My mother has never liked to talk much about her Slovenian roots.
She always seemed to view her ethnic background as unimportant—even embarrassing. So I had scant knowledge of that part of my family’s story, despite growing up in Cleveland, home to the world’s largest population of Slovenian emigrants and their descendants.
I encountered my half-Slovenian heritage just a few times a year, when we ate a rich yeast bread called potica. My grandmother, a wonderful cook, baked it for holidays, and sometimes as a treat when her children and grandchildren visited. For my mother, this became the one piece of her ethnic heritage worth preserving. She baked potica every Christmas, until her advancing years forced her to step back and let younger hands take over.
Potica is Slovenia’s most famous dish. There are many varieties, both sweet and savory. My family’s version begins with a paper-thin sheet of rich yeast dough, layered with walnuts, sugar and cinnamon, and then drizzled with honey before it is rolled up and baked. It emerges from the oven as a sort of pastry/bread, sensuous but sturdy. It reminds me of a cross between baklava and brioche.
Whenever I bake potica, I think of my mother and my grandmother. I hope my sons will carry on the tradition. For my family, potica has become the bread of memory, the one enduring link to our Eastern European roots.
Walnut Potica (Slovenian Nut Roll)
2 ¾ sticks butter, melted and cooled
1 c. sugar
6 egg yolks
1 ½ c. sour cream
2 packages yeast
¾ c. warm milk
1 t. sugar
6 c. flour
1 t. salt
Mix first four ingredients together in a large bowl. In a small bowl, proof yeast in warm milk and sugar. Add yeast to the first mixture and mix well.
Mix flour and salt. Add to the above and mix to make soft dough.
Knead dough. Divide in 4 parts. Wrap in waxed paper. Refrigerate overnight.
2 lb. ground walnuts or pecans
1 c. sugar
2 t. cinnamon
dash of salt
Honey to taste
Melted butter, about ½ c
Roll and stretch each portion of dough into a rectangle, thinner than piecrust but thicker than phyllo. (A floured pillowcase makes a good guide and helps with the rolling.) Spread each portion with 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. Let rise 1 ¼ hours. Bake at 350 degrees F for 30 minutes, if necessary for 10 minutes more at 325 F. Let cool. Makes 4 loaves.
Five years ago, I set out on a serious quest to learn more my Slovenian heritage—and my family history. I have approached this from many directions: Books. Language tapes. A short but wonderful visit to Slovenia. The cultural association I discovered in San Francisco. Genealogy research. DNA testing. And, last but not least, peppering my mother with questions.
This year, I discovered a new path to understanding. Cooking.
My Slovenian cooking adventure started by chance, in December of 2010, when I was in the midst of online holiday shopping. I came across a classic ethnic cookbook called Woman's Glory: The Kitchen, published in Chicago by the Slovenian Women's Union of America. My well-used 1958 edition offered an odd but charming mix of traditional Slovenian recipes interspersed with dated American gems like Jell-O molds, Texas Taters, and casseroles made with canned soup. An amusing curiosity, I thought, and shelved it with the rest of my books about Slovenia and the Balkans.
This past December, I found two more vintage cookbooks, both products of the Slovenian community in Cleveland. Our Favorite Recipes was first published by the American Slovene Club in 1946. The Progressive Slovene Women of America, a political group, issued Treasured Slovenian & International Recipes in the early 1950s.
That’s when it hit me: Why not return to the kitchen, the place where it all began?
In January, I made a New Year's resolution. For the coming year, I would commit to making one all-Slovenian dinner a week, sticking as closely as possible to recipes from those three cookbooks. I wanted to invoke the spirit of people like my grandmother—and her mother. And all those other women, unsung and decidedly non-glamorous, who lived and cooked and struggled in America's working class ethnic communities in the early part of the twentieth century, the peak years of U.S. immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe.
(Continued in the magazine)
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders