It’s hard to describe the experience of biting into a slice of potica. Thin spirals of rich yeast dough, layered with butter, encase a simple, elemental filling: walnuts, sugar, and cinnamon. Everything is drenched in honey. It’s sensuous but sturdy, like the love child of challah and baklava.
Potica (puh-teet’-za), sometimes known as Slovenian Nut Roll, is a rich filled yeast bread. It is a beloved holiday tradition in Slovenian American homes. It was the only one of her family’s ethnic traditions my mother considered worth preserving, so it became the bread of memory for us. I have eaten potica every Christmas of my life. Now I bake it myself.
I used to watch my mother’s mother roll and stretch the dough on a wooden kitchen table in her little bungalow on Cleveland’s east side. Grandma never used recipes, so my mother got the instructions below from the mother of a high school friend. (Full disclosure: her friend’s family was Serbian!) You can find variations of this bread all over the former Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe—but I never tasted anything as good as this version, even in Slovenia.
What's the secret ingredient? The dough, with the sour cream and the overnight rising in the refrigerator? The filling, a simple and uncooked nut mixture? The generous honey?
All of those. Love, memory, family. And ambivalence. My mother had very mixed feelings about the pain and struggle and dysfunction in her hard luck immigrant family. She wanted to move ahead to something better. But she never forgot where she came from. And she wouldn't let us forget either.
One thing my mother sometimes forgot: the honey, of of all things! Sometimes she'd forget to drizzle it on one loaf. On another, there might be so much that it oozed out during baking. But it was always wonderful. A few years ago, she decided to stop making potica herself. She's eighty-eight, so perhaps it's time that she took on a supervisory role. But my version still doesn't compare to hers.
Making potica reminds me of the often-quoted line from my grandmother's distant cousin, a famous leftist writer from the 1930s and 1940s named Louis Adamic:
"My grandfather used to say that life is like licking honey off a thorn."
Potica is like that. It's the bread of memory and the bread of affliction. My link to the past this holiday season.
Potica (Slovenian Nut Roll)
2 ¾ sticks butter, melted and cooled
1 c. sugar
6 egg yolks
1 ½ c. sour cream
Mix all the above together.
Proof 2 packages yeast in ¾ c. warm milk and 1 t. sugar, add to the above.
Mix 6 c. flour and 1 t. salt. Add to the above and mix to make a soft dough.
Knead dough. Divide in 4 parts. Wrap in waxed paper. Refrigerate overnight.
2 lbs. ground nuts, walnuts or pecans (6 ½ c)
1 c. sugar
1-2 t. cinnamon
dash of salt
Honey to taste
Melted butter, about ½ c.
Roll dough a little thinner than pie crust. Spread each portion with about 2 T. melted butter and ¼ of the nut/sugar mixture. Drizzle with honey. Roll up, pinch seam and ends closed. Place seam side down on baking sheet, greased or with parchment paper. (Note: it can also be baked in a special dish that resembles a bundt or kugelhopf pan, but my family usually shapes it into loaves or long coils.) Let rise 1 ¼ hours. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, if necessary for 10 minutes more at 325. Let cool. Makes 4 loaves.
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders