A Christmas and Easter classic that no good Slovenian table can go without!
What is there not to love about potica?
For those who may not know this dessert, it's a hearty, hefty thing; imagine if strudel were made with a rich yeast dough and a slightly drier filling. It's a simple matter of just spreading your filling out on the dough and rolling it up to bake in a potičnik, which is a ceramic baking dish that looks something like a bunt pan. The oldest recipe for potica was actually first written down by Primož Trubar, the same priest that wrote the Bible in the Slovenian language (and thus created the first official written piece of Slovenian language, the one that helped preserve it despite the Austrian empire's heavy preference for German).
My experience with potica growing up is pretty funny. Neither my dad nor myself liked it very much when my mom made it, because every year hers would turn out like a rock. The flavor was good! And to this day, there's no other dessert that tastes like it, definitely. But my mother was using her grandmother's recipe, and if I had to guess, I'd say they were using a recipe for sourdough potica—one that requires a long rise time, lots of kneading to build the gluten, and a lot of fuss and attention that it doesn't need when using instant yeast.
My mom was using instant yeast. On a sourdough recipe. To say it was dense was an understatement.
But once we figured out what was going wrong, her potica started turning out great, too. A yeast dough is nothing to be afraid of; once you're used to letting those little guys do their thing, they basically do most of the work for you. After making potica a few times by myself now, I can safely say that the old memories of potica taking a thousand years and ending up dense as hell are no more. This recipe will give you a moist, nicely filled potica with a swirl of walnut and dough you can show off on the holiday table.
You can make this dish with a variety of fillings. The most common ones I know of are tarragon and cheese, poppy seed, and the one I make: walnut with rum soaked raisins. But there's also honey filling, chocolate filling, and even melon filling, which is pretty unique. But of course, back in the day, the filling signified class: things like walnuts and rich butter and cream was expensive, and certainly not so easily accessible as pungent herbs like tarragon or farmer's cheese. Nowadays, though, everyone can make whatever filling they'd like, and each and every one boasts their own kind of magic. With this walnut-rum combo, we have plenty to work with.
Namely, I'm thinking that the combination of rum, walnut, lemon, flour, and egg, you really have the recipe for a death of the old year, a birth of the new year, and plenty of luck, favor, wealth, rambunctiousness, and cleansing to go around.
Magic in Walnut Potica
According to Vlasta Mlakar in her book Sacred Plants in Folk Medicine and Rituals: Ethnobotany of Slovenia, walnuts and hazelnuts were a symbol of luck, fertility, and bounty. They were often given to the young boys playing Green George in the springtime festivals of St. George's day, and they graced the many guests at a good wedding, too. The wedding pogača, and of course, the potica, were staples of the wedding feast to bless the newlyweds, along with a sort of millet porridge. My mother already decided there will be potica on that dessert table at my future wedding!
Combine the humble walnut with the rest here, and we've got ourselves a real party. Rum, being made of sugarcane and often spiced like Captain Morgan's is (with cardamom, vanilla, clove, cinnamon, etc.), is in itself a powerhouse of an ingredient, but the alcohol itself is something that can symbolize gaining good favor, rowdiness, fun, luck, and wild emotion. Flour, egg, and lemon bring qualities of wealth and prosperity, death and rebirth, and purification and cleansing that only adds to that feeling of letting your hair down at the end of the year and just starting fresh. The elements of water, earth, and fire here, along with the planets Pluto, the Moon, the Sun, Venus, and Jupiter make this a pretty intense blend of energy. It's the dessert of the day for a reason, I'll tell you!
Prep time: 90 minutes
Cook time: 60 minutes
Makes 25 Servings
1 1/2 tsp (7g) instant yeast
1/4 cup LUKEWARM milk
1 1/3 cup room temp milk
1 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
6 egg yolks
600g+ all purpose flour (until not sticky basically)
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 cup raisins, soaked in rum overnight
1 1/2 lemons worth of zest
30ml rum (1 shot)
2 packets vanilla sugar (or 4 tsp vanilla + 20g sugar)
6 egg whites, whipped stiff
500g walnuts, ground
1 1/2 cup sugar
60ml rum (2 shots)
1 1/2 lemons worth of zest
More milk if too dry (check first!)
Dissolve the yeast, 1 tsp of sugar, and 3 tablespoons of flour into a cup with the lukewarm 1/4 cup of milk, then let stand until foamy.
Cream the butter, sugar, and vanilla sugar (or vanilla extract), then add egg yolks one at a time, beating until each one is fully incorporated.
Add yeast, milk, salt, lemon zest, and 500g of flour, then mix together and add the rest of your flour a little at a time until fully incorporated.
When the dough comes together, turn it out and knead it until smooth and elastic (5-8 minutes).
Oil up a bowl, then put the dough in and turn it around to coat it in oil. Then cover and rest in a warm place until it doubles about an hour later.
While it rests, prepare your filling. Grind up 500g of walnut in a food processor.
Beat your egg whites until they reach stiff peaks, then fold in walnuts, sugar, rum, and lemon zest until fully combined.
Grease your baking vessel (either a bread pan, bunt pan, or baking sheet).
Turn your dough out, deflate it, and split it in half, then roll out to 1/4 to 1/2 in thick.
Spread each piece with your filling, sprinkle your rum raisins all over, and then roll each one up like a little jelly roll.
Pinch the ends closed, then insert into your baking dishes.
Beat an egg and brush the top in an egg wash.
Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 Celsius) for 1 hour, or until the center is cooked through (insert a skewer like you would a toothpick).
This is a labor of love, but it's a tradition that Slovenians have carried on for centuries, and that makes it worth it in my eyes. It's delicious either as a dessert or the next day with coffee, and all those walnuts mean you stay full for quite literally hours. I ate a big piece of it once and was just fueled on walnut glory for the rest of the day.
But if you ever want to give the old Southern Slavic Christmas/Easter tradition a try, definitely do!