Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Vegan Potica: Not Your Babica's Slovenian Nut Roll (and definitely not Melania's!)

No, this is not potica the way your grandma (babica) used to make it. But this vegan adaptation is based on the written recipe I inherited from my mother, who was inspired by her own mother's example.

My grandmother would probably approve of vegan potica, if she were around today. She was unusual for her time and place. Sixty years ago, unlike most working class women in Cleveland's Slovenian community, she read Prevention Magazine and kept her own organic garden in the back yard. She was open-minded and politically progressive, as well.  Pretty impressive for an immigrants' daughter with a fourth grade education! 

I started experimenting with vegan cuisine last December, when a couple of the younger generation in my family started to shift into plant-based eating. But I concentrated on cooking rather than baking. This past weekend, with Christmas approaching and a holiday potluck to attend, it seemed like a good time to attempt the ultimate challenge for a Slovenian baker: vegan potica. I knew it could be done. I had sampled vegan potica just once, right at the source: the farmers' market in Ljubljana, Slovenia's captital. It tasted pretty good, although not much like my family version.

vegan potica, from the Ljubljana farmers' market

A little Internet research turned up a half dozen vegan potica recipes, including one "click-bait" article that purported to be from Melania Trump! (As far as I know, neither Trump has any particular interest in animal rights, veganism, or traditional Slovenian cooking!)

Unfortunately, none of these recipes seemed like good bets for duplicating my family's beloved walnut-honey potica, because they all used a less rich, more bread-like dough. My family's style of Slovenia's most famous dish presents a definite vegan challenge, because it is so rich in ingredients that are off-limits: butter, eggs, and sour cream in the dough, plus copious amounts of honey in the filling. 

I thought back to last December's gluten-free potica experiment, when I turned to adaptations of brioche or babka, since they seemed closer to the dairy-rich dough in my family recipe. So I started to explore vegan versions of brioche and babka. But then it hit me: Why not just use my own family recipe, with the plant-based substitutes other vegan bakers favored?

So that is what I did.

The details are in the recipe below. It was easy to come up with non-dairy versions of butter, milk, and sour cream. I have noted the specific products I used, in case it made a difference.

The two bigger questions were how to replace the eggs and honey. My solution involved two ingredients that will be new to many readers.

For the honey, I tried two different replacements. Agave nectar is widely available and works fine. But my husband and I preferred the more complex flavor of date syrup, sometimes known as date honey--or silan, to Israeli cooks. I already had some on hand, after purchasing a jar in our local Middle Eastern market to make an unusual version of honey cake for the Jewish holidays in the fall.

In considering possible egg substitutes, I ended up in a surprising place: draining a can of garbanzo beans. Aquafaba--bean water--is all the rage in vegan circles, but it was new to me. I was skeptical of claims that this simple ingredient has amazing properties. Then I watched what happened when I added it to the creamed butter-sugar mixture and started beating.

You know that moment when adding the egg makes a batter or dough come together? One minute, the mixture is curdled, and then everything smooths out and the volume starts to increase? That is exactly what happened when I added a few tablespoons of bean liquid.

I did worry about a possible "off taste" in the dough, so I added a little vanilla and lemon rind, as a precaution. (My worries turned out to be groundless.)

I had imagined that the vegan dough might more difficult to work with, but my experience was the opposite. It was easy to knead, although it had an unusual feel: very soft, even damp, but not at all sticky. I needed much less additional flour than usual for kneading. This dough felt very springy and "active." In fact, it began to rise almost immediately! I even put it in the freezer briefly to slow the process down, then refrigerated it, as usual. After chilling, it remained a little softer than usual, but it rolled out beautifully.

I don't know what combination of ingredients created this mysterious alchemy. But I suspect the aquafaba had something to do with it. I do encourage you to give it a try. For the less adventurous, I note other possible egg substitutes in the recipe below.

So what were the results? Impressive.

The vegan potica was a hit at the party--even though I had broken my own rules to get it done in in a single day. I shortened the overnight refrigerator rise to just a few hours. I had to serve it a few hours after baking, instead of waiting a day. Also, I had been overly cautious with this new dough and had rolled it thicker than usual. So the photo below, from the party, doesn't look as pretty as my usual efforts. But that haunting flavor was there. And there was no trace of bean flavor.

