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« The Twelve Days of Christmas: Day 7 Keeping it Real Outdoorsy »

Feature Thu Dec 18 2008

Potica for the Holidays

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,'
you said."

"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
potica."

Gram had one nibble and agreed. "You forgot to put the cinnamon," she stated
flatly.

"No one said anything about cinnamon! You just said there were walnuts in the
filling!"

"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
Slovenia.

"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
technique.

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.

Danya / December 18, 2008 11:56 PM

Great story Robyn. Potica is a holiday staple in our household as well, although our recipe produces a much thinner layer of bread that requires hours and hours or rolling. It seems every one I've talked to has their horror stories about making this delicious treat. Mine are the three years in a row when the rolling pin seemly vanished from my mother's kitchen for that one day we needed it. I can't even count the number of painful hours I spent rolling out paper-thin dough with a large canning jar. A few days later, the rolling pin, now despised, would make it's reappearance.

Matt B / December 19, 2008 6:28 AM

I had this treat often as a child during the holiday season, though I doubt anyone in my family actually made it. Instead, someone probably picked it up at the local Polish deli/bakery. Your story, which was remarkably written, has made me crave it again, and I will be sure to appreciate it 10 times more than I did as a kid.

Zlata / December 19, 2008 7:05 AM

What a great story! Since my knuckles have turned to 'moosh' from years of making Potica I now buy mine from Rocky Mountain Potica. It has the most authentic taste of all available online. Of course there's nothing as grand as the smell home baked Potica.
Loved your story. Merry Christmas!

AKB / December 19, 2008 11:24 AM

I just "learned" our family recipe for potica over the summer, and made it for the first time for Thanksgiving, a test run. Because like your story says, it is never right the first time. Thank you for making my day with the reminder that there are many people who make homemade potica!

--30, and finally carrying on the family tradition.

Shar / December 21, 2008 4:47 PM

I learned how to make potica when I married into my husband's Slovenian family. My sister-in-law taught me the family tradition that I have kept up now for 39 years. I thought that I would never learn how to get the pastry so thin you could see thru it before adding the filling. I will now be teaching my new daughter-in-law how to make it because between my husband and 2 sons they will not let a holiday go by without potica. Plus I can't imagine a holdiay without it either.

Kris / December 22, 2008 9:00 PM

I remember how we couldn't open our Christmas gifts on Christmas Eve until after dinner and potica! I could hardly wait until my Grandma would say O.K. lets get the presents!!

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