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Seders and Beyond: Klara’s Cookies

Each year at Passover, seder tables around the world ask, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This week, New Englanders lucky enough to have Klara Sotonova’s handcrafted macaroons on hand will be asking themselves another question: Why are Klara’s Gourmet Cookies different from all other cookies?

The pillowy, coconut-stuffed macaroons from the Berkshires-based bakery are a far cry from the sugary canned variety that show up in grocery stores each spring. (Made with rice flour, Klara’s macaroons are safe for Sephardic seders, but may not be kosher for Ashkenazic ones.)  Just one bite of the gumdrop-shaped treats has the power to summon long-buried memories of Passovers past—the warm, spicy scent of the corner store bakery, or the busy clatter of your mother’s kitchen, crowded with relatives rosy-cheeked on Manischewitz.

Sotonova, a Czech Republic native who moved to the Berkshires at age 19, says she’s been told that her vanilla-walnut crescents, which fly off the shelves at Easter along with her lemon-poppyseed shortbread, have similarly transportive properties. “We call them our time machines,” Sotonova says. “A lot of people take a bite and say, ‘Wow, my grandma used to make something just like this.’”

But unlike matzoh and Cadbury cream eggs, Klara’s cookies aren’t just a holiday specialty. They’re available year-round at 165 stores across New England—from Berkshire Organics to Guido’s to Nejaime’s. Triplex Cinema sells them at its concession stand; The Red Lion Inn rewards returning guests with a variety pack. Since founding the company with her husband in 2006, Sotonova has built a veritable cookie empire, churning out 4,000 macaroons, 7,000 crescents, 2,000 shortbreads, and 1,500 linzer cookies every week in the professional kitchen on the first floor of her home in Lee. The secret to her sweet success? Family.

Growing up in Chrast, a small town two hours southeast of Prague, Sotonova spent weekends in her grandmother’s kitchen, covered in flour from head to toe. “She’d let us play with the dough and help—pretty much anything we wanted,” Sotonova says. “Grandma’s house was like heaven.”

Baking was a ritual that brought the women in her family together. “Sunday was the day my grandmother would make this yeast dough with poppy seed filling or farmer’s cheese filling with raisins, or she would make kolache—yeast dough with apple butter and streusel,” Sotonova says. Each year around Christmas and Easter (Klara is not Jewish herself), her female relatives would crowd into a kitchen for four days at a time, baking twenty kinds of cookies to pass out while making the rounds to the homes of friends and family.

When Sotonova left the Czech Republic to take a position at Great Barrington’s Camp Eisner dining hall, she took her grandmother’s collection of yellowed, dough-splattered recipe cards with her. She soon put down roots in the area, studying hospitality management at Berkshire Community College and working at Swiss Hutte in Hillsdale, where she met her husband Jefferson Diller. The pair dreamed of starting their own restaurant, but worried about balancing work and family life. Then, one fateful day in November 2005, Sotonova baked her husband a batch of vanilla-walnut crescents.

“That was kind of it,” Sotonova recalls. “He’d eaten the whole container by the time I got home from work. He was like, ‘I have never had anything better than this. What else do you make?’” The next year, Klara’s Cookies was born.

“I felt I had this passed-on tradition that seemed pretty cool to share with people,” Sotonova says. “We get so busy with our lives, with our computers and iPhones. Traditions are, in a way, disappearing.”

Through Klara’s Gourmet Cookies, Sotonova has kept her family’s tradition alive. And she’s kept the cookie business in the family. Each morning, she and Diller wake at 4 a.m. to start baking while their three-year-old daughter Mika sleeps upstairs.

One day, Sotonova hopes to pass Klara’s Cookies on to her daughter. So far, Mika—who’s partial to the chocolate-coconut macaroons—certainly seems interested.

“She always wants to help,” Sotonova says, “and we’ll be like, ‘No, not yet.” What’s the problem with getting a junior entrepreneur on board the cookie team? “Well, there are health codes,” Sotonova says. “And you’re not allowed to lick your fingers.” —Sarah Todd

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Posted by Sarah Todd on 03/24/13 at 08:34 PM • Permalink