The next day at breakfast, it looked and tasted even better:

When I baked the second batch, the loaves rose higher, after the proper overnight refrigeration. I also felt more confident with the dough, so I rolled it much thinner. Those loaves went into the freezer, so I had to wait to see how they turned out.

I consider this a work in progress. But I am posting the recipe now, at the height of potica season, to make it available to readers who might want to give it a try--or even adapt their own family recipes.

Good luck!  Happy Holidays!

Post Christmas Update: Sure enough, that second batch was perfect, even after freezing! See the photo below, with recipe following.

Vegan Potica (based on my traditional family recipe, cut down by half and adapted)


5-1/2 oz (1/2 cup + 3 tablespoons) non-dairy butter, melted and cooled (I used Earth Balance)
1/2 cup sugar
4-1/2 tablespoons aquafaba * (or other replacement for 1-1/2 eggs)
3/4 cup non-dairy sour cream (I used Sour Supreme)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
lemon zest, grated
turmeric, a few pinches, for color
1 package instant dry yeast
3/8 cup non-dairy creamer (or milk), warmed (I used Wildwood soy creamer)
1 teaspoon sugar
3 cups flour, plus more for kneading
1/2 teaspoon salt

*Aquafaba is nothing more than the slightly viscous liquid drained from a can of garbanzo beans. One egg is replaced by 3 tablespoons of bean liquid. This potica recipe requires the equivalent of 3 egg yolks or 1-1/2 whole eggs, which comes out to 4-1/2 tablespoons of bean liquid. If you are reluctant to experiment with this rather amazing ingredient, you could try using applesauce, mashed potatoes, commercial egg replacers, or homemade "flax eggs" (1 T flax seed + 3 T water = 1 egg.)


1 pound (about 3-1/4 cups) finely ground walnuts, mixed with:
1/2 cup. sugar
1/2 T. cinnamon
dash of salt (optional)

1⁄4 cup melted butter substitute
1/4 to 1/2 cup agave nectar or date syrup (silan) for drizzling
(Optional: dried cranberries)

The night before, prepare dough

In a large bowl, combine the butter substitute and sugar and beat. Add aquafaba (or other egg replacer) and beat. Finally, add add sour cream substitute, vanilla, and lemon rind (if using). Mix well.

In a small bowl, proof yeast in warm cream or milk substitute and sugar. Add yeast to the first mixture.  Mix well.

Sift flour and salt. Add to the mixture in the large bowl and stir to combine.  You should have a soft, sticky dough.  Turn it out on a floured board and knead until smooth and elastic.  Divide dough into two even balls and flatten them slightly.  Wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight.

To Assemble

It is easiest to use a floured cloth to roll out the dough. Remove a ball of dough from refrigerator and place it on floured surface. Roll it into a rectangle.  The dough should be thinner than pie crust but thicker than strudel or phyllo. I usually aim for 15 x 26 inch rectangle and in recent years have aimed for thinner. With this dough, however, I ended up with a smaller rectangle, closer to 14 x 20 inches. 

Spread the dough with 2 tablespoons melted butter substitute and a quarter of the nut/sugar mixture, which should be about 2 cups. Drizzle the dough with 2-4 tablespoons of agave or date syrup. If desired, sprinkle with dried cranberries (or raisins, if you like them.)

Roll up the dough, beginning from the short end. After every few turns, prick the dough with a fork to eliminate air bubbles.   Pinch seam and ends closed and fold ends under. Normally, I would place this entire roll seam side down on a baking sheet or pan that has been oiled or lined with parchment paper. Because I was uncertain about how well this vegan dough would hold together, I cut the roll in two pieces and placed each one in a small lined  rectangular bread pan  (7-3/4 x 3-3/8 inches.)

Repeat with remaining ball of dough, for a total of four small loaves. 

Let potica rise 1-1/4 hours. (Note: Loaves don’t rise much.) Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes. If necessary, bake for 10 minutes more at 325 degrees. Let cool before slicing.  To store, wrap in aluminum foil.  Potica tastes better the next day.  It stores well.  It also freezes well.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Mürbeteig, a "Wee Wisdom" Recipe from the Vault

Mürbeteig is another treasure I rediscovered when I took possession of my mother's dark green recipe box.

