By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published December 12, 2019
SNELLVILLE—The sweet aroma of walnuts, vanilla and sugar, mixed with the yeasty smell of fresh dough, filled the kitchen as the annual tradition of baking holiday Polish nut bread gets underway.
For 25 years, the St. Oliver Plunkett Church Men’s Club has rolled hundreds and hundreds of these baked loaf delicacies. The sweetbread comes from kneading together recipes from those old club members with family roots in Eastern Europe.
“It’s not an obligation, it is to help the church, our parish. We have a good family here,” said Nick de La Torre, working the dough roller.
These holiday rolls are popular in parts of the country settled by immigrants from Ukraine, Poland and Slovakia—Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.
Back in the middle 1990s, many now deceased club members moved to this Gwinnett County parish from those parts of the country and brought the tradition and the recipes from aunts and grandmothers. The parish, founded in 1978, draws some 2,400 families to its faith life. The parish is served by the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette.
Bill Lucas, 69, is the chief cheerleader and organizer of the annual project. A native of Youngstown, Ohio, the retired Navy veteran and teacher said the tradition is prevalent where Catholics with roots in Eastern European worship.
“All those people over there make things like this,” he said.
The Men’s Club took up the baking project. Lucas borrowed from family recipes, many of now deceased members, and tweaked it to create the one used currently. He favors a richer tasting bread. It’ll use 100 pounds of walnuts, 200 pounds of flour, 85 pounds of sugar, 25 dozen eggs and 18 pounds of butter, among other ingredients.
“The recipe is the recipe I sort of combined,” Lucas said. “If you are on a diet, you don’t want to eat these things.”
The men work in shifts. The early birds show up around 6 a.m. kneading the yeast and the flour. The second shift kickstarted production, with an assembly line as each volunteer cracked jokes and did his job, from weighing the 9 ounces of dough to spreading the sugar-walnut-vanilla mixture and rolling the dough. Baking took some 25 minutes, followed by an egg wash to enhance the golden color. Close to six hours into the project, some 52 loaves cooled on the racks.
de La Torre’s task for hours is manning the dough roller, one of the recent additions to the process which the men applaud. The heavy rolling pins are not missed as the machine flattens some 400 pieces of dough.
“Once you get started, it goes fairly fast,” said de La Torre.
The men sell the loaves after the Saturday evening Mass for $9. It is a steal versus online offers of up to $25. They usually sell out in two weekends. The club members label the rolls with a card reading “Handmade by The Great Chefs of Snellville.”
The proceeds do not stay with the Men’s Club. Club president Humberto Guzman said the club raises money and gives it away. The loaves, in addition to an annual golf tournament and fish fry, raise thousands of dollars to help others, said Guzman, who has been with the club for four years.
“For us, this is a lot of camaraderie. They are all good guys,” he said. “I should have joined younger.”