I did a double-take when I first came across a recipe called Putizza di Noci, or Trieste Yeast Roll, in The Book of Jewish Food, by the noted food writer Claudia Roden, who grew up in Cairo.
Roden described it as a favorite family dessert for Rosh Hashanah, or Jewish New Year. But there was no denying it: This was an Italian version of Slovenian potica—with a filling of nuts and chocolate.
The source of the recipe, according to Roden, was the family's "Slavic nanny" from Trieste.
This improbable story left me shaking my head. But now, a decade later, it makes more sense.
Trieste, a cosmopolitan city, had been home to Italians, Jews, Slovenians and Croatians. It fell within the borders of Yugoslavia until after World War II, when it became part of Italy. Putizza was—and still is—a famous specialty of Trieste. It became a Rosh Hashanah tradition in the city's once-sizeable Jewish community. But the roots of the dish are Slovenian.
I have also learned a little more about the nanny, Maria Koron. She came from a small Slovenian village near Trieste. It was in a border region known as Gorizia in Italy, Gorica in Slovenia. I suspect that she has a connection to a poignant story that is only recently becoming more widely known in Slovenia.
Maria was probably one of the so-called Aleksandrinke. They were young Slovenian women who left their impoverished region to work as maids, nannies, and wet nurses for wealthy families in Cairo and Alexandria. They faced difficult circumstances, both in Egypt and when they returned home.
Five or six years ago, I tried to make putizza di noci, using Claudia Roden's recipe.
The yeast dough was different from my family recipe. No sour cream and no overnight rising in the refrigerator. I had never heard of a chocolate-nut filling for potica, much less attempted one. And since it was Rosh Hashanah, I followed her suggestion of making the traditional holiday shape: coiled into a round, and baked in a bundt pan. This is also the traditional shape in Slovenia, although my family has always favored a simple loaf.
That first attempt was a failure. Dense and overbaked. Nothing I cared to repeat.
But when Rosh Hashanah came around this year, I decided to make one more attempt at this Slovenian-Jewish-Italian recipe.
I decided to stick with my family's familiar potica dough recipe. After all, there is nothing sacred about that part of Claudia Roden's recipe. There are many different versions of potica dough. The critical difference, I figured, was in the filling. I also decided to use the simple loaf shape, also an option in Roden's recipe.
I made a half recipe of my family’s traditional refrigerator yeast dough, enough for two loaves. I followed Claudia Roden’s filling recipe, with one change. Instead of the milk or wine her recipe calls for, I used evaporated milk, because that is all we had on hand.
For the result, read on.
Putizza di Noci
For the dough: Make a half recipe of potica dough, which you can find in the next post, here. Prepare the dough as directed, using half the quantities specified. Form into two rounds, wrap, and refrigerate overnight.
For the filling:
1 c. evaporated milk
1-1/4 c. sugar
2-1/2 c. finely chopped walnuts
grated zest of 1 lemon
7 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
Mix milk and sugar in medium sauce pan and bring to a boil. And the nuts and lemon zest and simmer 10 more minutes, stirring. Let cool. Filling will be very thick and almost carmelized.
Chop the chocolate finely. (I used bittersweet chocolate chips, and chopped them in a food processor.) Set aside.
Roll out each piece of dough as for potica, about 1/8 inch thick. For detailed directions, go here.
Cover dough surface with filling and spread if possible. I found the filling too thick to spread completely and had to dab it on. Sprinkle on chocolate. Roll up as directed. Pinch the seams, using water to seal.
Place each long roll on a baking sheet that is covered with parchment. Curve each loaf to fit on pan.
Let rise 1-1/4 hour. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-45 minutes. If loaves begin to get too dark, cover with foil after 30 minutes. Let cool before slicing.
We served the putizza as the finale to our Rosh Hashanah dinner.
My mother loved the dinner. All except for the putizza. As usual, she didn’t mince words. She didn’t much care for that peculiar chocolate filling.
But I liked it.
My husband loved it. He said it reminded him of a childhood favorite: babka, a traditional Eastern European Jewish yeast pastry with a rich chocolate-nut filling.
He was right. We couldn’t quite figure out what gave the putizza that elusive flavor. Something about the bittersweet chocolate? Or maybe it was the cooked filling, with the caramel flavor from the evaporated milk. It was another one of those cooking mysteries, when the flavors of the past are suddenly recreated.
I think putizza will become a yearly tradition at our house, for Rosh Hashanah and maybe even for Christmas.