Thursday, April 9, 2015

At last: Slovenian Syrniki or Curd Cheese Pancakes (with a Passover option)

I first wrote about syrniki, or curd cheese pancakes, in the fall of 2013. I had just discovered them at a local farmers' market, where a Russian Jewish vendor was selling his homemade version. My first attempt at recreating the dish, while tasty, seemed too much like an American-style pancake. Ever since then, I have been trying to perfect my recipe.

In English, syniki are usually referred to as cheese pancakes, but a more accurate description might be cheese patties, croquettes, cutlets ("kotlety") or latkes, the familiar Jewish term. Since so many Eastern European groups have a similar dish, it seemed odd that Slovenians hadn't joined the party. I could have sworn I'd come across a recipe in one of my vintage cookbooks, but it was nowhere to be found.

I set out to figure out a recipe on my own. I was determined to duplicate the thick, mildly sweet patty sold by that Russian vendor.

Fortunately, I had access to the key ingredient: tart, homestyle farmer cheese or curd cheese. Belfiore, a small local company here in Berkeley, makes a very authentic version of Russian-style farmer cheese. Eastern European and Russian groceries offer even more choices. Here's a sampling:

For my second attempt, I started out with some leftover cheese filling from a tasty Slovenian blintz recipe. That filling, I realized, was very similar to most of the the authentic Russian recipes I'd seen: a single egg for a pound of cheese, along with a little sugar.  I just had to add some flour, along with a few other options I'd come across: a touch of cinnamon and vanilla, some lemon, and a little baking soda for leavening. This recipe came much closer to the farmers' market version.

I continued to experiment and learned that baking soda isn't absolutely necessary. The key is to use just enough egg and flour to serve as a binder for the cheese. The amounts can vary, depending on how much moisture the cheese contains. 

After all this experimenting, I finally found that elusive recipe for Slovenian syniki. It was hiding in the pastry section of my 1950s copy of Woman's Glory.  The ingredient list was essentially what I had figured out on my own, with cottage cheese instead of the more authentic farmer cheese:

1 lb cottage cheese
1 T. sugar
1/4 cup flour 
1 egg
1/4 t salt

The 1950s instructions suggest draining the cottage cheese, forming the mixture into "croquettes," rolling them in flour, and then frying in deep hot fat.

I took a look at the modern online site Kulinarika and found a similar recipe for "srniki" or "palačinke s skuto":

500 g cheese (translated as ricotta)
2 eggs 
2 T. sugar
3 T flour
1 T. baking powder (perhaps it should be teaspoon?)

This modern Slovenian recipe suggests making smaller patties (20-25 in all), coating in flour, pan-frying, and keeping warm in a 200 degree oven.

This week, I came up with my latest version of syrniki. It was a Passover variation, with matzo cake meal substituted for the flour. I thought I'd created something new, but an internet search revealed that Passover cheese latkes have been a Jewish tradition for a long time. This time around, I made one more discovery: The patties are much easier to shape if the batter is chilled.  In fact, this step is essential with the Passover version, since it takes a little longer for the moisture to be absorbed by the matzo meal.

Below is my master recipe, with a few variations noted.

Syrniki, or Curd Cheese Pancakes

1 pound (or 500 g) farmer cheese or curd cheese, preferably Russian-style
1 egg, well beaten
4-6 T flour
2 T sugar
1 t. vanilla (optional)
pinch of cinnamon (optional)
grated lemon rind (optional)
pinch or two of  baking soda dissolved in lemon juice (optional)

To make Passover cheese latkes: Substitute matzo cake meal for flour
Possible cheese substitutes: ricotta or cottage cheese, drained and sieved

Mix all ingredients together well, adding flour until you have a stiff batter. The texture should be closer to a drop biscuit than a conventional pancake batter. If possible, chill the batter for a half hour or more before shaping.

To shape: Drop heaping tablespoons or quarter cup scoops of batter onto a plate that is covered generously with flour or matzo meal. With floured hands, form into patties that are 1/3 to 1/2 inch thick. Coat well with flour. You should have 9-12 patties. If desired, chill.

Fry patties in oil until browned on both sides. Keep warm in oven until serving.

