Lydia Faust, the Queen of Kolaches in Snook, Texas, Teaches the Importance of Tradition
On a Saturday morning last summer, the welcoming aromas of melted butter and developing yeast wafted through the cafeteria of Snook Elementary School. In the kitchen, convection ovens hummed while baking carts rolled here and there like props in a theatrical performance. And near the entrance, organizers of the local youth club cranked out long sheets of fresh egg noodles.
Around tables near the back, over an assembly line of mixing bowls and measuring cups, a group of enthusiastic bakers (including Barbara Giesenschlag, wearing an "Aggie grandma" T-shirt, and her grandson Logan, in a chef's toque) were holding wooden spoons and bowls of their own and listening intently to an older, apron-clad woman in wire-framed glasses. All of today's attendees had gathered to learn the art of kolache making from the master herself Lydia Faust, Snook's resident queen of kolaches.
Laura Sebesta and her three kids have been coming to the workshop for over a decade. "Kolaches are all about the dough, and coming from Lydia, it's going to be the best," she said.
Like smoked sausage and brisket, kolaches (pronounced ko-LAH-tch, with no "-ee," in local parlance) are among the iconic foods of Central Texas, where German and Czech immigrants settled in the early 1900s. The workshops, Lydia told me, serve two purposes: They help carry on the culinary traditions of her mother and grandmother and also raise funds for a local youth group. (All the pastries, sausage rolls, and bags of noodles prepared that morning were sold the following day at the Snook Volunteer Fire Department's barbecue.)
If Lydia moves a bit slower at 87 years old, she reveals a timeless vivacity whenever a wooden spoon and mixing bowl are in her hands. "Make sure your cups are even," she gently instructed a handful of kids scooping sugar and flour. Then, peering into another student's bowl, she said, "You've got to get the lumps out," and proceeded to beat the batter smooth in vigorous, rhythmic strokes. Lydia circulated among the students, assisting when needed. "You're just shaking the dough," she said to a girl who wasn't mixing assertively enough. "You want the spoon to go underneath the dough." She's often joined by her grandchildren Braxton, Nikolas, and Sydney (all great bakers, thanks to their grandma).
Lydia was born in Rogers, Texas, in 1933 and then moved to Snook, her father's birthplace, in 1945. Growing up on her family's farm meant hard work from as early as she can remember. As a young girl, she milked cows in the morning and worked in the cotton fields after school. Baking, by contrast, was a respite and privilege—something she could do on Sundays or when weather allowed her to skip chores.
Like other members of the community, her mother prepared kolaches with whatever was on hand—cottage cheese made from their cow's milk, poppy seeds grown in the garden and ground by hand, and jams made from the fruit of a backyard tree.
Lydia eventually married Moody Faust in 1953. Together, they raised four children and continued to farm for the next decade. But her path as a farmwife took an unexpected detour when a man named Charlie Sebesta hired Moody to work in his furniture store. Charlie, it turns out, had a sweet tooth and figured the town of Snook (and his store) could use a gathering place next door. When Charlie asked Lydia if she'd like to open a bakery, she was game. Snook Baking Co. started in 1968.
Known for coffee that started brewing at the crack of dawn and exquisitely tender, buttery pastries, the bakery found an adoring audience. Fifteen years later, Lydia and Moody had saved enough to purchase the business and call it their own.
In the mid-nineties, Lydia sold it and gave up 14-hour workdays. But her kolache baking was far from over. Occasionally, she sells orders to local organizations, mixing each batch by hand in her small kitchen, but mostly she bakes them for and with family and friends. "I'm comfortable making 20 dozen in my kitchen," she said, "but after that, it's too much."
A stand mixer might make those orders easier, but she shook her head at the notion. Because Lydia, like her children, grandchildren, and workshop attendees, knows the secret to a great kolache. "The feel of the dough isn't something I was taught," she explained. "It's something you have to experience on your own."