When Pope Francis not long ago made a quip about potica to Melania Trump, the world collectively wondered, “What the heck is that?” Well, the world, minus the people of Slovenia, for whom potica is a ubiquitous, beloved baked good, the national pastry. Pronounced poh-tee-tzah, this dessert is baked by grannies throughout the country on just about any holiday. At its core, it’s a pastry made by spreading a mixture of sweetened ground walnuts over the yeasted dough, then coiling this tightly and baking it, traditionally in the form of a ring, using a sort of terracotta Bundt pan called a potičnica, though it can also be baked in straight loaves. It is served sliced, with the cross-section showing off the spiral marbling of the filling in the dough.
Seeing as I am married to a Slovene, and have a Slovenian mother-in-law (not to mention grandmother-in-law), and that I live in Slovenia, this should be my sweet spot. But my adventures in potica baking have not met with success, and I’ve also been intimidated to try. I’m surrounded by potica all-stars, and the recipe is, frankly, multi-layered and time-consuming. Readers of this column will know that, while I love a good meal, I am also inherently lazy in the kitchen, and would prefer to cook quickly and with as few pots to clean afterwards as possible. There are no shortcuts with potica. You need a grandmother’s patience and love for the process, and the fruits of it, sliced warm and served to eager grandchildren. I’m determined to learn how to make a good potica, which seems like a domestic rite of passage around these parts, and so I roll up my sleeves.
But first, to the research! At my side is a just-published book called Poticas from Slovenian. The author is the hugely-prolific Dr. Janez Bogataj, a fountain of arcane knowledge, and Slovenia’s only culinary ethnographer. He studies the history of how and what people ate, a subject I can immediately sympathize with. First published in Slovenian in 2013, this book won the Gourmand Cookbook Award for the best cook book in Eastern Europe (never mind that Slovenia is entirely in Central Europe, every inch of the country west of Vienna). The English edition was just released (full disclosure: I proof-read the English translation of the book, but was otherwise not involved), and in reading it, I was surprised to learn that poticas come in all sorts of varieties.
The traditional version is filled with sweetened, ground walnuts (with raisins optional), and it is not uncommon to find a variety which swaps out walnuts for poppy seeds, hazelnuts, chocolate, or even tarragon (an odd but intriguing mélange of savory and sweet). Turns out that’s just the start. There are many savory options (filled with cracklings, sausage, lovage, chives) and the sweet sorts seem endless: Coconut, clotted cream, dried fruit, chestnut, pumpkin seed, even carob, if we’re going to get crazy. What makes them all potica is the format. Bogataj’s book not only features good recipes but, since it is the work of a culinary ethnographer, it is packed with historical detail. Potica evolved from a variety of central European (largely Habsburg imperial) traditions, starting with a narrow ring-shaped kolač, the tightly-coiled povitica, and the pie-like pogača. Potica started to look like potica, a thick ring baked in the Slovenian relative of the Bundt pan, in the 16th century. It is related to, but distinct from, Austrian pastries like šarkelj and Gugelhupf, both of which are as much fun to eat as they are to say. But potica, Slovenia’s flagship food item, has a unique and rich history, referenced in detail in Janez Valvasor’s Glory of the Duchy of Carniola (1689). This is apt because Bogataj is, in many ways, inheritor of the mantle of Valvasor, an 18th century baron and ethnographer who studied the details of folk tradition throughout Carniola, the northern region of Slovenia. But I find myself dawdling over the historical anecdotes, which I love so well, because I’m frankly intimidated to start baking…
Here's why. More than ten years ago, I tried to make a potica for a family New Year’s Eve gathering. The process was long and, while the resulting pastry looked good coming out of the oven, the center quickly collapsed, like a building with a foundation made of sweetened ground walnuts. My mother- and grandmother-in-law later told me that my filling-to-dough ratio must have been off. The dish tasted good, but had to be eaten with a spoon—not in lovely, marbled slices, by hand.
Step one is to mix the dough. I don’t have a proper KitchenAid-type mixer, so I have to use the handheld variety, which results in frequent projectile flour, eggs, and batter around my kitchen. I would already rather have my mother-in-law bake me one. But I press on. The dough rises and I roll it out, as I’ve seen my relatives do, on the dining room table, stretching the dough over a tablecloth. The filling—I’m going with traditional ground walnuts studded with raisins—is easier to make, but I’m already cutting corners. My relatives buy whole walnuts, crack them, and smash the delicious insides with rolling pins. I buy pre-ground walnuts, and I’m quickly scolded, as these have likely been sitting, out of their shell, for so long that they are unpleasantly aged. Hm. Not a good sign. But I sauté them in honey, milk, run, butter and lemon zest, which I figure should hide a multitude of sins. I spread the filling out evenly across the dough, which has been rolled so broadly that it really does cover our dining room table. Now comes the balletic part: I use the tablecloth to roll the potica from the edge to the center, lifting the cloth so the dough curls in and over the filling, spiraling it until I’ve got a very long coiled tube that looks like a pastry python (and weighs about as much).
In display in my kitchen I have a potičnica made by family friend, and master ceramicist, Francel Kremžar, which I have always thought of as primarily decorative. A beautiful, terracotta object, it hadn’t really occurred to me to actually use it for, you know, baking. But here I go, lifting (with the assistance of others) the potica python and placing it into the greased potičnica. Then into the oven.
When it comes out, I’m nervous, not least because my mother- and grandmother-in-law are hovering around, eager to taste the outcome (and correct any failings). Out it comes. It looks great, but I’m waiting for the ceiling to collapse. It does not. The result is a solid effort, assisted by a helpful cookbook.
Look, I love potica, and I love my daughters. But when I’ve got superstar potica makers in the family, I’m not sure how often I’ll be baking them. Turns out that you can order good ones, too, these days. A popular souvenir for visitors to Ljubljana, Le Potica makes adorable, single-serving miniature versions of the pastry, in many flavors, wrapped in a lovely gift box. Even in the US you can find some bakeries that prepare them, based on recipes from Slovenian immigrant relatives—the Sunrise Bakery in Minnesota makes an excellent version, in loaf form. But the best I’ve tried (with apologies to my relatives) came as a gift, when I gave a talk, not long ago, in the village of Ribnica, Slovenia. The venue was Skrabceva Domacija, the Skrabec Homestead, owned by one of Slovenia’s most successful businessmen, Janez Skrabec, who runs Riko, a high-end prefabricated construction company with projects around the world, and collaborations with superstars like Philippe Starck. As a thank-you for having spoken there, I was given a potica, in a potičnica (so I could use the container to bake more in the future). The pastry was amazing, and I could taste the patience and love of a mother in each bite. Turns out the mother in question was my host’s mother-in-law, but there’s no rule that you have to be related to the baker to enjoy the fruits of their labors, is there?