Serve with Greek yogurt or sour cream, fresh fruit, or preserves.


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Extra-Light Baked Flancati for Pust (the rough puff Mardi Gras version!)

Ten years ago, thanks to some Cajun music friends, I made two belated discoveries: Slovenians have a traditional Carnival celebration called Pust. And San Francisco has a small but active Slovenian community, centered on the old Slovenian Hall in the Potrero Hill neighborhood.

I don't know which one was the bigger surprise.

(To learn more about Pust in Slovenia and San Francisco, see Mardi Gras, Slovenian Style: Blood Sausage, Potica, and Polka, my 2012 post about the holiday.)

Traditional Pust dinner with blood sausage, Slovenian Hall, SF

Now, a decade later, I have become a regular at the Slovenian Hall. Especially since I started taking weekly language classes last year.

When Carnival time rolled around last month, I decided to organize an impromptu celebration for our Slovenian class. Traditional foods for Pust include two sweet treats: krofi, or jelly-filled doughnuts; and flancati (sometimes called pohanje), the beignet-like pastry strips my grandma called angel wings. But I wasn't prepared to do any deep fat frying, even in the interest of preserving ethnic food traditions.

Then I thought of the perfect alternative to fried pastries: my baked flancati recipe, adapted from  a Slovenian American cookbook. It had proven to be a dependable stand-in for the fried version I remembered from childhood, with the same fanciful shapes and heavy coating of powdered sugar.

But I had a small problem, this time around. Since this was a last-minute undertaking, I'd had to skip the the usual overnight refrigeration. After just an hour in the fridge, my flancati dough seemed too soft. In trying to correct this, I ended up with a new twist on baked flancati.

Here's what happened: I knew the pastry would become tough if I tried to knead in more floor. So I decided on a more gentle approach. I rolled out the dough on a well-floured board, folded it in half, and re-rolled it. As I worked, I had a hazy recollection of some baking technique I had read about before, but had never actually tried.

Those last-minute flancati turned out just fine. In fact, they were lighter than usual. Still, I wondered how they would be received in my Slovenian class that evening--especially by my teacher and her husband, who had grown up in Slovenia. What would they think of this American shortcut?

My teacher Mia said the flancati made her feel nostalgic. After I confessed that my flancati were baked rather than fried, her husband assured me that he was very familiar with this style of the traditional pastry.

"We call it 'light' flancati," my teacher's husband said. Then he added, "I know how you made it. You had to keep rolling and folding, right?" His eyes twinkled.

How on earth did this distinguished Silicon Valley engineer know about the fine points of pastry making? One thing seemed clear. I had stumbled onto a legitimate Slovenian flancati variation, and not just some American adaptation. In fact, a little research revealed that my "roll and fold" creation was similar to a well-known technique called rough puff (or blitz puff) pastry.

Traditional puff pastry is a laborious process that can take three days. The butter is rolled into a single flat layer and encased in two layers of dough. Multiple rounds of careful rolling, folding, and chilling follow. The end product is a rich dough with anywhere from seventy to seven hundred layers. During baking, steam from the melting butter creates the "puff" that produces those multiple airy layers. 

In the shortcut "rough puff" version, cubes of butter are combined with flour and formed into a rough dough. The butter chunks are flattened during rolling and re-rolling. The result is a rich, flaky pastry with an impressive rise, even if the layers aren't quite as numerous or discrete.

Unlike puff pastry, flancati dough includes eggs and sour cream. But otherwise, I had unwittingly followed the same approach.

Now that I understood what I had been doing, I was eager to make this rough puff version of flancati again.  I had the chance a few weeks later, for another event at the San Francisco's Slovenian Hall.

This time, I made a few changes to maximize the puff. I was careful to leave the butter in visible chunks when I cut it into the flour. I chilled the dough overnight. And I followed a more deliberate folding and rolling technique, described and illustrated below. To bake, I used a slightly higher oven temperature.

The result was the best flancati yet. Even my grandmother would have approved!

