Tuesday, December 15, 2015

New for 2015: Gluten-Free Potica--with Amazing Almond Filling!

Gluten-Free Potica, with almond & walnut fillings

Why would anyone attempt to bake a gluten-free potica?

Good question.

It requires a spirit of adventure. A strong incentive, like a family member or friend who is trying to avoid wheat. And the approaching Christmas holidays, which just aren't the same without Slovenia's most famous dish.

That's what brought me to this point. I undertook the challenge with trepidation, because I am new to the world of gluten-free baking. It's been just a couple of months, and so far I have been sticking to the easy adaptations: cookies, sweet breads and cakes that already include naturally gluten-free ingredients--like buckwheat, cornmeal, and ground nuts. I have had good results with most of these experiments. But I had never crossed the last daunting frontier: Yeast breads.

I didn't flatter myself that I would be the first person to attempt a gluten-free potica. But I was surprised to discover a good number of recipes online. Unfortunately, what I saw was not encouraging. The photos didn't look much like potica, at least not the kind I grew up with. Perhaps it really was an impossible challenge.

Then it hit me: I was approaching this all wrong. My family recipe, while not unique, is definitely one of the less common approaches to making potica. Our version is more pastry than bread. The foundation is a rich sour cream yeast dough, left to rise overnight in the refrigerator. The filling is a simple, unbaked layering of butter, walnuts and sugar, and a drizzle of honey. So I began to search online for a gluten-free sweet dough that sounded similar, without worrying about any references to potica.

I ended up in a surprising place: watching a Martha Stewart video,  as she prepared a gluten-free treat called Yeasted Coffee Cake.

Martha's coffee cake had a familiar look: a yeast dough with sour cream, rolled out thinly and covered with a dried fruit and nut filling, then rolled and twisted. Except for the streusel topping, it sounded like one of the many Eastern European sweet breads that resemble potica. It also reminded me of Jewish babka. Martha mentioned that it was a treat her mother would have loved. Then it clicked: Her mother was Polish. Suddenly, this recipe had some credibility. And it did look delicious.

There were a few things missing from Martha Stewart's recipe. No discussion of the challenges of working with gluten-free yeast dough. No instructions about how to choose the right kind of gluten-free flour. It seemed almost too good to be true. Perhaps it was, judging from the sole comment: An angry reader had made two attempts at the recipe and ended up with an inedible lump that didn't rise at all.

But I decided to forge ahead.

I divided the dough in half, so I would have two small loaves to work on. Good thing, because the dough, which has a tendency to crack, is tough to work with at first. I spread the first roll with my family's traditional walnut filling, shaped the loaf into a free-form shape--and proceeded to overbake it. It emerged from the oven looking gnarled and knobby. When I took it out of the pan, it was so brittle that it cracked in two. I was convinced that it would be inedible.

gluten-free potica, before baking
gluten-free potica, after baking

For the second, I resolve to lower the temperature and fit the roll firmly into a small loaf pan. I also put together a new almond filling I found in a Slovenian cookbook I'd bought last year. Naturally, I sampled it before baking. It was delicious! At least one good thing would come out of this crazy experiment.

gluten-free potica, spread with almond filling

But guess what?

When I sliced into the loaves, they looked just like my family potica, with nice thin circles of dough and filling. The flavor was really good. The texture was not bad at all. It was dense, not too much rise. Very much like the potica I have eaten every Christmas of my life.

Our son thought it was one of my better potica efforts.

I consider this a work in progress.  But if you care to give it a try--why not?

Good luck!

