The approaching Easter holiday brings to mind an amalgam of secular, religious and ethnic traditions.
By Melissa Maki
For me, potica, a delectable nut bread filled with walnut-honey paste, is chief among them. Potica (pronounced po-teet-sa) has Eastern European, and particularly Slavic, roots. Those who understand the care that goes into making potica know that when it is served, it is to be savored. It’s often reserved for special occasions such as Easter, Christmas or weddings.
I’ve always been fascinated by ethnic food traditions, but this one is particularly dear to my heart. Where I come from, potica is not only a delicacy, it’s an integral piece of the culture.
I grew up on the “Iron Range,” the nickname for a region in Minnesota whose history and landscape were irrevocably shaped by the steel industry. The iron ore mining boom in the early 20th century brought successive waves of immigrants who were looking for better lives to the region. They emigrated from dozens of European countries, creating a diverse population. The old “melting pot” mentality pushed immigrants to assimilate, to learn English and to abandon their cultural traditions.
While I’m sure it’s not completely unique, I’ve lived on the West and East Coasts and haven’t encountered this level of consciousness about individual heritage elsewhere — at least not among the white people I know. In grade school, I remember the kids asking one another, “What are you?” Since it’s rare these days, it was a point of pride to be 100 percent Finn or 100 percent Italian, for instance.
In my hometown, people can easily surmise your ethnicity once they know your last name. It’s a place where ethnic clubs, like the Slovenian Women’s Union, the Ladies of Kaleva (Finnish) the Sons of Norway and the Italian-American Club still exist. And food plays a pivotal role at club-sponsored events, whether it’s potica or pulla (a tasty, Finnish cardamom bread). It’s a delicious way of paying homage to our ancestors while remembering our roots.
My Slovenian grandmother carries on the tradition of making potica for our family celebrations. And I think everyone in my family will agree that it’s not really a significant celebration if the potica is missing.
There are a number of potica variations. Walnut is the standard for Slovenian potica, but there are many variations, likely based on the region where the recipe originated (Croatia, Serbia, Slovakia, etc.). You can find potica made with pecans, poppyseeds, raisins, apple, cream cheese and more. Some potica is doughy and bread-like, while some is sweeter and more dessert-like, featuring impossibly thin layers of dough.
My grandmother makes the latter variety, which involves a great amount of skill because it requires the dough to be stretched the full length of a large table. The uninitiated (like myself) are sure to tear holes in dough that is so thin it’s on the verge of its breaking point.
After the dough has been stretched, it’s spread with a walnut/honey/brown sugar paste, and then finally the potica is rolled up and baked until golden brown.
The skill and dexterity with which my grandmother rolls out and stretches the potica dough is astounding. It’s as if she’s channeling an ancient cultural memory. I’ve taken a couple of lessons from her, but making potica is an elaborate, all-day process that I haven’t yet attempted alone. But since potica is one of the last remnants of my Slovenian heritage, I’m committed to learning and carrying on this delicious tradition.
If you aren’t fortunate enough to have a Slovenian grandmother but would like to try potica, my friends recommend the Sunrise Bakery or Andrej’s European Pastry.
Melissa Maki became a freelance writer while living in Belgium a few years back. Once she had the opportunity to write about beer and bike rides, there was no going back to a "normal" job. She enjoys trying out new recipes, tasting beer, taking photos and walking in the woods. She currently lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
What a wonderful article and truly a tribute to your Grandmother who makes some of the best potica to be found! I thoroughly enjoyed your article!
Happy Easter and enjoy the potica!
Thanks for your kind words Sandy! Happy Easter to you!
I had my first taste (delicious) of Potica on the “Iron Range” this Christmas with the Skenzich/Bozich families.
What an honor to share in this tradition.
This is a very interesting looking bread – is there a recipe that goes with it – We use a lot of cardamom in many of our sweet and savory dishes
My eyes have got to be sh**ting me – I live in Charlotesville (Earlysville actually) too what a coincidence! How wonderful is that! May be a live demo on how to make potica? ;)
Priya, I’m attempting potica for the first time myself this weekend. Maybe a demo after I’m better seasoned. :) Here’s a recipe. http://www.snpj.org/slovenian-culture/potica-recipe I’ll ask my grandma permission to share hers. Next, I might make pulla (cardamom bread) since I’m half Finn too.