Extra-Light Baked Flancati

2 cups flour
1/2 lb butter, unsalted, cut in chunks
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup sour cream
1 T. rum
1 packet vanilla sugar (or 1 t. vanilla extract and 1 t. sugar)
1 t. grated lemon rind or 1/4 t. nutmeg

Place flour in a medium-sized bowl and cut in butter chunks until they are the size of large peas. In a small bowl, mix egg yolks, sour cream, and flavorings of your choice until well blended. Add to the flour-butter mixture. Combine and mix lightly with your hands until a rough dough forms. Bits of butter should still be visible.

Divide dough into four balls. Flatten into thick squares, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate overnight.

When ready to bake, remove one piece of dough at a time from refrigerator.  Let soften until it can be rolled out.

On a floured board, roll out dough into an 8 or 9 inch square--or, if you prefer, a rectangle of similar dimensions.

Fold the dough into overlapping thirds, as though you are folding a letter to place in an envelope.

Flatten slightly with a rolling pin and roll out until you have another rectangle. The pieces of butter will be visible.

Once again, fold into thirds and turn the "letter" a quarter turn to the right.

Roll it out again into a rectangle, fold into thirds, make a quarter turn to the right. For the third and final time, roll out the folded "letter" into a rectangle.

At this point, you will have created twenty-seven layers of dough!

Cut the rectangle into sixteen pieces. Make a slit in the center of each small rectangle. Pull opposite corners part way through the slit. Or pull an entire side through the slit. For more detailed instructions about shaping (with photos), see my original baked flancati post

Place flancati on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining three pieces of dough. You will need two baking sheets.

Bake at 375 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes, until medium brown.

Remove to racks and sprinkle with confectioner's sugar while still warm.


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Interview on Radio Slovenia International (on February 25th)

Homemade Potica

Last week, I made a short, unexpected trip back to Slovenia. By telephone.

It happened right here in California, at a B & B in Half Moon Bay, where my husband and I had gone for an overnight getaway. After breakfast the next morning, I did a phone interview with the American-born host of a public radio show in Slovenia.

Michael Manske does a weekly show called "Slovenian Roots" on Radio Slovenia International (Radio Si.) In this series, he interviews descendants of Slovenians from around the world.  He found me through my own Slovenian Roots Quest blog and invited me to share my experiences with his listeners.

The live broadcast of this short interview will be tomorrow morning, Wednesday 25 February, at 11:18 CET. (That's 2 AM Pacific time!) If you care to tune in, the Radio Slovenia International website offers live-streaming audio that is simple to access. By next week, my interview should be included in the show's podcast archives, here.

My grandparents, Mary Adamic and Louis Kozlevcar (Cleveland, ca. 1920)

"What did you talk about?" someone asked me. Well, I haven't yet heard the interview, so I am working from memory. But here are my impressions:

Michael is a very skilled interviewer. We covered a lot of ground in a very short time. I spoke mostly about my family history and how close I came to losing my Slovenian heritage, because my mother and her siblings wanted to forget a difficult past. I talked about my belated discovery of the Slovenian Hall in San Francisco--and Mia Rode's wonderful language classes. Michael asked if anything surprised me during my trip to Slovenia this past summer. He inquired about the secret to good potica. We managed to talk about almost everything, except for my fascination with the controversial writer Louis Adamic, who is said to be my grandmother's cousin.

Hvala lepa, Michael! I am honored to be on public radio in Slovenia.

Update: The podcast is now up!  Go here for the direct link. The nine-minute interview included even more than I remembered, including the pivotal role of the Cajun accordion in bringing me back to my own roots.

My mother, with her mother and siblings (Cleveland, late 1920s)

A little more about Michael Manske:  He is married to a Slovenian woman and has lived in Slovenia since 2001. He is well known for his long-running (and very funny) "How to Become a Slovene" series, which can be heard on the Radio Slovenia website and on YouTube.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Slovenian Braided Bread, or Bosman

Slovenian Braided Bread, or Bosman

I love hearing from readers.

Last month, a charming woman named Sara sent me a question about a traditional Slovenian bread she learned to make from her mother, called menihi or monk's bread. She included a photo of a gorgeous, braided loaf that reminded me of challah, the popular Jewish Sabbath bread. Had I ever heard of it?