PS.  For a refresher on how to make the non-gluten variety, see my post from several years ago:  Potica: Step-by-Step Guide to Slovenian Nut Roll.

gluten-free potica, with almond filling (top) and walnut filling (bottom)

Gluten-Free Potica

Potica Dough   (adapted from Martha Stewart's Gluten-Free Yeasted Coffee Cake)

2 packages active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water mixed with 1 teaspoon sugar  
1-1/2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 tablespoons sugar (I used organic cane sugar)
2 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup sour cream
1-2/3 cups gluten-free all purpose flour (see note below)
1 cup gluten-free bread flour (see note below)
1 teaspoon salt

Note: The original recipe doesn't offer any guidance about how to choose the right flour. There are plenty of make-your-own formulas online--and a growing number of commercially prepared gluten-free blends. I used two different products made by Bob's Red Mill: "1 to 1 Baking Flour" (for the all purpose flour) and "Bread Mix" (minus the enclosed yeast packet). Just be sure that your flour mix includes xanthan gum, an ingredient that makes up for some of the missing "stretch" that gluten provides.

For the dough: Mix the yeast, warm water, and sugar and set aside to proof. In a large bowl beat butter and sugar until smooth, then add egg yolks and beat until fluffy. Mix in vinegar and vanilla. Blend in sour cream. Finally, add the yeast mixture and blend well. In another bowl, whisk together the two flours and salt. Gradually add these dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, using the mixer at first and continuing by hand if necessary until dough forms a ball. Knead dough for 5 minutes (or less) until smooth.

Rising: The original recipe directs you to form dough into a ball and place in a bowl that has been sprinkled with flour. Cover and let rise in a warm place for 3 to 4 hours, until doubled--or simply refrigerate overnight. I ended up doing an unplanned hybrid. I started to let the dough rise in a warm place, but after an hour or so realized that I would not have time to complete the potica that day. So I punched the dough down and refrigerated it overnight. This slow rise refrigerator method is the one we use in my family recipe--minus that original rising. I believe the dough is probably easier to handle with this method and it is what I'll do in the future.

To roll out:  Place dough on floured board or cloth (my preference) and let rest for five minutes--or longer, if taken from the fridge. The original recipe calls for rolling the dough into a single 18 inch square with a thickness of 1/8 inch. I prefer to make two smaller loaves, so I cut the dough into two pieces and rolled each one into a 9 by 18 inch rectangle.  

To fill: Spread dough with filling of choice. I offer two suggestions below. The simple walnut-honey filling is my tried-and-true family favorite. The almond filling is my great new discovery from a  cookbook I bought in a Slovenian bookstore last year. Each one makes enough filling for the quantity of dough in this recipe--one large or two small loaves. If, like me, you want to try both fillings, just cut the quantities below in half.

To shape: After filling, carefully roll up from the short end, so that the finished loaf will be the size of your bread pan. (Since gluten-free dough often seems to spread and crack, it is probably best to avoid free-form loaves.)  Oil bread pan(s) and line with parchment paper. Carefully place loaf inside, seam side down. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour. Don't be concerned if the filled potica doesn't rise much.

To bake: The original directions call for baking a single large loaf at 375 degrees for 55 minutes. I found this temperature to be too high, so I reduced it to 350 degrees.  If you make two smaller loaves, as I did, start watching after 30 minutes.

Be careful when you remove loaves from pan. Let cool before cutting into thin slices.

Good luck!

Almond Filling (mandljev nadev), translated and adapted from Štruklji in Potice by Janez Štrukelj and Andrej Goljat

450 g grated almonds (I used ground toasted almonds with the skins left on)
150 g sugar (I increased to 200 g and used half brown sugar)
100 ml cream, warmed
3 egg whites (lightly beaten)
vanilla extract (I used a packet of vanilla sugar)
lemon rind, grated
maraschino liqueur (I used Amaretto)
80 g dried plain cookie crumbs (I used my homemade gluten-free cookies)

Combine almonds and sugar in bowl. Pour in the warm cream and stir to combine. Add the egg whites, vanilla, lemon rind, and liqueur and stir well. Filling will be thick. Drop onto the rolled-out dough and spread out as well as you can. Sprinkle cookie crumbs on top. Roll up from the narrow end.

