On the shelves at Corti Brothers market, the cornflower blue boxes of the Sacramento Cookie Factory’s signature Sacramento wafer sit among the standard Nilla Wafers and Oreos, catching the eye with a distinctive drawing of the state Capitol on the packages. Food maven Darrell Corti is an ardent fan.
“I always bring it when traveling to the Orient, China and Japan,” Corti said. “If I can't give a gift of wine, the Sacramento Cookie is the next best thing.”
The packaging is intriguing, and the story of how this traditional Czech wafer cookie, known as the oplatky, interchangeably called oblaten in German, came to be made in Sacramento is even more so.
Owner Jiri Knedlik fled communist Czechoslovakia in 1982 in a journey straight out of “The Sound Of Music.” As he relates the saga of his harrowing escape into Austria, it is difficult to not hear the strains of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” Knedlik really did have to climb a mountain, and ford a stream, on the journey that ultimately led him to this tidy office in the front of his minuscule cookie factory in the Arden-Arcade area of Sacramento.
Knedlik, 58, whose bright blue eyes almost exactly match the shade of his polo shirt, is well aware of the power of his story, and even makes a joke about “The Sound of Music” connection on the company's website. He's clearly told it many times, but the emotion behind it has yet to attenuate.
“That was hard,” Knedlik said about the trek he made with his wife, 5-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son.
Knedlik grew up in the tourist spa town of Karlovy Vary – or Karlsbad as it is known in English – and made his living as a server in a white-tablecloth restaurant.
The atmosphere in his country at the time was one of suspicion and mistrust, he said. Citizens were expected to inform on members of the underground resistance, which included Charter 77 dissidents, led in part by later President Václav Havel. When Knedlik refused to spy on his customers, he said, he suffered the consequences.
“First thing is you lose the job,” Knedlik said, who was later arrested and paraded in front of his neighbors. This was a show of power, he said, as he was detained for only a few hours.
Soon after, he received a call from an ally in the secret police, a man whom Knedlick had helped obtain dollars on the black market, which the official used to get his sick mother medical treatment in Western Europe.
“He says, ‘Jiri, you better get out,’” Knedlik said. “‘What’s happening?’ ‘I can’t say now, I’m just telling you you better get out.’”
Knedlik wasted no time. After a blocked attempt at a border checkpoint (his family lacked the proper papers), he found a hiking road on a map that appeared to be a direct path between Czechoslovakia and Austria, where he had arranged for a German friend to meet them in a car.
The initial part of the climb was for tourists and was relatively easy; the rest was much steeper.
“We had slowed down dramatically because the kids were so tired,” Knedlik said. “To make them occupied, I would tell them we go to next rock and I will tell you a fairy tale. We get there, they sit down, and I tell them part of fairy tale. I said, ‘I will tell you the next (part) at that rock over there.’”
Near the top, they were stopped by a machine-gun-toting border guard. Knedlik persuaded him to let them go by selling a story about a visit to a mountain cabin for sightseers.
“It was Sunday, he was by himself and he probably wanted to go home,” Knedlik said of the guard. “Didn't want to drag me down to the office and spend all day doing paperwork!”
The family continued on toward the summit, with Knedlik carrying his daughter on his back through the snow. They rested briefly in a meadow, and then began the steep descent down steps carved out of rock, each adult with one hand holding a child and the other on a steel cable that kept them from plunging down the cliffs. They came to a waterfall, which they forded, before making their way to a road.
Fourteen hours from the start of their journey, the family was met by their friend. After an eight-month sojourn in Austria, they were brought to Sacramento by the American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees, with only $200 among them. Knedlik had requested to be placed in California, and Sacramento was where his family was assigned.
He returned to the service industry, managing area restaurants, including the El Macero Country Club in Davis, but in 1995 he decided to go into the cookie business. But not just any cookie - he wanted to make oplatky, the wafer cookie that has been made in his hometown since the 17th century. This idea had always been in the back of Knedlik’s mind, not only because his sister had worked at an oplatky factory, but because it would be a tribute to his adopted hometown.
“I wanted to make a gift from all the people of Sacramento to share with their friends,” he said, “a unique gift for them to bring from Sacramento when they travel.”
In the 1600s, the oplatky in Karlsbad was simply a wafer stamped with an outline of the city saint, baked in a press over the fire. Over time, the process became automated, and a filling of hazelnuts, cinnamon and vanilla was introduced – the classic filling that Knedlik uses in his Sacramento wafer, one of six flavors he produces today.
In Knedlik’s oplatky, two ultra-thin wafers sandwich the filling. Each cookie is the size of a dessert plate, and the package of eight retails for $7.99. The wafer itself is shatteringly crisp and the filling surprisingly intense in spite of being so thin that it is barely visible. The raspberry almond is redolent of the berry; the mocha feels like it could give you a buzz, and the tea wafer knocks you over with the bright taste of lemon.
Knedlik traveled to the Czech Republic to learn how to make the cookie and import the needed machinery, a process that he said was “not cheap.”
In the small factory’s spotless rooms, he gestures toward the machine with pride. Round metal cookie presses are arrayed around panels of lights and gauges that resemble cockpit panels. Knedlik points to where the batter is poured and the presses close automatically.
“It’s all very (precise) and needs to be tuned all the time, like (an) airline control,” he said.
After the wafers are baked, they rest for a few days in a humidity-controlled room. Knedlik is cagey about sharing details about the exact ratio of time to humidity that helps the cookies absorb moisture and grow in diameter by as much as an 1/8th of an inch. Then they are filled, a step that due to the fragility of the cookie can result in up to 30 percent breakage.
Although he has four workers, Knedlik is such a perfectionist that they only assemble and package the cookies; he makes all the batter and fillings himself. He proudly shows where he has almost seamlessly patched the mesh of a sieve he uses to sprinkle the fillings – when his old one wore out he searched far and wide to find the exact gauge of mesh – nothing else would do.
This perfectionism extends to sourcing ingredients and creating the nontraditional fillings, some of which are meant to be paired with wine, coffee or tea. He carefully instructs a visitor to take a bite of lemon vanilla wafer, and then a sip of white wine, and savor the combination.
The idea for the wine pairings came from customers, and dovetails with the fact that much of his business comes from the gift-basket market.
And business is good – he said he makes more than a million cookies a year and has customers as far away as New Zealand and Japan.
In addition to Corti Brothers, the cookies are sold at the Underground Tasting Room in Old Sacramento and the Blue Diamond almonds gift store.
According to Knedlik, part of the secret of his success is that he has improved upon the original.
He relates a tale of bringing his cookies to the factory in the Czech Republic where he learned to make them and having the owner of the company reluctantly admit that the Sacramento wafer is better than those his company makes.
Corti agrees: “The original Karlsbader Oblaten are still available on the market. The Sacramento Cookie is so much better.”
Editor’s note: This story originally was published Sept. 7, 2014.