The name didn't ring a bell, but I had seen images of Slovenian breads that sounded similar. I started to search.  No monk's bread, but I did find references to several other festive, decorated breads on the Slovenian government's official Travel Guide. The closest was the photo of an impressive-looking bread called bosman, described as:

"...a richly decorated ceremonial bread, which used to be a compulsory gift to brides, as well as newborns and children being christened. It is decorated with several lines of plaited dough and various dough ornaments, as well as paper flowers."

I found a recipe for bosman, or plaited bread, in Janez Bogataj's The Food and Cooking of Slovenia. The dough was very much like Sara's monk's bread, and both seemed similar to the egg-rich challah recipes I had made in the past. 

Most Central and Eastern European cuisines do seem to have a tradition of making light, braided yeast breads for holidays and other celebrations. These treasured dishes are a reminder that white flour was once a precious commodity that ordinary people enjoyed only on special occasions. 

Bogataj's dough recipe turned out to be surprisingly easy. No initial sponge or even proofing of the yeast.  He specified "easy blend" yeast, which I took to mean standard dry yeast. (After the fact, I discovered that this means "rapid rise" or "instant" yeast, which is best for this rapid mix method.)

The challenge came in the shaping. Bogataj provided elaborate instructions for a dramatic nine-strand, three-tiered loaf, topped with little dough figures of birds, flowers, butterflies, balls, and mini-braids! Fortunately, he did offer another option: a simple, three-strand plait.

I hesitated to make a single loaf of bread that used seven cups of flour, so I decided to cut down his original recipe to two-thirds. I also corrected a couple of the metric conversions. Otherwise, I followed his original recipe. 

For the recipe and the result, read on.

Slovenian Braided Bread, or Bosman

Slovenian Braided Bread, or Bosman

(adapted from Janez Bogataj's "Bosman Plaited Bread" in The Food and Cooking of Slovenia.)

4-2/3 cups (about) white bread flour (530 g)
2/3 t. salt
1 envelope "easy blend" (rapid rise) dried yeast
2/3 cup + 1 T. warm water (200 ml)
2 T. honey
2 eggs, beaten
4 T butter, softened*

For glaze: 1 egg yolk beaten with 1 T. cold water

*Note: Oil is often preferred in traditional challah recipes, so that those who follow Jewish dietary laws can serve it with both meat and dairy meals. Feel free to substitute!

Sift flour and salt into a large mixing bowl and stir in the dry yeast. Make a well in the center and add the remaining ingredients. Mix together to make a soft dough, then knead on a floured board for about ten minutes until dough is smooth and elastic.

Place dough in a clean bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in size. (The rising took me one hour, although the original recipe suggested two.)  Punch down and let rest for ten minutes before shaping.

The full ceremonial version of this bread involves multiple braided layers, one on top of the other, with little decorative bits on tip. Three braids is simplest. I decided to compromise. I made a slightly fancy four-strand braid, which results in a nice compact loaf.

To make a four-strand loaf similar to the one in the photos, divide the dough into four equal balls. (Use a scale, if you like.)  Roll each piece into a twelve inch rope or sausage shape. Press strands together at one end and then begin to braid, starting with the outside strand on the far right, then moving to the outside strand on the far left, and then back again. This alternating, side-to-side braiding pattern is "under two, back over one."

For a good illustration of the four-strand pattern, see this blog post about challah, the Jewish version of a similar bread. The web is full of guides to even more complex patterns.  And remember: there is nothing wrong with a simple three-strand braid!

four-strand bosman braid, before baking

Transfer the loaf to a baking sheet that is greased or lined with parchment paper.  Cover with oiled plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (180 C).  Before baking, glaze the loaf with the egg wash. Bake for about 45 minutes, until loaf is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.

bosman, after baking

The result? This was was one of the easiest and most successful challah-type breads I have ever made. It was rich without being cloying and just slightly sweet. The texture was light but not too airy.

Even in these reduced quantities, I ended up with rather large loaf. But we made good use of it. The first couple of nights, it was the perfect dinner companion to my homemade cevapčiči. After that, it became breakfast fare. Bosman makes wonderful toast! On the weekend, my husband made French toast. He turned the last bits into croutons for salad. So nothing went to waste.

