Friday, December 11, 2009

Holiday Baking: A Bittersweet Taste of My Ethnic Roots

My parents, children of immigrants, grew up during the Depression. They followed a typical path to success: education and assimilation. But their ambivalence about their ethnic roots weakened when the winter holidays approached.

I’ve always associated the winter holidays with two special holiday sweets: Scottish shortbread, a unique version passed down by my late father; and potica, a rich Slovenian yeast bread my mother learned to make from her mother. Their preparation took on the character of ritual during my childhood. I’ve kept up the tradition.

My father supervised the shortbread making. We started early, just after Thanksgiving, so the shortbread would be properly aged by Christmas. The ingredients were simple: butter, flour, sugar, and a touch of salt.

We would gather around the kitchen table, with a massive pile of butter and sugar in the center, salt-laced flour off to the side. Then five pairs of hands started kneading. My father was very particular about the method: long kneading with warm hands, to allow as much flour as possible to be incorporated into the butter-sugar mix.

Once the shortbread had been worked to the point of being dense, smooth and warm to the touch (a process that could take as much as an hour), my father pressed it thickly into rectangular pans and scored it with a fork. The dough was allowed to rest and then baked to a pale golden brown. Finally, the shortbread was cut into squares and stored in tins between layers of paper towels, to draw off excess moisture.

My father was very clear about the desired outcome: a hard, dry, buttery cube that offered significant resistance to the tooth. Anything less than that, anything thin and crisp and tender, he dismissed as “Lorna Doons.” In other words, commercial shortbread for Americans, about as authentic as chop suey.

My father had learned to make shortbread from his Scottish mother, an angry woman who was often ill. She died before I turned three. Grandma Kilpatrick despised Catholics and had little use for anyone who wasn’t British, according to my mother. Any good baker will tell you that her approach to making shortbread was completely wrong. But in my family, it became the gold standard.

My Slovenian American grandma, who lived into my adolescence, was a sweet, loving woman. She worked magic in the kitchen of that little bungalow on Cleveland’s East Side she shared—unhappily—with my immigrant grandfather. I didn’t learn they were both alcoholics until years after their deaths.

My grandmother’s crowning achievement was potica, a rich pastry masquerading as bread. Potica (pronounced “puh-teetza”) is a national dish in Slovenia—a very small country in Central Europe, about the size of Massachusetts, with a population of around two million. Until the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, it was probably unknown to most Americans. It has a long history of falling under the control of one or the other of its powerful neighbors.

Potica occupies the border region between bread and strudel—just like the Balkans, at the crossroads of east and west. It begins with a rich sour cream yeast dough, rolled out thinly, then spread with a filling of butter, sugar, cinnamon, and walnuts, drizzled with honey. My own mother has always always managed to find one extreme or the other, with the honey: drenching the dough in sweetness, or forgetting it entirely. Next, the potica is rolled up, formed into a loaf or coil, and baked. Potica is usually reserved for special occasions. In my family, it is rationed out like gold—or caviar.

My family’s version of potica has always tasted like baklava. Other fillings do exist: raisins, curd cheese, chocolate, poppy seeds. But I’m partial to the potica I have eaten every Christmas of my life. I now make it myself, but my attempts don’t measure up to my grandmother, my mother—or even my younger son, who first made potica as a project for his ninth grade ethnic studies class.

So this month, just like every December I can recall, I’ll make shortbread and potica. I’ll knead the dough and remember. I’ll taste the sweetness and the sadness. I'll remember the lives of my ancestors. Hard and sweet.

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