik was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Her parents, Wencil and Helen Zamastil Kolarik, immigrated to the United States, separately, from Bohemia, in the late 1870s. They got married relatively late, a second marriage for him, a first for her. Emma’s mother was almost 40 when she was born. The Kolariks weren’t religious. Emma got “saved” at a rally led by Billy Sunday.
She met Fred Sloan when he came by her home in the Czech neighborhood of Cedar Rapids. He was there selling sweet corn door-to-door using a few words of Czech that he had learned for the purpose. They married in 1919. They had two sons, Fredric (my grandfather) and James.
Emma had high cholesterol and was told not to eat ice cream, but she ate it anyway, in the kitchen, with the serving spoon. Like a lot of evangelical Christians, she was an enthusiastic Zionist. She sometimes said that her family was Jewish, but that probably isn’t true. Her son Jim liked to tell her Czech jokes, just to get her goat. Grandma Sloan made houska during Advent, in braided loaves the size of a cookie sheet. She would cut the loaf into three pieces and send one home with each of her sons’ families when they came over for Sunday dinner. She was 96 when she died.
Grandma Sloan’s short-term memory didn’t work very well during her last years. This is when I remember visiting her. On one visit, I was about ten and I wore my hair in two braids. The ends curled a lot more in the Iowa humidity than they did in western Washington, where the summers were dry. I stood in my braids in Grandma Sloan’s room in the old folks’ home. She greeted each of us, going around. “Oh and how are you? And who is this handsome young man? Oh”—coming to me—“she looks like me when I was a girl!”
Mama made houska around Christmas, most years. I never liked it. I don’t like the taste of fennel.
I looked up houska recipes on the internet a few years back and thought that I had discovered the problem: in the recipe I found, the first step in making sweet houska is to make a sponge. My new recipe contained a full four times the sugar called for in Grandma Sloan’s recipe, twice the fat, and butter instead of shortening, mace and ginger instead of fennel seeds, and candied fruit peel and yellow raisins. I made the bread in the traditional braided shape. It was beautiful. It was delicious. It did not burn.
I called Mama. “I figured out why the houska always burns! You’re supposed to make a sponge! So there’s less sugar left in the dough and it doesn’t burn!” Mama was less than enthusiastic. She read me her recipe over the phone. I wrote it on a recipe card along with notes about the new recipe.
A few days before Christmas this past year, I reposted a Facebook “memory” from 2017, a photo of Mama baking Christmas cookies with my two children. My sister commented asking for the houska recipe. My sister-in-law also asked for the recipe. I posted a photo of my annotated recipe card. Mama replied, “I sent a text with the recipe. Best eaten with butter and honey!”
With thanks to Patricia Perkins.