This bread is definitely a keeper!

breakfast toast

bosman with čevapčiči

French toast

Saturday, January 10, 2015

On the Trilece Trail: Three Milks Cake, Balkan-Style

Trilece or Three Milks Cake, from my California kitchen

Three milks cake is a seductive sweet with a mysterious past.

North and South Americans know it as tres leches ("trace lay-chess"), a festive celebration cake with Hispanic roots. But I first discovered it this summer in the Balkans, where it is called trilece or trileqe (the Albanian spelling) and pronounced "tree-leh-che."

My first taste of trilece came during the lavish breakfast buffet ("the Swedish table") at the Hotel Sirius in Prishtina, Kosovo's capital, where my husband and I were staying. When I spotted a platter of pale, caramel-topped squares among the dessert offerings, I expected crème brulée. Instead, I discovered an intriguing, hard-to-place sweet with an unusual texture, like a firm bread pudding, or perhaps a semolina custard. It tasted good, whatever it was.

The following day, our son's charming fiancée took us all to a lovely old Ottoman town in Albania called Shkodra. The itinerary included a stop at a local café, her favorite source for a special dessert whose name I didn't quite catch. When the café turned out to be closed, she kept walking until she found an unlikely alternative, a Frank Sinatra-themed venue called Bar Caffé My Way.

Bar Caffé My Way in Shkodra, Albania

The waiter presented us with a moist, caramel-drenched square, resting in a pool of milky sauce. I recognized it immediately. This had to be an upscale version of the hotel mystery cake.

I took a bite. This elegant version was even better. "What do you call this ?" I asked my future daughter-in-law, who was born in Kosovo.

"Trilece," she said. "Three milks cake. Tres Leches?" She was surprised I'd never heard of the Latin American version.

So that was my official introduction.

Trileqe (Trilece) in Shkodra, Albania

Back home, I was determined to reproduce this unusual Balkan sweet.

My research turned up a staggering number of recipes for tres leches cake, a dish that has spread far beyond the Latin American communities where it first became popular, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Celebrity chefs (Emeril, Alton Brown, Martha Stewart, The Pioneer Woman) all have versions, which follow a similar formula. A layer of plain yellow cake (usually a sponge cake) is soaked in sweet milk sauce, sometimes layered with a filling, and topped with whipped cream. 

The milk sauce is, of course, the key, and so simple it hardly qualifies as a recipe. Open up a couple of cans (sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk) and a container of fresh cream or half-and-half.  Add a little vanilla and and maybe some rum or brandy. Mix well. That's it.

Preparing to assemble the trilece

I found far fewer recipes for Balkan-style trilece, especially in English. The basic formula remains the same, although the sauce is usually alcohol-free. Powdered milk sometimes replaces canned evaporated milk.

So what difference, if any, is there between the American/Hispanic tres leches cake and the Balkan-style trilece? I would suggest that it comes down to two critical elements: topping and texture.

I finally tasted my first tres leches cake last month, at the birthday party of a friend (whose roots, coincidentally, are Croatian.) She had ordered it from a Mexican bakery in Oakland. It was a handsome, slightly moist cake, covered in a cloud of sweetened whipped cream.  As I had suspected, it was closer to a conventional American layer cake than the dessert I tasted in the Balkans.

Balkan cooks skip the whipped cream in favor a thin, rich caramel topping that contrasts nicely with the bland, milky sweetness of the cake. They also use a heavier hand with the milk sauce. Trilece ends up as a pudding/cake hybrid, with sauce pooling on the plate.

These two dishes are clearly connected. So where did three milks cake originate?

Well, it's complicated. Even though people are quick to identify the best local source, or claim to know the baker or restaurant that first introduced the popular sweet to their particular community, the ultimate origins always seem to be in the mysterious elsewhere. Sometimes an ocean away.

Several Balkan sources concede that the origins of trilece are probably Latin American, or at least Spanish. Many Latin American food historians point to European roots. In Florida, someone suggested that a restauranteur got his locally famous tres leches recipe from a European friend with a German surname. A café owner in Istanbul believes Albanian bakers get the credit. A Mexican food writer thinks the cake came from Nicaragua or Guatamala. A Latina friend from New Mexico believes the ultimate source must be medieval Spain, or possibly Sephardic Jews. 