I hadn’t made the traditional German cookie/pastry in years, even though I had a handwritten copy of the recipe in my collection. I felt a pang of nostalgia when I discovered the old yellow clipping that I had carefully pasted onto one of my mother’s note cards, when I was in elementary school. I had found the recipe in Wee Wisdom, a classic monthly children's magazine that my Slovenian American grandmother had ordered for us. 

Wee Wisdom (1893-1991) was America's longest-running children's magazine. It was the creation of an Oberlin College graduate named Myrtle Fillmore, who had also co-founded the Unity Church, a part of the Christian New Thought movement, with her husband.

Unity emphasized a “practical spirituality” that included healing through prayer and the power of positive thinking. By the mid-1900s it had evolved into a thriving organization, with a number of publications and a mail-and-radio based ministry. Unity's approach appealed to my free-thinking grandmother, who had become disenchanted with the Catholic Church.

My own mother, who was even more of a free-thinker, had her doubts about a children's magazine with a hidden religious agenda. But her fears turned out to be groundless. By design, the publication was nonsectarian. It was nothing more than a wholesome, uplifting magazine with a variety of features that would appeal to boys and girls.

Including a monthly column called "Cooking is Fun." That's what appealed to me.

Mürbeteig turned into a Christmas cookie standard at our house. The recipe was deceptively simple, almost exotic to the American palate. I had memories of a buttery, barely-sweet pastry, cut into shapes and then finished off with a crunchy topping that worked like magic: cream, sprinkled with sugar and chopped nuts.

I knew I was taking a chance, making mürbeteig again after all these years. Would it measure up? But the recipe did not disappoint.

I wondered whether there might be a Slovenian equivalent of mürbeteig. I did a search and discovered it in a German language recipe for the famed Slovenian strudel pie known as prekmurska gibanica, where mürbeteig serves as the bottom crust. In Slovene, that bottom layer is described as krhko testo, or short crust. In other words, a classic shortcrust pastry, which differs from the typical American pie crust because it includes egg and a little sugar. Krhko testo is also used as the foundation for a number of piškoti (cookie or biscuit) variations on contemporary Slovenian cooking websites.    

Mürbeteig (adapted from Wee Wisdom children's magazine)

2 cups flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup butter
1 egg
1 tablespoon cold water

For topping: 3 tablespoons heavy cream or top milk, 6 tablespoons sugar,
1/2 cup walnuts or almonds, chopped fine

Sift flour, salt, and sugar into a bowl. Add butter, using back of the mixing spoon to blend into dry ingredients. When smooth, make a hollow in the center and and add the egg and cold water. Mix together until a dough is formed. Wrap in waxed paper and refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight if possible.

Roll chilled dough 1/4 inch thick on lightly floured board. Cut into shapes (I find simple rounds are best) and brush with cream or milk. Sprinkle with sugar and add nuts if desired. Bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes or until lightly browned.

Another possibility I discovered: Roll a portion of dough into a circle, brush with butter or egg, and sprinkle with a nut-sugar mixture. Cut into wedges and roll up to make the traditional Slovenian nut horn shape! 


Friday, October 7, 2016

Mom's Extra Spicy Pfeffernüsse, a Recipe from the Vault

It has been three months since my last post. Where has the time gone?

I do know part of the answer. My siblings and I have been helping our mother prepare for the next step in her journey: moving from her apartment in a large retirement community into a smaller senior residence. It is a bittersweet time, in which the sadness is balanced with reminders of the past that make me smile.

Like my mother's battered recipe collection.

For the past few years, Mom has been trying to unload possessions with a zeal that often feels premature. But she had a surprising reluctance to surrender her green metal recipe file box. At ninety-three, her kitchen activities are limited to making coffee and toast. Still, she wasn't quite ready to let go of her recipes. Finally she agreed.

Now my mother's dark green metal box sits in my kitchen, on top of own light green box. They are twins. Sisters. Mother and daughter.

My mother's old recipe box felt like a treasure chest. A culinary vault. 

The contents turned out to be a mixed bag. Yellowed newspaper clippings, torn out in haste, just in case. Recipes from friends. A large collection of improbable dishes that I call "teachers' lounge" favorites. But there were some true gems in there, too. Sentimental favorites from my childhood, mostly sweets of one kind or another. I had copied some of them into my own collection. Pfeffernüsse. Danish Puff. Murbeteig. I hadn't made them in years.