Walnut Filling (from my family recipe, go here for details)

1 pound walnuts, finely ground (about 3 cups)
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
dash of salt (optional)
melted butter, about 1/4 cup
honey, 1/4 to 1/2 cup

Combine walnuts, sugar and cinnamon in bowl. Brush rolled-out dough with melted butter. Sprinkle walnut- sugar mixture evenly over dough. Drizzle with honey. Roll up from narrow end. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Walnut Syrup Cake (Orehove rezine)

Just in time for the holidays, I have discovered a wonderful new addition to the Slovenian dessert menu: walnut syrup cake, or orehove rezine ("walnut slices").

I've had my eye on this recipe for some time. I found it in my favorite modern cookbook, The Food and Cooking of Slovenia, by Janez Bogataj. The source is impeccable, but I hesitated to make it, because the recipe struck me as unusual. And I'd never seen it anywhere else, so I wondered if this was really a traditional Slovenian dish.

The cake includes chopped walnuts, white and whole wheat flour--and uncooked polenta. (See Note below.) After baking, it is soaked in syrup. There is honey and cinnamon in the cake, plus honey in the syrup. I couldn't quite imagine how all these ingredients would come together. 

Finally, a few weeks ago, I took the plunge. I shouldn't have worried. This unusual sweet is amazing.

To call this a "walnut slice" doesn't do it justice. This is a rich, moist dessert that straddles the line between decadent and wholesome. It looks like a dense cake or torte but it tastes like a less cloying version of baklava. And it keeps beautifully. 

As it turns out, the recipe can be found in many places on the Internet, usually without attribution. One Slovenian blogger who grew up in Maribor, in the northeastern part of the country, confesses that she had never heard of this dish before, but perhaps that is because it is traditional to the northwest!

The directions below closely follow Janez Bogataj's recipe in the English language version of The Food and Cooking of Slovenia.


Note: In a recipe like this, "polenta" refers to the uncooked product--in other words, a medium grind of yellow cornmeal. For further discussion, see my previous cornbread post, or check out this link.

Walnut Syrup Cake (Orehove rezine)
                                                                  --from Janez Bogataj

1-1/2 cups (175 g) walnuts, toasted
10 tbsp (150 g) butter, softened
2/3 cup (150 g) light brown sugar
4 tbsp (60 ml) set honey
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup (50 g) white flour
1/2 cup (50 g) whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon (I used 2 tsp)
pinch of salt
1/2 cup, generous (65 g) polenta (or medium grind yellow cornmeal)
5 tbsp (75 ml) milk

(for syrup)
1/2 cup (90 g) golden caster sugar
4 tbsp (60 ml) set honey
1/2 cup (120 ml) water

Notes on ingredients: Set honey is referred to as spun, creamed, or whipped honey in the US. Regular honey can be used, although it is probably harder to blend. For golden caster sugar, I substituted raw cane sugar, which also has a slight caramel flavor.

First, prepare the walnuts: Spread out on a baking sheet and bake for 8-10 minutes at 350 degrees F (180 C) until toasted. Let cool, then chop roughly and set aside.

For cake: Sift together the white and whole wheat flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. Set aside. In a large bowl beat butter, sugar, and honey until fluffy. Beat in eggs gradually, then add vanilla. Sprinkle the dry ingredients over the wet ingredients and fold in. When partially combined, add the nuts, polenta and milk, and fold in.

Spoon batter into an 8-inch round cake pan (or spring form pan) that has been greased and lined with parchment paper. Bake at 350 degrees F (180 C) for 45-50 minutes, until firm and light brown.

While cake is baking, prepare syrup: Combine sugar, honey, and water in a pan. Heat gently until sugar dissolves then simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off heat.

When cake is done, let cool slightly. (If desired, remove from pan and place carefully in a pretty serving dish with sides.) Pour warm syrup slowly over the top, so that it is absorbed evenly. Let cool. To serve, cut into thin slices.