Sprinkles of powdered sugar, heaping helpings of butter and a plentiful amount of family tradition are essential ingredients for an El Campo mother-daughter team baking Czech desserts for the holidays.
For Susie Orsak and her daughter, Kimberly Eide, baking cream cheese rolls, poppy seed rolls, pecan pies, apple strudels and more for Thanksgiving and Christmas has become second nature. Baking is a bonding experience for the pair, Orsak said.
“It’s something that we can do together that we enjoy and share,” she said.
They’ve transformed their craft into a seasonal side business, selling desserts to family and friends through word of mouth and social media.
“People will call me or my daughter up and say, ‘you don’t happen to have a pie?’ or ‘you’re not making a cheese roll tomorrow? Because I need one,’” Orsak chuckled. “And I’ll say, ‘yeah, actually, I am.’”
The process for their most popular items, Czech cream cheese and poppyseed rolls, is a multi-hour process beginning with homemade dough. It takes Orsak about two hours to make her dough, which she usually lets sit in the fridge overnight before using it.
“I just think, personally, it works better that way, but there are a lot of people who will do it that day and just (use) it two or three hours later,” Orsak said. “You can’t work with the dough right away.”
Once the dough is ready to be worked, Orsak makes the filling, which is usually a mix of sugar and cream cheese or includes hand-ground poppy seeds – the canned variety can be used, but not in Orsak and Eide’s kitchen.
Eide then fills the dough and rolls it up into its signature log shape. After baking, the rolls can be topped with a smooth frosting, nuts or left plain.
The pair often receives out-of-the box requests that they’ve never tried before, but they love experimenting with the classic recipes. Cinnamon sugar cream cheese is the newest example of a small twist added to their cheese roll.
“I like being in the kitchen,” Eide said. “That’s my favorite place to be … that’s my therapy.”
Orsak and Eide’s love of baking stems from Orsak’s mother, Catherine Drapela, who died in February, 2019.
“I don’t know if she liked to bake, but she had to bake,” Orsak said. “She had 11 children, 25 grandchildren, 30 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandkids. And I think when she passed ... there were two or three on the way.”
Drapela, Orsak and Eide spent a lot of time together in the kitchen, with other family members usually helping out. After Drapela’s passing, it was difficult to adjust to life without her, for many reasons, but especially when baking.
“We were all at a loss,” Orsak said. “We had like an assembly line. My mom always had the dough ready, and all of us had an assigned place.”
Drapela learned her recipes from her mother and grandmother, who passed the recipes on from before the family immigrated to the U.S. from parts of Czechoslovakia and Germany decades ago.
In Drapela’s absence, Orsak has become the head of the kitchen.
“I can’t get my dough perfected the way (Drapela and Orsak) have,” Eide said. “My mom says, ‘that takes time. You’re going to get it the same way that I did.’”
Baking keeps their family history alive and comes with a sense of childhood nostalgia, Eide said, and seeing Orsak bake sometimes makes it feel like Drapela is still around.
“The way that they work with the dough, I see it in their hands,” Eide said. “They have the same motion in their hands. If I was sitting there and I looked down, I’d be like, ‘oh, that’s grandma.’ But then I look up and it’s my mom.”
They have continued the family tradition together, teaching Eide’s kids to bake. Eide’s son currently displays the most interest in cooking and baking, and various aunts, uncles, cousins and grandkids like to join in on the fun. The youngest family members’ enthusiasm varies depending on the day.
“They’re our taste testers,” Eide laughed.