I’m anxious to check out your recipes, your blog looks great! It would be fun to connect sometime since we live so close.
Nice article! My granddaughter (1/2 Finn, 1/4 Serb, 1/8 Croatian, 1/8 Slovenian) and I are getting ready to make potica for Easter! The walnuts are ground! The flour is measured! My potica has always been thicker and now she is challenging me to make it thinner! It’s the Finn in her, they are such perfectionists! She is proud of all of her heritage, too, that’s the Ranger in her!
Glad you enjoyed the article Rosemary! I’m a mix of Finn, Croatian and Slovenian too. It is a challenge to make it thinner. I’m attempting to make some this weekend. Crossing fingers! Hope your potica turns out wonderfully.
I’m making potica today! Here’s a video clip of the process. https://vine.co/v/bIutePTjxmu
The article made me thinking to my mother and the times when I was home eating something similar called “cozonac”. We have the tradition to prepare it for Christmas. Around 48 recipes can be found here but only in Romanian
and in English
PS. It goes very well with Glue Wine
That does look similar Nicolae, I’d love to try it sometime. :) Thanks for sharing this.
My mother used to make potica every year around Christmas. I’ve found Bubba’s Homebaked in New Alexandria, PA makes a version very close to hers. While my mother was Croatian and Bubba’s Homebaked is Serbian, you’d never tell the difference in nut rolls!
They also have different varieties of rolls–including poppy seed, cherry and other flavors. I always go for the traditional walnut roll as it’s what my mother made.
You can look them up on the web. I live in California and when I order from them early in the week, I have the potica delivered to my door by the following weekend!
Great article! I’m of half-Slovenian heritage, grew up in Cleveland, but also think of myself as having Iron Range roots. (My immigrant great-grandparents first settled in Ely.) We have 4 generations of potica-makers in the family. Wouldn’t be Christmas without it! Our family version looks a lot like this photo but has some different “twists” in the recipe. Recipe is here, on my Slovenian cooking blog: http://slovenianroots.blogspot.com/2012/12/potica-step-by-step-guide-to-slovenian.html
my grandma made a dish that was always my favorite. it was the potica dough (with out the yeast) the dough used for an apple or cheese potica. she would use a cottage cheese, egg and sugar filling. (no cinnamon. after rolling up the dough/fill into a “snake” she would place it in boiling water. this would cook the dough similar to cooking pasta. she called it Strukla.
has anyone ever heard of this variation? just wondering if this was a traditional Croatian dish or just something my grandma made.
My grandmother made something similar only baked in cast iron skillet rather than boiled. She called it cheese potica and also made apple strudel with the same dough. I loved it – but have had trouble duplicating it. I have the recipe, just not the skills yet.
My sister and I made a regular potica this weekend and had a great time re-creating a piece of our childhood. Luckily I grew up making it with my Grandma and Mom, and my sis has practiced with an aunt so we can teach our daughters and continue the tradition.
Thanks for the nice comments and recipe! Yes, potica is a wonderful Christmas tradition too. Carol, I haven’t heard of strukla but it sounds yummy and now I’m curious to ask my grandmother about it. My family has Slovenian and Croatian influences.
We had our first attempt at Potica this weekend with borrowed pans from a friend. As far as I can tell, no one is making the Potica pans anymore. Do you have any idea where we might find some? I only found 1 on Ebay and for a batch I need 5 pans. Any suggestions?
Melissa, your potica looks just like what my former MIL Barbara Ann Miroslavich Hultman made. Barb was of Croatian and Slovenian descent and decribed to me once the “potica wars” on the Iron Range in the 1930s and 1940s. She said everyone was trying to outdo everyone else. There would be potica-making gatherings at the local Catholic churches, but only the older, more experienced ladies were allowed to roll out the dough. The newbies were only allowed to assist in preparing the filling, or, after they had a little experience, spreading the filling on the dough.
