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

Monday, December 8, 2014

Slovenian Christmas Biscotti (Domači Prijatelj)

This is my latest experiment with domači prijatelj ("domestic friends"), otherwise known as Slovenian biscotti or mandelbrot. It is an adaptation of a traditional recipe that is perfectly suited for the winter holidays.  

After I returned from a wonderful trip to Slovenia in July, I was determined to perfect my recipe for domači prijatelj. I no longer had any doubts that this was a traditional sweet and not some recent import. The giant, modern Maxi Market near our studio apartment in Ljubljana had a dazzling array of food, both traditional and modern, including a couple of shelves of what had become my favorite Slovenian cookie. 

Back home, I returned to a couple of traditional recipes I had found online. This time, I resolved to follow the metric measures exactly, rather than use the imprecise formulas for converting weights to American volumetric measures. I also had a better idea, now that I had tasted the real thing, about the proper texture for the softer, single-baked version of biscotti that is most common in Slovenia.

From Ljubljana: Domači Prijatelj on the bottom and Medenjaki (Honey Cakes) on top

I was particularly intrigued by a fat-free, egg-rich recipe I found online, thanks to a Slovenian blogger named Dr. Filomena. She had posted an image of a hand-copied recipe from an 1877 cookbook called Novih kuharskih bukev ("New Cookery Beech.") 

This 1877 formula was easy to remember. Equal weights of flour, sugar, and chopped almonds (140 grams  of each)  and "a plate of chocolate" are mixed with "2 or 3" beaten eggs, lemon rind, cloves, and a few other spices that are hard to translate.

For my first attempt, I followed this old recipe closely, although I supplemented the chocolate with some dried apricots and cranberries (40 grams of each). It was good, and very close to the taste and texture of the domači prijatelj I had purchased in Ljubljana.  A simple cookie. Firm, but not hard or crisp. 

The second time, I used brown sugar instead of white and walnuts instead of almonds. I skipped the chocolate in favor of dried cranberries.  I also sliced the cookies very thinly and did a second baking to make them crisp.

This one was a winner, even if the flavors might not be traditional. The brown sugar-cinnamon-walnut combination reminded me of Christmas. And the very thin slices, baked until crisp, gave this simple, low fat cookie a kind of elegance that makes it especially suited to the holidays. 

The recipe below is for the variation I am calling Slovenian Christmas Biscotti.  But do feel free to experiment with different add-ins and flavorings, and to compare single and double baking. My previous post, which used a slightly different recipe, includes many variations to consider, along with somewhat more detailed instructions.

Dober Tek!

Slovenian Christmas Biscotti (Domači Prijatelj)

3 eggs
140 g (3/4 cup) brown sugar
140 g (1 generous cup) flour
140 g (1-1/3 cup) walnuts, chopped
a handful of dried cranberries (about 80 g)
1 t. vanilla
1 t. cinnamon

Note: feel free to substitute other nuts, dried fruits, or even chocolate, and to vary the flavorings.

Beat eggs and sugar until thick. Add extracts and cinnamon and beat. Fold in flour.  Stir in nuts and cranberries. Pour the batter into an oiled rectangular pan (about 7 x 9 inches) that has been lined with parchment. Bake at  350 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes, or until firm. Remove from oven and let cool slightly. 

Turn the cooled cake out of the pan. It will resemble a firm sponge cake or genoise. Cut it lengthwise into two pieces, then slice. For the more traditional Slovenian style, cut into slices that are about 1/2 inch thick and let cool on a rack. Or try this elegant twice-baked holiday adaptation: cut into very thin slices (under 1/4 inch) and bake for about ten more minutes or until firm. Let cool. Enjoy!