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For Olia Hercules, Making Kolach ‘Feels Like Therapy’

The cookbook author finds multiple kind of sustenance in the Ukrainian Christmas bread

A smiling Olia Hercules sits on a giant kolach. Illustration. Daniela Jordan-Villaveces/Eater

We all could use a little dinner inspiration — even Ali Slagle, who dreams of dinner. In “Dinner Is Served,” she asks colleagues about one night when they somehow transformed ingredients into dinner with all this life going on.

This month’s installment: Olia Hercules’s latest book, Home Food, is about connecting to her homes by sharing recipes from her current base in London, her years in Cyprus and Italy, and her childhood in Ukraine. Her Ukrainian heritage is also why she started #CookForUkraine (more on that below), and why kolach has been in frequent rotation for her these days.

Lately, I’ve been making a lot of a Ukrainian Christmas bread called kolach. I’ve made it at least four times in the past seven months, and am actually teaching it tonight. It’s my friend Katrya Kaluzhna’s recipe and it’s from my hometown, Kakhovka.

It’s an interesting recipe. The word “kolach” comes from the word “kolo,” which means “circle.” My friend’s recipe involves pumpkin puree but I made it using sweet potato puree the other day. I baked some sweet potato and blitzed the flesh until it was super smooth, mixed it with two eggs, added flour and yeast, and let it rise. And again, this is just, like, five minutes of active work, and then you leave and go and do your other work and mom stuff. In the meantime, it rises and it all looks rough and like it’s never going to be nice and smooth, ever. Then you come back to it and give it a little knead and then leave it again.

I know that baking recipes can be super strict and say “leave it for a half hour,” but I’m laissez-faire about this kind of thing. Sometimes I leave it for half an hour if I’m in a rush, sometimes I forget about it and it’ll be super puffy. Somehow in the end it’s still delicious, so I’m relaxed about that.

I divide it into four plaits. You can divide it into more but I find that with four, there’s just enough puff. I first divide the dough into four smooth little balls. And then there’s another 10-minute break when the dough rises more, so I go and make a cup of tea and probably go and scroll Twitter for news, something horrific like that.

I come back to it and then it’s actually a fun process [that] I find really therapeutic: the stretching of each ball into a plait, like a rope. It honestly takes a bit of practice, but I find that kind of challenge quite fun. When I worked in restaurants you’d have to do so many repetitive things; when I worked for Ottolenghi, they’d bring you a massive box of chiles and if you didn’t get in the zone and start enjoying it, you’d go crazy. So I chose this neurological path into this Zen space in my brain and I kind of kept that. The [kolach] dough feels really nice because it puffs up and is really airy, and really really soft, and it just feels like therapy. The sensory experience of touching the dough makes me feel calm.

I stretch out each ball into a rope and then take four ends from one side and stick them together. People get a little bit scared about making challah or making plaits and stuff, but my mom actually showed me that you just always go from right to left, from one side to another, taking the rope that’s the furthest on the right and weaving it under, over, under, over each of the other strands.

Then I get a little oiled circle mold and join the two ends of the plait together around the mold; it becomes a beautiful plaited circle. I swiftly put it onto a prepared tray with some [parchment] paper, and then cover it and leave it again for half an hour to an hour. I try not to doom scroll when I’m doing something relaxing and I try to put some sort of a cultural podcast on. The other day I was listening to Ukrainian dissentient artists of the 1960s.

Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Ukrainian-language podcasts but I also really love The Splendid Table. I find [host] Francis Lam’s voice so soothing. I also enjoy Honey & Co, a British food podcast, and Desert Island Dishes, presented by Margie Nomura (who also has a really soothing voice). I need to remember to do that more than all the political stuff.

Okay. So I proof the kolach, put loads of seeds on it, egg-wash it, and bake it at 425 degrees for 30 minutes.

Then the kolach can go wherever you want it to go. For the 500 grams of flour you’re only adding about 80 grams of sugar, so it’s not overly dessert-sweet. It’s a brioche kind of sweetness, which can be amazing for sandwiches. If I don’t put anything like ginger and keep the flavor a bit more plain, I love using a cheese like Gruyere or even Emmental and some salty ham, and maybe even some kraut or something.

You can also toast the bread and put some marmalade on it, or you can have it with some cheese. Yesterday my husband put some really nice blue cheese on it and put a little bit of chile jam on top, and that was really nice. You can also put some cheddar on it. Anything is all right.

Kolach is really nice when freshly baked, but it’s one of those breads where the leftovers are almost better. So sometimes during Christmas when I’ve got my family around, I will make two. We’ll murder one straight away while it’s fresh and then the next day, we’ll have this beautiful toasted one. With the sweet potato or pumpkin and sugar and seeds in the dough, once you toast it, it becomes this extra delicious situation.

How to support #CookForUkraine:

I know from my own experience that war fatigue is a real thing. [Co-founder Alissa Timoshkina and I] thought if we started this #CookForUkraine thing, people could stay connected through cooking, through food. It can be something as simple as cooking a Ukrainian dish — maybe a kolach — and tagging it, or it can be cooking, donating, and educating people a little bit about Ukraine and its culture.

People all over the world have been getting involved. Kids in Wales have baked for their bake sales for school and raised money for charity. You can also give money through our page and I encourage people to give money through their local, smaller charities that are working to help Ukraine.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

Ali Slagle is a recipe developer, stylist, and — most important of all — home cook. She’s a frequent contributor to the New York Times and Washington Post, and her cookbook is called I Dream of Dinner (So You Don’t Have To): Low-Effort, High-Reward Recipes.
Daniela Jordan-Villaveces is a creative director and illustrator. She was born in Bogotá and raised between Colombia, Holland, and the U.S. She currently lives in sunny Los Angeles with her husband, their son, Lou, two kittens, and a pup.