Are these Slovenian recipes?

Strictly speaking, no. Only one qualifies as a Slovenian specialty. But it's a real find: the original version of what became the treasured family potica recipe. My mother had told me the story. She remembered sitting in the kitchen of an old high school friend, copying her mother's recipe, because her own mother didn't use written recipes. And there it was, handwritten on a folded-up sheet of note paper, yellowed with age. (I'll be writing about that one in a future post.)

The first recipe I resurrected from the vault was my mother's pfeffernüsse (pepper nut) recipe. It was a Christmas cookie staple at our house. Spicy nuggets, not too sweet, heavily coated with confectioners' sugar. Made in advance, so the cookies turned rock-hard.

I have no idea where my mother got her recipe. Authentic German recipes include ingredients that never appeared in my mother's Midwestern kitchen. Citron. Anise. Rum. Black pepper. 

I have found a pfeffernüsse recipe in in one of my vintage Slovenian American cookbooks, Woman's Glory. But it is quite different from my family recipe: no shortening, and the cookies are left to sit out to harden before baking.

I copied my mother's recipe into my own collection many years ago. But it never turned out like hers.  My pfeffernüsse were bland and too soft. Definitely underwhelming.

Now that I had Mom's original recipe, I could see where I had gone astray.

The recipe she had copied called for cake flour. She had added a notation, about how to substitute all-purpose flour plus something else. I had overlooked the "something else" (probably cornstarch) and ended up with a reduced quantity of all-purpose flour. No wonder my cookies were too soft!

The other problem: My mother had increased the spices. Unfortunately, I had misread and miscalculated, in cutting down her very large recipe (8 cups of flour!) to more manageable proportions. So I ended up with underspiced cookies.

(I like to think her fondness for cinnamon is a reflection of her Slovenian heritage.)

Below you will find an image of my mother's pfeffernüsse recipe, followed by my own translation.



1 cup lard or butter, melted (Mom always used butter)
1-1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs
1/2 teaspoon soda in 2 T water
1-1/2 T (4-1/2 teaspoons) cinnamon and cloves
1/2 T (1-1/2 teaspoons) allspice and nutmeg
1 cup nuts, chopped
4 cups cake flour (or 3-1/2 cups all purpose flour plus 1/2 cup cornstarch)
salt and vanilla
confectioners' sugar

(Possible additions: Substitute brown sugar and/or a little honey for the white sugar. Use some  brandy for part of the water. Add some black pepper.)

Combine flour and spices. Set aside. Melt butter, let cool slightly. In large bowl, beat butter and sugar (and honey, if using), add eggs and vanilla and beat. Add soda dissolved in water. Stir in dry ingredients. Form into balls about the size of a walnut. Bake at 375 F for about 15 minutes, or until brown. Shake in a bag with confectioners' sugar.

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Poor Man's Potica: Pisani Kruh

Does the photo above look like potica? It should. But it's not.

That dark spiral could pass for one of the familiar sweet fillings--walnut, poppy seed, or even chocolate. But it's really a moist, tangy layer of buckwheat yeast bread. The lighter spiral is actually two different layers of yeast bread: yellow corn bread and white wheat bread.

The Slovenian name for this unusual fool-the-eye creation is pisani kruh or multicolored bread, sometimes translated as motley bread or tricolor bread. It is also called revna (poor) potica--or, in English, poor man's potica.

This was a dish for hard times, when butter, eggs, nuts, sugar, and honey were scarce. I first read about it last spring, when I was researching the food traditions of Dolenjska, the rural region where my ancestors were born, for my Slovenian language class.

On the Slovenian government's tourist website, I discovered an interview with noted ethnographer and cooking authority Dr. Janez Bogataj, who had recently published a cookbook about potica, Slovenia's most famous dish. He described a mock-potica dish called pisani kruh, or layered whole grain bread, that was popular in Dolenjska and other poor regions as a way of creating an air of "festive abundance" from simple ingredients.

I was intrigued. I had never heard of this dish, but it seemed like the sort of adaptation my humble ancestors might have tried. I knew that my great-grandfather Adamič was the son and grandson of millers. I had even visited the old mill house (see below) so it was safe to assume that flour was the one ingredient that was always available.

