Shishki is a Christmas dish that dates back to Czechoslovakia where Francis and Albert Skalicky’s ancestors are from. Their mother and father, Albert and Mary, were full-blooded Czech. Albert’s father came over from Czechoslovakia and his mother's grandparents came over. It was Mary’s grandparents, who came to the U.S. from Czechoslovakia, and they were part of a Czech community in Polk County in the early 20th Century.
Shishki is made from a potato dough that’s rolled into small pieces and fried, then coated with honey and sprinkled with poppyseeds.
"Shishki means to me, I mean, it's Christmas," said Jonathan Skalicky, Al's son. "You just know that it's Christmas time, but it's more than that. It's a tradition. It brings families together.
Francis is my husband, and his mom prepared the sweet treat every Christmas when she and his dad hosted at least 40 extended family members in their small farmhouse south of Bolivar every Christmas.
"The day before Christmas, Christmas Eve, this was one of Mom's biggest chores, and she'd be working the dough. I mean, she'd be boiling potatoes, mashing the dough," said Francis, "and then on Christmas Day, you know, when you'd see the Shishki frying in a pan, you knew it was Christmas Day in the morning."
Mary passed away in 2003 and Albert in 2004. Now, Gail, Al’s wife, prepares the Shishki every year when she and Albert host Christmas at their house, just across the road from where Mary and Albert lived.
"Most families have something that's unique to their Christmas experience," said Al, "and this is just one of those things that's unique to our Christmas experience."
Mary invited Gail and me into her kitchen about a year and a half before she died and taught us how to make Shishki. As she makes the dish each Christmas, Gail still uses tools that Mary used to prepare hers, including forks to turn the shishki in the frying pan and potato mashers to work the potato and flour together.
It’s a dish that family members, including my daughters, Kate and Anna, who have become the official shishki fryers, look forward to every year.
"I feel without Shishki our Christmas meal wouldn't feel as personal to us because it's kind of a part of our heritage," said Kate.
"I would tell Santa to not come to my house if it meant that I could have Shishki," said Anna.
Shishki preparation begins with boiling potatoes in salted water.
"I usually for Christmas, for a big group, make five pounds worth of potatoes, so I peel them, chunk them up, put them in a big pot on the stove," said Gail, "and, once they've cooked and boiled to where they're soft, then I turn them on low and then I pour out the water until (it's) just underneath the top level of potatoes."
Once the potatoes are back on low heat, Gail sifts flour into the pot.
"And then I'm going to sift until I feel like I have about two inches of flour over the top," said Gail.
After the mixture steams for a few minutes, she turns it into a large metal wash pan.
"This was Mary's and so I feel honored to be able to use it," she said.
A lot of flour gets sifted in. Gail uses eight to ten pounds for a recipe that uses five pounds of potatoes.
"You just have to keep working that flour in until you just get it into where it's a nice soft dough, but it's not super sticky," she said.
She usually calls in Al or her sons, Jonathan and Chris, to do the mashing and mixing. It takes quite a while and lots of muscle for the dough to come together.
The dough is then shaped into small oblong pieces—about the size of your little finger—and placed on wax paper-lined cookie sheets to await the frying pan. Jonathan and Chris are grown, and have been gone from home for several years. And Chris said this part of the process is a time when he, his brother and their parents can catch up around the kitchen island.
"It's just kind of a nice time where we're all just kind of around together just working on something that we know everyone's going to enjoy," said Chris.
And it’s a time to remember Mary who worked hard every year to make Christmas special for everyone.
Francis and Al both know Czech words and phrases they learned mostly from their mom who tried to keep traditions from their native land alive.
"Mom would frequently say phrases like 'jsi hloupy kluk', which means 'you're a foolish boy,'" said Francis.
"I'm not familiar with that phrase, so it must have been to Francis" Al said, laughing, when asked which one she said that to.
"And it was said frequently I think he said," laughed Gail.
Albert and Mary both worked hard all their lives. Albert worked at a feed mill in town and raised and milked dairy cows. And while raising two boys, Mary kept at least 150 to 170 chickens at a time for eggs and meat and butchered them herself.
She had a large vegetable garden every year and canned jars upon jars of various types of vegetables and fruit. And she grew poppies and harvested the seeds to use in baking.
Al still uses Mary’s poppyseed grinder to grind seed harvested from poppies grown by long-gone family members. The poppyseed is kept in the freezer in an old glass peanut butter jar that Mary stored hers in and is used for the Shishki every Christmas.
After the dough is fried, Gail coats it with honey in the warm skillet and sprinkles on poppyseed. She puts it in a bowl that belonged to Mary. And then it was time to eat it.
""Vesele Vanoce, that's Czech for Merry Christmas," said Francis. "Very good, Gail. Mom would be proud. Mom would say, "'good job, Gail, you're carrying on the tradition well.'"
Boil 5-10 pounds of potatoes, cut up, until soft (Gail uses Yukon gold, but you can also use russett).
Pour off enough water to leave half the water in the pot and add salt to flavor.
Return to medium heat and sift flour into the pot until it's about two inches above the potatoes. Bring to a boil and allow to steam for a few minutes.
Meanwhile, sift flour into a large pan to cover the bottom, about two inches.
Take potatoes off heat and pour into the pan on top of the flour.
Mash potatoes in the flour with a potato masher and add flour until it's a stiff, workable dough. If dough is too sticky, keep adding flour.
Form into a ball. Remove from pan onto a floured surface. Knead for a few minutes and then let it set out until cool. Put in bowl, cover and refrigerate.
To use, roll into finger-sized rolls.
Heat oil in skillet and fry dough rolls until browned, turning occasionally.
When done, coat the fried dough with honey and sprinkle with ground poppyseed.