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316recipebox2.jpgPotica Goes to WashingtonEvery Thursday morning from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m., Minnesotans visiting Washington, D.C., can get a sweet taste of home in the offices of Sen. Amy Klobuchar.The senior senator from Minnesota serves breakfast for Minnesotans and potica is always on the menu.Being a prudent representative from her home state, Amy orders from just about all of the Minnesota Iron Range bakeries that make the special bread.Asked which bakery produces her very favorite potica, she diplomatically responded that her favorite will always be the apple-walnut version made by her grandmother.
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Photo by Paul L. Hayden
Janet Sopp makes potica at home
Janet Sopp demonstrates dough rolling and pulling on the extended counter she had put into her Eveleth, Minnesota, home especially for potica.
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Photo by Paul L. Hayden
Making Potica at the Bakery
Coaxing the potica dough from a ball into a finely spread layer, ready to roll, is one of the most amazing transformations during potica making, done expertly here at the Sunrise Bakery by Brian Doeberling, left, and Kevin Nemio.
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Photo by Paul L. Hayden
At Sunrise Bakery in Hibbing Barb Hoover, left, daytime manager of packaging, and owner Ginny Forti, pause to pose with potica packages.
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Photo by Paul L. Hayden
Bette and Joe Prebonich of the Italian Bakery in Virginia.
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Mnnesota Potica Bakers
Andrej’s European Pastry, Chisholm, 218-254-2520, www.poticawalnut.com • Italian Bakery, Virginia, 218-741-3464, www.potica.com • Sunrise Bakery, Hibbing, 218-263-4985, www.sunrisegourmet.com
The audience in the hall was hushed as on stage, Jean Karsman deftly and carefully rolled, pulled, stretched and coaxed her dough across a bedsheet-sized, floured cloth until the layer covered the entire kitchen table. The sweet-bread dough was nearly seamless, but so thin that you could read a newspaper through it.
Quickly Jean, a member in good standing of the Slovenian Women’s Association in Chisholm, spread a mixture of crushed walnuts, butter, cream and honey across the thin dough. Then, as a master stroke, she lifted one edge of the sheet to start the massive pastry’s journey to a tight spiral.
The appreciative crowd went wild, erupting into loud, enthusiastic applause as the final rolling of the huge sweet bread turned into a much beloved ethnic treat known as potica (“po-teet-sah”).
In the taping of the more than 40 cooking shows I’ve done for WDSE public television over the years, it was the only time I’d witnessed such an outburst. There were more than a dozen wonderful dishes prepared that day on stage by engaging cooks for the program showcasing classic Iron Range cuisine. It was only the consummation of the potica recipe that rated such adulation.
No surprise to anyone who’s sampled the eastern European traditional treat pronounced around Lake Superior as “po-teet-sah” or “paw-tee-sa” – but never, NEVER “pot-ih-ka,” as it seems to be spelled.
Potica is likely familiar to anyone who grew up in – or anywhere near – a Slovenian, Croatian or Serbian family. (Which qualifies most of those who grew up on our iron ranges in Minnesota and Michigan.) The rich, Old World pastry could be simply described as a walnut roll, but that would in no way do it justice.
Prized for its delicate buttery layers of thin pastry and honey-sweet creamy walnut filling, it is a classic for Christmas.
“My mother made potica, her mother made potica, my aunt made potica,” says Janet Sopp of Eveleth, Minnesota, who is now sought after for her potica. “When they started making potica, you knew the holidays were coming. We would have potica on Christmas morning with ham.”
Ginny Forti, whose Italian family has a bakery in Hibbing, Minnesota, also remembers the treat. “I remember when I was young, an employee at our bakery whose mother made potica around Christmastime; I looked forward to it every year. Finally, I said, ‘Dad let’s try potica.’”
Thanks to young Ginny’s good idea, Hibbing’s Sunrise Bakery is famous for its potica, which ships to customers all over the country and all over the world. (Ginny now runs the bakery.) In fact, at least two other bakeries on the Minnesota Iron Range also have national and worldwide orders for their potica.
Another part of the Lake Superior region is also familiar with potica. Frank Bartel hails from Traunik in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, settled by many Eastern European immigrants, some of whom came from the original Traunik in Slovenia. Calling around in the region, it is his name that is mentioned as a maker of the local potica, though not for commercial use.
Frank remembers potica playing a more prominent role during the elaborate Easter morning breakfasts of his childhood with ham and horseradish.
“Potica means ‘something rolled up’ or ‘to roll something up’ in Slovenian,” Frank says.
That is where the differences in recipes begin. Debates crop up regarding dough to filling ratios, and straight nut filling versus those studded with raisins.
“Potica recipes often differ slightly from neighbor to neighbor,” says Frank, “And even larger variations from region to region.”
Frank has visited Slovenia 11 times over the years and says that nut potica is regarded as a holiday dish for Easter and Christmas, “too heavy for summer fare.”
Potica and its variations came from Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and neighboring countries where walnut trees are fairly common. For immigrants who settled in the New World to work in mining towns or to start farms, potica is alternately known as povitica, or orehnjaca.
And just like pasties, those hand-held meat pies that originated in Wales then were modified around the mining communities of Lake Superior, potica has multiple versions and factions who are loyal – sometimes stringently so – to their local bakery versions or to whatever Grandmother first made them.
Some versions of the recipe include raisins, some fruit such as apples. Other nuts can be used, too, and pecans are popular.
In Michigan, Frank believes potica should not be rolled out too thinly, whereas working the yeast dough to a fine layer is the goal of good potica makers in Minnesota.
If there is anything more prized regionally than the rich potica, it is a family’s potica maker. I’m not referring to a machine. Those thin layers resist mechanical intervention and must be created by human hands … very experienced human hands. It takes a stunning amount of skill and work to make the perfect potica. Hence the well-deserved applause for Jean Karsman’s amazing work at our program taping.
Some people are blessed with Slovenian family connections that supply golden brown, homemade potica.
Janet Sopp is called upon to make many potica for friends, relatives and others around her home area of Eveleth, Minnesota. She started making potica about 10 years ago. She starts the process in fall, freezing the potica. The walnuts are already in the freezer, waiting for the season.
“I order my walnuts from a small family farm in California so I can start baking around the end of October, beginning of November. Last year I went through 73 pounds of walnuts.”
For those of us without a good family tie, there are favorite bakery versions.
On Minnesota’s Iron Range, there are at least three choices that now make potica all year long – the Italian Bakery of Virginia and Hibbing’s Sunrise Bakery, both with regular bakery hours and potica shipping, and Andrej’s European Pastry in Chisholm, which only ships the pastry.
For homesick Iron Rangers, potica shipments from the Italian Bakery arrive like blessings from home.
“We ship potica all over the world, Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Joe Prebonich, owner of the bakery. Every loaf must be made by hand.
“We go through three tons of walnuts each year. I buy only light colored halves and pieces.”
The Italian Bakery has been in business since 1905, and has made potica since the 1950s thanks to a recipe from the then-owner’s Slovenian mother-in-law.
“We bake potica all year long, not just for the holidays. Here it’s also in demand for weddings and funerals.”
Joe’s mom used to make the Croatian version of potica with raisins. “Now I make that, too, and offer it in the store around the holidays.”
When Ginny Forti persuaded her Italian father to add potica to his bakery’s choice, he modified the recipe.
“My dad used to deliver bakery to Chisholm, where he would visit with small grocery store owners and ask how they made their potica. Finally, he developed his own recipe. I was in my 20s then, and I discovered that it was the hardest thing to sell,” Ginny tells the story with a laugh.
“Nobody knew what potica was back then, but I said to myself, ‘A couple of years ago, no one knew what pizza was either.’”
Ginny’s belief in potica paid off. She finally persuaded the Byerly’s grocery store in Edina, Minnesota, to sell Sunrise Bakery potica.
“Our big break came in September of 1991. I came to work and heard that someone had called from California to order potica. Then there was another order, and then another. Finally I asked ‘How did you hear about us all the way out in Los Angeles?’ This gal told me, ‘I read about you in the newspaper.’”
Sunrise Bakery potica had caught the attention of a food writer for the Los Angeles Times. Now the nearly 100-year-old Sunrise Bakery goes through several tons of walnuts every year for its potica production.
Jan Gadzo with Andrej’s European Pastry grew up in eastern Slovakia. “We had big walnut trees, and come October you would have to get up early in the morning to pick up the walnuts that had fallen overnight. We harvested using long sticks to knock the walnuts down.”
Walnuts have a husklike skin that covers the shell. “As a kid you’d come to school with stained fingers from peeling walnut skins, and everybody knew what you had been doing,” says Jan with a laugh. But then everyone looked forward to Christmastime when the dried walnuts would be cracked open and ground with a special grinder. “Good walnuts have plenty of oil,” says Jan. “Slovenians claim potica, but in Slovakia we made Orechovnik…walnut roll.” Jan grew up with his mother’s tradition of making a raised dough rich with butter, milk and eggs, which is then rolled thin and filled with a sweet blend containing pure crushed walnuts.
When he moved to the Iron Range Jan started making Orechovnik or potica, just like his mother did, “I like to use local butter and milk, a special flour, and pure cane sugar. And I get all of my walnuts from the same family farm in California, around three tons a year now.”
Jan estimates that he sells about 20,000 loaves a year through his company Andrej’s European Pastry, including to grocery stores in the Twin Cities such as Byerly's and Kowalski’s. “Our dough is rolled thin, but of course Slovenians stretch their dough, and that’s an art form, too.”
As Christmas approaches, you have the choice of getting your potica from the store, from a friend or relative – or, if you’re adventurous, from your own kitchen. For many ethnic groups around Lake Superior, the sweet taste of bread, walnuts and honey or fruit are indeed a special taste of the season.
Whatever “potica” you choose, the guests at your table will applaud your choice.
Juli Kellner keeps up her culinary skills and keeps up with work as program director for WDSE-TV/DT public television in Duluth.
Slovenian Walnut Potica
This recipe is from the cookbook, Cooking on the Range, submitted by Jean Karsman of the Slovenian Women’s Association of Chisholm, Minnesota. (Many jealously guard their potica secrets.)
5 tsp. dry yeast
1 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 c. warm water
In a one-cup measure, dissolve yeast in warm water, add sugar, stir and let bubbles form on top.
Combine the ingredients to make the dough. Separate into two parts to make the top and bottom crusts for a 9-inch pie plate.
1-1/2 c. scalded milk (1 minute in microwave) Can use half as canned milk or half-and-half cream.
1/2 c. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 stick margarine
2 beaten eggs
6-1/2 to 7 cups flour (Jean uses Gold Medal regular)
Scald milk and margarine in microwave for 1 minute, add sugar, salt, eggs and yeast mixture. Stir and add flour, beginning with 6 cups, then gradually adding more flour until dough is no longer sticky.
Knead – with a dough hook or by hand on floured board for about 20 minutes until smooth. (Jean does half with dough hook at a time, and then kneads all for several minutes to combine.) Place in well-greased large bowl, cover and let rise in warm place or put bowl in hot tap water, changing water frequently to keep hot. (No kneading after dough is risen to top.) Line three pans with parchment paper. (Jean has 14-inch pans, so she makes three strips out of one batch as her table is 42 inches.) Spray paper with cooking spray such as Pam.
6 c. ground walnuts (about 1-1/2 lbs.)
1 c. white sugar
1 c. brown sugar
3 eggs beaten with 1 tsp. almond flavoring
1 c. scalded cream or canned milk with 1 stick real butter melted in and 1/2 c. honey
1 tsp. cinnamon
Add hot liquid to ground walnuts that have been mixed with sugars and cinnamon. Stir well, add eggs.
Return to bread dough, which should plop, not run. Carefully dump dough onto table that has been covered with a twin sheet or table cloth and lightly floured. Start with a rolling pin, rolling the dough to a rectangle about 24 by 36 inches. Then stretch dough to 42 by 60 inches or to your table size. Cut off any thicker edges. Drop filling by large spoonfuls over two-thirds of the dough (using hands spreads easiest and most uniformly.) Spread evenly to edges and pick up short edge of cloth and gently roll over and over itself.
Cut into pan-size strips and patch with leftover thin dough or cut with a small plate and pinch ends shut. Place in prepared pans and prick with cake tester (or turkey pin) to prevent air bubbles. Cover and let rise about 40 minutes.
Preheat oven to 325° F or 350° F depending on oven. Bake 35 to 45 minutes until golden brown. (Jean bakes hers at 340° F for about 35 minutes.) Remove from oven and let cool in pans for 20 minutes. Carefully dump out in hand, remove paper and set on a cooling rack. Cover with a cotton cloth and cool. (Jean wraps hers in plastic wrap and then freezer foil.) Freezes well for up to six months.
This recipe by Lucille Tradan Bontems in Cooking on the Range is a tasty alternative for those hankering potica but not able to do the work. The taste echoes potica, though it’s not the real thing, of course!
3/4 c. butter
1-1/2 c. sugar
1-1/2 tsp. baking powder
1-1/2 tsp. baking soda
3 c. flour
1 pt. sour cream
1-1/2 tsp. vanilla
Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time, beating until creamy. Sift together flour, baking powder and soda. Add alternately with sour cream to butter mixture. Add vanilla, mix until smooth.
1 c. grated walnuts
2 Tbsp. flour
1-1/2 c. brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan. Alternate layers of batter and filling, then cut through batter with a knife for marble effect. Bake 1 hour, 10 minutes at 350° F.
Reader Submitted Recipes
Rea Theno Rossi, Charlotte, North Carolina, submits two quick recipes. “As my mom reacher her mid-80s, she had trouble making potica dough the real way, so we had to do without potica for the hoidays. That just didn’t seem right! I’ve been experimenting with the recipes for about six years with the help of my mom, Helen Sloger Theno, who passed away in 2007, and my sister, Marguerite Theno Shavor. … Many of us “Rangers” never learned the baking skills of our mothers and grandmothers or we moved away from home for jobs and schooling, but still have strong ties back to the area.
Fast ’N Easy ’N Tasty Ranger Apple Potica
3 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
1 1/2 c. sugar
2 tbsp. cinnamon
1 1/2 - 2 sticks of butter
1 package of phyllo dough (Athens Thick or Kontos #5 preferred)
Combine sugar and cinnamon. Grease baking sheet. Preheat oven to 425°.
Follow directions on package for phyllo dough. Each box contains two wrapped packages with about 21 sheets of pastry dough per package. Use approximately 7 sheets per potica section if using regular phyllo dough. If using the Athens Thick or Kontos #5 brand, use 4 sheets per section. The recipe makes 3 sections.
On a pastry cloth, lay out one sheet of fillo dough, then overlap the next sheet about an inch or more, overlap on the widest edge, repeat again until you’ve used 1/3 of the phyllo dough sheets in the package.
Generously spread melted butter over all areas of the pastry sheets to keep it moist (this will make it easier to roll).
Sprinkle about 1/3 of cinnamon-sugar mixture evenly over the dough.
Place very thinly cut apple slices (horizontally to widest edge for easy rolling) on pastry sheets.
Roll pastry sheets like a jellyroll from one end to the other. (It will crack and break up, but just keep rolling and ignore the holes and broken pieces.)
Place this potica section on the greased baking sheet.
Repeat process for the two remaining potica sections with approximately 7 pastry sheets each.
Drizzle melted butter on top of each section.
Bake at 425° for 10 minutes, then lower oven temperature to 350° and bake for approximately 30 minutes.
Remove from oven and cool.
Fast ’N Easy ’N Tasty Ranger Walnut Potica
6 pkg. Pillsbury Crescent Roll Dough (8 oz. each)
Flour for dusting
1 can (12 oz.) evaporated milk
1 lb. (4 c.) ground walnuts
3 eggs, slightly beaten
1 c. honey
1/2 c. sugar
1/4 c butter (1/2 stick) plus more for spreading on top of the finished potica
1 tsp. vanilla
3 slightly beaten eggs
In a saucepan, scald evaporated milk. Add walnuts, honey, sugar and eggs. Stir until combined. Cook over medium-high heat for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. Add butter and vanilla. Stir until combined. Let cool.
Preheat oven to 350º.
Use 2 packages of Pillsbury Crescent Roll dough per potica. Remove dough from packages and unroll on a pastry cloth that has been sprinkled with flour if needed to avoid sticking. (For a pastry cloth, use a muslin-type sheet.) Push perforations together with fingers to form a solid rectangle using both packages of dough. Sprinkle lightly with flour. Use a rolling pin to flatten the dough further. This is the challenging part, but don’t give up! Now it will become an irregularly shaped rectangle.
Spread 1/3 of walnut filling on the dough. It is okay to use your fingers to spread the filling over the dough. Roll the dough like a jellyroll. Place potica roll in a well-greased loaf pan. If the roll is too large, it is okay to “stuff” it into a loaf pan or to trim about 1/3 off (with a twist of thread or sharp butcher knife).
Repeat the process to make two more poticas. Spread butter on top of each potica to prevent excessive cracking.
Bake at 350º for approximately 1 hour - more or less depending on the oven.
Remove from oven and cool in the pain for approximately 2 minutes before removing potica from pan and placing on a cooling rack to cool completely. Lightly spread top with butter. The shape will collapse as it cools but that is okay, it is not the real dough.
** Recipe makes 3 oversized poticas, but they will fit in 4 loaf pans if each potica is trimmed by 1/3 to fit better and place the 3 cut-off sections in the fourth loaf pan.