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Feature Thu Dec 18 2008
by Linda Romero
I guess it's my imagination. But I thought I just heard my grandmother's voice
ask: "Did you make your potica yet?"
Yes, Gram. I did. It came out of the oven an hour ago. All the hours I was grinding
those walnuts, all the time I waited for the dough to rise and then rolled it out, you
were leaning over my shoulder, making sure I didn't forget anything. If there's one day
a year you come back to haunt me, it's the day I make potica.
Potica is a nut-filled bread that's baked in Slovenia, my grandmother's homeland,
for holidays, notably Christmas. Making potica is time-consuming and physically demanding. The dough must be kneaded for hours, just long enough for your elbows to
feel like they've become unscrewed from your arms. The walnuts must be painstakingly ground many times to make a smooth paste. (Grandma called this paste "moosh.")
There are no shortcuts to making potica. It takes at least a day out of your life.
But holidays aren't holidays in my family unless there's potica. Potica was the
taste of Christmas Eve, in an coal-heated kitchen on Claremont Avenue near Lincoln
Square. That's why, when I was seventeen, I thought I'd better learn to make potica
myself. So I took the Foster Avenue bus to Grandma's.
"Gram, may I have the recipe for potica?" I asked.
"There is no recipe. You chust make it," said my grandmother.
"What do you mean," You just make it?" I demanded. I had a rudimentary knowledge
of baking, having once made a loaf of bread on a bet. Baking, I knew, takes recipes.
"It's easy," said my grandmother. "It's chust like bread." So I went home and got
out that bread recipe. Flour, water, yeast, shortening, salt, sugar. I let the dough rise,
rolled it out, put ground walnuts on it (remembering smugly how they had to be ground
fine enough to be moosh.) I rolled it up and baked it.
"It's like a brick," my grandmother said, rolling the R like an enormous rock. How
much milk did you put in?"
"Milk? You didn't say anything about milk! I made it with water. 'Just like bread,'
"Well, next time you make your potica, put in milk," Gram said simply. "And you
have to knead it good and hard. All morning."
Another Christmas rolled around. Now that I knew the secret, I was ready to
tackle potica a second time. I asked my mom to have the milkman deliver an extra half-gallon for my project. I kneaded till the muscles knotted on my arms and sweat ran down my face. I ground up those walnuts till they were a gooshy moosh. And when it came out of the oven, it wasn't a brick. But it didn't taste like potica, either.
"Taste this," I demanded when Grandma came over to the house. "This isn't
Gram had one nibble and agreed. "You forgot to put the cinnamon," she stated
"No one said anything about cinnamon! You just said there were walnuts in the
"Well" she said. "There's cinnamon too. And a little honey."
That was simple enough. Cinnamon and honey. I could remember that. So the
following year, two weeks before Christmas, I telephoned my grandmother long distance from my new home, Colorado. She had visited me there earlier that year and
pronounced the mountain town where I lived to be "Chust like the Old Country," of
"Let's make this quick," I said. "It's my nickel. Now, I have milk. I have cinnamon.
I have honey, I have walnuts..."
"Grind them up fine, to make a moosh," she offered.
"I made a moosh!" I almost shouted into the receiver. "I have sugar, yeast, salt,
butter. Is there anything else?"
There was a silence at the other end of the line. "Eggs," she said, pronouncing it
"X". She whispered, reluctant to divulge such valuable information after only four years of questioning.
"X," I repeated, stunned. "You never told me X. You should have told me eggs
the first year. How come you never said eggs before?"
"You didn't ask," Gram said.
Eight or nine years went by. Every December, I'd telephone my grandmother and
run down the list of ingredients. Every year, she'd reveal one more secret spice or
But then the miracle happened. My years of persistence paid off. I finally made a potica that tasted just like Grandma's. Consulting my ten-year-old list of ingredients, I had made a potica to rival anything my Aunt Ruth in Berwyn could turn out. My filling was rich, my dough had just the right amount of honey and milk, the color was perfect
and the texture divine.
I wrapped one up in tinfoil and sent it to Grandma parcel post.
"Did you taste it?" I asked her when I called a few days later. "Wasn't it great? I
put in cinnamon. I put in eggs. I made a moosh. I brushed the top with butter and egg
yolk. What do you think?"
"Pretty good," admitted Grandma. "It's almost right."
"What do you mean, ALMOST?" I demanded. "It's perfect! How can you tell me
it's ALMOST right?"
"Because you forgot the lemon rind," she said.
"You never said anything about lemon rind!"
"A-ha!" said Grandma. Which, in Slovenian, means "Ho ho ho."
Linda Romero, a native of the Humboldt Park neighborhood, now lives in Colorado. Her works have appeared in Pilgrimage, The Denver Post, Mountain Gazette, and many other publications.