(For more history, check out this well-done article from Culinary Backstreets, which looks at the roots of the trilece craze in Istanbul!)

Here is my favorite origin story, at least for the American version of the dish. Many food historians argue that it all goes back to a recipe that was printed on canned milk labels, starting in the 1940s, by one of the biggest South American distributors, Nestlé foods.

There is a certain whimsy to that story, true or not. But many recipes for three milks cake do seem to use that Nestlé milk can recipe as a starting point.  So that is where I began, when I made my first attempt at Balkan-style trilece, early in the fall, for a small dinner party. It was a success.

Sponge cake for trilece, first attempt, pre-sauce

Trilece, my first attempt

Trilece,  my first attempt

I have made four versions so far and have stuck closely to my original recipe, adapted from Nestlé, which you can find at the bottom of the page.

Once, I experimented with the sponge cake layer, by adapting a recipe from an Albanian source (more flour and sugar, plus a touch of baking powder.)  I have made the sauce with and without rum, and I have varied the amount I poured over the cake. I have used a few different caramel sauces for the topping. Along with my tasters (my husband, our son and his fiancée), I prefer the simple, egg-rich sponge cake in the Nestlé recipe, with as much sauce as the cake will absorb. The sauce tastes good with rum, although a Balkan purist would omit it. Half-and-half is a good substitute for whipping cream. Eggnog is not.

Below you will see photos of my most recent trilece, baked for a very special occasion: the engagement party of our son and new daughter-in-law. She was my chief taster as well as my cooking partner. Our joint venture in my California kitchen turned out to be the first time she had ever tried to make three milks cake.

It was the sweetest trilece of all. 

Cooking partners with engagement party trilece

Trilece, Made in California

Finally, the recipe!

Trilece, A Balkan-Style Three Milks Cake  (adapted from a Nestle Tres Leches recipe)

For the sponge cake:

6 eggs, separated
1 cup flour, sifted
1/2 cup sugar, divided

For the milk sauce:

1 can (14 oz. by weight) sweetened condensed milk
1 can (5 fl. oz. or 2/3 cup) evaporated milk
1 cup heavy cream or half-and-half 
1 t. vanilla
2 T. rum or brandy (optional; less common in the Balkans)

For the topping:

a medium jar of high quality caramel sauce (best choice: made with sea salt or burnt sugar)

First, make the milk sauce: Combine all the ingredients with a blender, a large shaker, or a mixer. Chill.

Next, make the sponge cake: Whip egg whites with half the sugar until stiff. Beat yolks with the other half of sugar for about five minutes, or until thick and lemon colored. Fold whites and sifted flour alternately into yolk-sugar mixture, being careful to avoid deflating.

Pour batter into one or two pans that have been greased and floured. Options include: one large rectangular pan, about 9 x 12 inches; a large spring form pan; or two smaller rounds or rectangular dishes. Bake at 375 degrees for about 20 minutes or until firm and slightly brown. Let cool on a rack for about ten minutes.

To assemble: After cake has cooled slightly, poke holes in top with toothpick or skewer. Pour sauce over the cake slowly, in several installments, until most of sauce is absorbed. Refrigerate extra sauce to add to cake later, if desired. Cover cake and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. (Check cake periodically. If it has absorbed all the sauce, consider adding more!)

About an hour before serving, remove cake from refrigerator and spread with a thin layer of caramel sauce. This is easiest if sauce is at room temperature. Drizzle sauce or drop in small spoonfuls over surface of cake, then carefully spread with a spatula to avoid tearing the cake.

To serve, cut cake in small squares. Extra sauce can be served on the side. To be extra-decadent, add a swirl of caramel sauce.

Cake can be enjoyed for several days if kept under refrigeration.  

Sunday, December 21, 2014

New Potica Horizons, A Retrospective for 2014

Christmas Walnut Potica, December 2014

As another year of Slovenian cooking comes to a close, I have been thinking about potica. 

As usual, I will be making our traditional family recipe for the holidays. My expanded, step-by-step guide seems to be getting a particularly large number of visits this year. It remains the cornerstone of my own approach to this challenging Slovenian delicacy. 