Here is a photo of the old Adamič mill house in Ponikve, a small village in the Dolenjska region:

It was hard to find a recipe for pisani kruh. Finally, I found a few examples on the Slovene cooking site Kulinarika. Some used two contrasting layers of dough. I liked the one with three layers--wheat, corn, and buckwheat--contributed by a woman named Marta, who offered a version for the bread machine and another made the standard way.

The recipe was challenging to adapt--and not just because of the translation issues or the metric conversions. The method was an unusual one, since the corn and buckwheat doughs began with a sort of mush. It was hard to be precise about the amount of water to use, or how much flour to knead in. Marta herself seemed to have made changes as she went along. She also mixed the yeast directly into the flour instead of proofing it.

I have made pisani kruh four times, using that Kulinarika recipe as the foundation. Each time, the measures of water and flour come out a little differently. Once, I mixed the dry yeast directly into the flour. It worked just fine, but I still prefer to do an initial proofing. I have made free-form round loaves but I prefer to use rectangular bread pans.

Below is the current version of the recipe for pisani kruh that has evolved over the past year of experimenting. It may sound challenging, but it turns out to be a forgiving recipe. It has worked out every time. The end product is a moist, slightly spongy loaf with a distinctive tang from the buckwheat. It keeps well and freezes beautifully. It makes tasty toast. And it always looks beautiful!

I like to think my resourceful Dolenjska ancestors would be proud.

Pisani Kruh (Multicolored Bread, Tricolor Bread)

(A translation and adaptation of this recipe by Marta from the Slovenian cooking site Kulinarika)  

For buckwheat dough:

200 g buckwheat flour (1-1/2 cups)
360  ml boiling water (1-/1/2 cups + 2 T)
200 g white (wheat) flour (1-2/3 cups)
1 package yeast, dissolved in 2 T warm water and sprinkle of sugar
3/4 t salt
1 t sugar
40 ml oil (3 T)

For corn dough: 

200 g corn flour (1-1/2 cup)
310 ml boiling watet (1-1/4 cup +3 T)
200 g white (wheat) flour (1-2/3 cups)
1 package yeast, dissolved in 2 T warm water and sprinkle of sugar
3/4 t salt
1 t sugar
40 ml oil (3 T)

For wheat dough:

400 g white (wheat) flour (3-1/3 cups)
1 package yeast, dissolved in 2 T warm water and sprinkle of sugar
3/4 t salt
1 t sugar
350 ml lukewarm milk (1-1/2 cups + 1 T)
40 ml oil (3 T)

To prepare the buckwheat dough: Add enough boiling water to the buckwheat flour to make a soft but stiff mush and allow to cool. (You may need to add more water.) Proof yeast in warm water and sugar. Stir the yeast, oil and salt into cooled buckwheat mush. Then knead in white flour as needed. Knead until smooth. Form into ball and place in oiled bowl. Cover and let rise until doubled.

To prepare the corn dough: Follow the same directions as above, preparing corn mush, cooling, and then adding white flour. Note that this recipe calls for corn flour, or finely ground corn meal. I used Bob's Mills brand.

To prepare the white wheat dough: Stir salt into flour. Proof yeast in warm water and sugar. Add yeast, oil and most of the milk to flour. Add the rest of milk as needed. Knead until dough is smooth. Form into ball and place in oiled bowl. Cover and let rise until doubled.

To form loaves: Roll the wheat dough into a rectangle on a floured surface. Roll out buckwheat dough into a rectangle of similar size and place on top. Repeat with corn dough. Press the three layers of dough together. Roll up the rectangle from the short edge and seal the ends.

Cut the roll into two or three pieces and seal ends. Place in oiled loaf pans (preferred) or shape into free-form rounds. Top with melted butter. Let rise till double. Bake at 350 degrees F for 25 minutes or until done. Let cool. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A Long-Overdue Follow-up Report on the Potica Workshop

Have you been wondering what ever happened at that March potica workshop at San Francisco's Slovenian Hall?

I am happy to report that it was a great success.

It was a full and festive day. Among the forty-plus attendees was a charming young woman named Gisele, who works at Blue Danube Wine, an importer of wines from Slovenia and other places in Central Europe and the Balkans. For a great overview, along with photos of the three different styles of potica presented at the workshop, take a look at her write-up. It was a delightful surprise to read it in the Blue Danube e-mail newsletter, and to see that my recipe was included. At first, I didn't even realize that the photo at the top was my own potica!

I'll admit it: I was a little nervous, especially in front of native Slovenians, like my language teacher Mia and my classmate Sylvia. But my family recipe was well-received. Several people commented that it seemed very traditional. I was relieved!

Giving a few pointers to my friend Sylvia
Under the watchful eye of my Slovenian teacher

I was reminded of the importance of using the best possible ingredients: fresh, organic, and locally sourced whenever possible. This is especially critical, I think, with the simple, uncooked layered filling we use in my family recipe.  So I took special care with the ingredients for the workshop.

I found freshly harvested California walnuts at my local market in Berkeley. I also tried a new honey: Home Town Honey, which is produced just down the street from the retirement community where my mother lives. I also used organic butter and raw cane sugar, which has an off-white color and a slight caramel flavor.

This particular combination of ingredients created a wonderful flavor. It took me back to childhood, and to my grandmother's kitchen. I tried to capture it in the photo below, in my own kitchen. Even our black cat wanted a taste!

Ten days after the workshop, I made another batch of potica. Our journalist son was visiting, and he wanted me to do another demo, so he could take photos and make a recording before he returned to Kosovo. This time, I experimented with an earthy and delicious buckwheat honey from Heavenly Honey in Oregon. I also tried a double-roll technique I had seen in a video. You can see it in the left-hand photo at the top of the page.

For now, I am taking a short break from potica!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Happy Easter! Vesele velikonočne praznike!

Easter greetings to everyone who observed the holiday today.

Our celebration included homemade potica, of course. But this year I also discovered a new tradition: Slovenian Easter eggs, or pirhi.

Last week, my Slovenian teacher gave each of us one of the beautiful, intricately decorated black-and-red eggs ("pisanice") that you can see at the top of the photo. This is a traditional folk art that is unique to Bela Krajina, a region in southeast Slovenia.

That first egg inspired me to try my hand at a much simpler style of decoration, using homemade dyes from natural ingredients. This is an Easter tradition in Slovenia and many other Slavic cultures--and also a Jewish tradition at Passover. I decided to start with one of the most common sources of natural dye: boiled red onion skins.

The result was the deep russet color eggs you can see in the photo. The decorative white markings are created by binding small leaves or herbs to the eggs before dyeing.

I will be posting details about this method of egg-coloring in a future post. But I wanted to extend Easter greetings before the day is done.

Vesele velikonočne praznike! 

Update: Finally, almost a year later, I posted the recipe!


Saturday, March 12, 2016

A Pictorial Guide to Potica Dough for Today's Workshop at the Slovenian Hall in San Francisco

Antique Grinder
Mom's Handwritten Recipe

Mixing the eggs, sugar, sour cream, and melted butter

Yes, the yeast is alive!

Dough Hook? Not my style!

Kneading, the old-fashioned way. Without rings!

Dough, divided in quarters, ready to refrigerate
Finished dough.
Grinding nuts, for tomorrow's baking
Today will be a first. Although I have been baking potica for more than forty years, I have never done it in front of an audience. In a few hours, I will be heading into San Francisco to join the other guest bakers at a a day-long potica workshop at The Slovenian Hall, sponsored by the Educational and Dramatic Club Slovenia. I will also be sharing my collection of vintage cookbooks.

I am excited--and a little nervous!

I'll be using my family recipe, which begins with a rich sour cream yeast dough that is refrigerated overnight. So I spent my Friday night preparing the dough. I also pulled out my antique grinder to get a head start on the walnut filling.

Since I won't be demonstrating the actual dough-making today, I decided to post some photos from last night's preparation. I do it the old-fashioned way: proofing the yeast, kneading by hand. For the recipe, go to Potica, A Step-by-Step Guide to Slovenian Nut Roll.

Wish me luck!

UPDATE: Here is Part Two, the follow-up report.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Christmas Potica 2015: Reflections and Revelations

Christmas Potica: walnut, almond, and walnut slices
Christmas Potica, 2015

When it came time to make this year's Christmas potica, I returned to my tried-and-true family recipe.  Along with our traditional walnut-honey filling, I decided to use the new almond filling I'd discovered in a Slovenian cookbook, while I was creating my first gluten-free potica, a week earlier. This would also be a good time to figure out the metric conversions for the almond filling, which I've included in the updated directions below.

Along the way, I had a few new realizations about the old family recipe. Here they are:

1. The dough needs a full eight hours in the refrigerator, even if the rise is minimal.

I was pressed for time this year and decided to make the potica in a single day. An early morning rise of three or four hours should be fine, I thought. Well, not really. The potica rose less and the bread/pastry layers seemed a little denser than usual. No one complained (not even my mother) so perhaps I was the only one who noticed. Our potica is so dense and rich that it might not make much of a difference. But I won't skimp on the rising time again.

2. Grinding the nuts really does makes a better filling. 

To save time, I skipped the old-fashioned hand grinder I bought a couple of years ago and returned to the food processor. As you can tell from the photos above, there were some rather large pieces of nuts in the filling. Yes, it still tasted good, but it's even better when the nuts are ground or at least chopped finely. Next year, I'll return to my antique hand grinder!

3. Don't worry if a loaf splits during baking.

The occasional crack is inevitable with free-form loaves, especially when you use a generous hand with the honey. But it's just a cosmetic problem. The potica still tastes wonderful.

4. My family's rich walnut-honey filling was probably born of frugality.

I have always considered my family's layered filling to have a lush, elegant simplicity. Melted butter, walnuts with sugar and cinnamon, and a final lacing of honey: it reminds me of baklava. Most recipes for nut fillings are quite different. For one thing, many don't use honey at all. And they mix in all sorts of additional ingredients: milk or cream, eggs, sometimes raisins, or even bread crumbs. I have always dismissed these extras as "fillers," designed to stretch the precious nuts and honey. My family's recipe might be a little extravagant, but potica was a special holiday treat, so why not?

But I had it all wrong. Take a look at the two filling recipes below. Each one uses a pound of nuts, which should be enough for two loaves, or half the dough in my family recipe. That tasty new almond filling uses sugar rather than honey, and it includes egg whites, cream and cookie crumbs. That should make more filling than than the simple walnut version, right?

But it was the other way around. I discovered that the thick, delicious almond filling was hard to spread. I had to drop it in clumps onto the dough and then flatten it out. By the time I got to the second almond loaf, there was barely enough left to fill it. So this was definitely not an economical choice.

My family's walnut-honey recipe, on the other hand, could easily cover the dough, no matter what its size It adapts to whatever thickness--and surface area--the cook creates when she rolls out the dough. When I look back at photos of my potica efforts from earlier years, I can see it clearly. I used to roll a thicker dough, and there was an equally thick layer of filling. In fact, I often had some of the walnut-sugar mix left over. As I have moved toward thinner layers of dough, the layer of filling follows suit.

That, I have discovered, is the magic of this simple, layered honey-nut filling. It is practical, easily adjusted, and, in its own way, frugal. Butter and honey might be expensive for Americans, but those two ingredients were relatively accessible to the largely rural Slovenian population of years past, and they could easily be distributed over the dough in whatever quantity might be needed. The more costly layer, the ground walnuts and white sugar, could be sprinkled on thinly, and even supplemented with a layer of bread or cookie crumbs.

I recently discovered a touching video (by a film student named Bryce O'Boyle) in which a Slovenian American man shows his grandchildren how to make potica. I was surprised and pleased to see that his approach to filling was much like my family's, although in a slightly different order: first, a layer of brown sugar, followed by ground nuts, then a drizzle of honey, and little dabs of butter.

Guess what the film is called?  Poor Man's Potica.

So perhaps that's what my family has been making all these years!

A note on quantities:  Each of the recipes below make enough filling for two loaves, or one-half of my family recipe. (The almond filling might be a little scant :-) Just double the quantities, if you prefer to make one filling for the entire batch.

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

450 g grated almonds (1 pound)
150 g sugar (1 cup) (I increased to 200 g and used half brown sugar)
100 ml cream, warmed (1/3 cup)
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 (3/4 cup)

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

1 pound walnuts, finely ground (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.