The press conference room at Reliant Stadium was filled with a distinct aroma as the judges entered. It wasn't the scent of sweaty Texans players or their coaches' cologne; it was the sweet, doughy smell of kolaches. Plantain kolaches, Hawaiian chicken kolaches, teriyaki steak kolaches, sloppy joe kolaches... Dozens upon dozens of hot kolaches sat in trays, waiting for their moment in the spotlight.
The Kolache Factory held its annual Kolache Olympics yesterday, marking the eighth year that the company has held the contest to promote and develop new recipes for its stores. Each year, store managers and employees are invited to create recipes that will appeal to customers while still being relatively simple to bake each day and -- most importantly -- will fit neatly within the Kolache Factory's signature kolache roll. This was the first year that the recipe contest was open to the public, although most of the entries that made it past the testing stage and to the Olympics were still employee-created recipes. The winning kolaches go on to become the Flavor of the Month at area Kolache Factories and -- if they are popular enough with customers -- could eventually make it onto the full-time menu.
Kolaches were divided into two groups for judging purposes: A "chicken and/or no cheese" category and an "everything else" category. Andrew Eller, retail marketing director for the Kolache Factory, said that this was in response to customer requests for more kolaches with chicken and fewer kolaches with cheese.
Judges included Dana Tyson from the Sunny 99.1 FM morning show, John Harris from 1560 The Game, Jason Tinder, who won a contest on Twitter to become the wild card judge, and me. With almost a dozen kolaches in front of us, we began to eat our way through and determine a winner.
Part of the joy of judging the kolaches was the knowledge that these pastries weren't available to the general public and may not ever be made again -- individual, original, one-of-a-kind jewels, which we devoured with relish. The other part was the knowledge that they'd all been crafted so skillfully and keenly by the store managers and employees themselves, who were as competitive as any true Olympian.
Standouts from the group of 11 kolaches were Old Country Breakfast (with eggs, sausage and peppery gravy), Huli Huli Chicken (a hybrid Hawaiian/BBQ chicken entry), and Panaforte Italiano (Italian meats, cheeses and peppers). Despite its misleading name, the Potato Explosion -- which was composed of about 75 percent bacon, not potatos -- was also a favorite. Duds were the Spicy Tater Steak, Savory Orange Chicken and the Teriyaki Steak. Perhaps steak just doesn't belong inside of a kolache after all.
In the end, two winners were chosen from each category: The outstandingly meaty Sloppy Joe kolache won in the "chicken and/or no cheese category," despite not being sloppy at all (and therefore perfectly suited to eating in the car on your way to work). The judges jokingly suggested that the name be changed to the Not So Sloppy Joe. And in the "everything else" category, the Peppermint Bark kolache took home the gold. A just-sweet-enough kolache created by a store manager's 16-year-old son, it featured kolache dough covered with marshmallow fluff, melted chocolate and crushed peppermint candies and was the kind of magical, childlike confection that only a kid could dream up.
According to Eller, the Peppermint Bark kolache should be ready to go in stores by December, which couldn't be a more fitting time of year. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for those Sloppy Joe kolaches to start hitting Kolache Factory shelves soon...
For more pictures (including all of the kolaches that were in the competition), click here.