But my potica horizons have been expanding this year, for a few reasons:  My growing collection of cookbooks, both American and Slovenian. My trip to Slovenia in the summer. And the spirited food-related discussions on a wonderful Facebook Slovenian genealogy group I joined last year.

I have finally realized something important: My beloved family potica style is not an approach that everyone favors. It is certainly not the the standard in Slovenia, where potica is often closer to bread than pastry. Paper-thin spirals of dough, sometimes pulled like strudel rather than rolled, seem to be a peculiarly American evolution, fueled by a certain competitive baking spirit among the women. My family's version of potica also appears to be favored in the ethnic communities of Northern Minnesota's Iron Range, where my own great-grandparents first settled, and where my grandmother was born.  

(An aside: In the early days of this blog, I used to write mostly about genealogy. See the "Family History" heading at the top of the page, if you would like to read some non-food posts:-) And if you are on Facebook, do consider joining our Slovenian Genealogy group!)

I have included some photos below, where you can follow my evolving potica style. I have been striving to have thinner, more even layers, in order to come closer to the standard set by my mother and my grandma. But the photos from the Slovenian Hall in San Francisco and the Ljubljana Farmer's Market show a potica with thicker layers and fewer spirals.

The moral: There is no gold standard. Most of us favor the potica we grew up with. That is probably as it should be.

I have also been reminded of a few important baking tips, regardless of the style of potica you hope to make. Most important:  The yeast dough (at least in most recipes) is rich, soft, and sticky. Don't knead in too much flour!  And if you make a nut filling (which remains most popular, in Slovenia and America) the nuts need to be finely ground. A food processor is a poor substitute, I have learned, for the old-fashioned hand grinder I bought last year.

I have learned a few new tricks, thanks mostly to the discussions in that Facebook genealogy group. To clean out the nut grinder, you can follow up with a few graham crackers, which can then be added to the filling. (As you'll see from the photo below, I used leftover Halloween Bunny Grahams!) Another idea I tried this year: after rolling up the potica, I cut off the doughy ends and shaped them into individual rolls. Finally, if you want to imitate the more elaborate pattern of some of the commercial bakeries (as in the photo below) simply coil a thin potica roll once or twice around itself in the baking pan. 

Commercially prepared American potica 

I continue my cautious experiments with filling. The foundation is still my family's uncooked honey-nut filling. I most often stick with tradition and use walnuts, although I sometimes substitute pecans or almonds. I have often wondered why most nut fillings are pre-cooked and recently read a possible explanation from one of my online genealogy friends: Some cooks believe that the slightly bitter taste of walnuts (which evidently bothers some folks) can be reduced pre-cooking, or at least an initial soak in hot milk.

My family has never used raisins, but they seem to enjoy the sprinkle of dried cranberries I started to add a couple of years ago.  Everyone but my mother likes my experiments with poppy seed and chocolate fillings. In the coming year, I will continue to explore some of the more intriguing variations I have been learning about. I might even try a peanut butter crumb filling, a uniquely American twist that some people swear by.

I have also learned that potica can survive an oven malfunction and a charred bottom crust. Just slice it off before serving! (I don't recommend this, however. Watch your oven and don't overcrowd it!)

From my kitchen to yours: Happy Holidays! Vesel Božič!

Christmas Potica ca. 2010 (walnut filling)

Christmas Potica 2011 (walnut filling with cranberries)

Christmas Poticas 2012 (chocolate, tahini-honey, and poppy seed fillings)

Christmas Potica 2013 (walnut filling)

Christmas Potica 2014 (poppy seed filling with cranberries)

Christmas Potica 2014 (walnut filling)

Potica Varieties,  Ljubljana Farmers' Market, Summer 2014

Vegan Walnut Potica, Ljubljana, Summer 2014

Potica served at Slovenian Hall in San Francisco, 2014

Christmas Potica 2014 (poppy seed filling)

Christmas Potica (with extra "buns") and  Scottish Shortbread, 2014

Making walnut filling for Christmas Potica 2014, with a few graham crackers added

Christmas Potica, 2014

Oh-oh! Burned Bottom, Christmas Potica, 2014