Despite all this, Barb came up with a pretty good recipe that I use to this day. I divorced her son over 20 years ago and she passed away a couple of months ago, but there was never much rancor between all of us, so I think that soon I will dust off Barb’s potica recipe and make a batch of it. Interestingly enough, an old friend of mine and her husband recently moved to Duluth. Her husband is of Croatian descent but grew up in Pennsylvania. I asked him if he knew what potica is. Oh, yeah. His grandmother made it. They won’t be in town over the holidays this year, but I will be stopping by their house every day to feed their cat, so I will leave some in their freezer.
When I worked at the Star Tribune in the late 1980s I brought some potica to Jim Klobuchar (father of Amy). He took a bite and said, “This tastes exactly like what my mother made.”
I am a native Minnesotan, but of Swedish and French-Canadian descent, yet I can totally get the potica love and will do my best to promote it.
Hi Jim, my grandma uses 12.75″ metal Kaiser bread pans from Germany (sold at Irma’s Finland House in Virginia, MN) to make nicely sized loaves.
Jeanne, thanks for your comments! I have Slovenian and Croation ethnicity (as well as Finnish). I’m not sure how my grandmother fine-tuned her recipe but she has taught classes on how to make it. She really is an expert at stretching the dough. I have a lot of practicing to do so that I can get anywhere near her level of potica perfection. It’s great to see all the comments here, I think keeping this tradition alive is wonderful!
I have some very old potica recipes from my grandmother that are good. I just cant make it rolled so thin like she used to do. if anyone is interested let me know
What a great find. Enjoyed your video!
I am on the national board of the Slovenian Union of America ( Slovenian Women’s Union of America) in chargé of culture and heritage. I am just finishing Christmas Eve and Christmas Day recipes for our new cookbook that will be out in June 2015.
Today I am making a tarragon potica, which is the favorite in Slovenia. Personally is is not my favorite, but many love this one.
Keep in touch! I too was born on the Iron Range, now living in Alabama.
Hi, I just came across your website while trying to find recipes my great grandmother used to make and wanted to mention that she used to use the Potica dough to make Strukla as well. It was delicious and I am working to find her old recipes for them. Thank you for your post about Potica!
My grandmother is Slovenian and now had dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Her recipe was with walnuts and onions but none of us can find her recipe.I’ve searched the internet and can’t find anything similar. Maybe someone can help?
I’m a little late to the party, but just found this and would like to help with “strukla”. It’s called štruklji and they can be sweet or savoury. The filling can be anything you wish but walnuts or cottage cheese are traditional. While walnut štruklji are always sweet cottage cheese ones can be sweet or savoury. And the savoury ones go excellent with various meat dishes. Here are some links. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C5%A0truklji and this is just one of many recipes on this site https://www.kulinarika.net/recepti/13450/predjedi/struklji-hitro-narejeni/
I’m sure you can find more later. Best of luck with making them and dober tek (bon apetit).
I also grew up on the Iron Range in MN – went to school with some Makis. Small world!
Yes! Thank you, Lissa. This article is timeless!
Iton Ore Range. Born in Hibbing! I have taught my girls how too make Potica and Sarma. My mother was Slovanian and father Croatian.My family loves traditions
I was born in the iron ore range myself. My mother always would make potica for Easter and Christmas. I remember helping. Now my siblings and I have carried on the tradition. I never can get my dough spread as thin as my mom but it still tastes yummy. I use her recipe but add more cinnamon. Thank you for sharing your story.p
I have been making a version for nearly 60 years. What is your recipe?
So nice to read your story. My mum passed away a few years ago from cancer taking the recipe with her. We are Slovenian but we should have paid more attention. My sister daughter and nieces have been trying different Slovenian recipes. But Potica is the last one on the list. My daughter and I are going to attempt making it this week for first time. I have been looking at lots of recipes and hope we do the Potica proud. Thank you for sharing your story
It would be lovely to have her recipe to try. It’s difficult to find one rolled as thinly as hers/yours. Would you mind sharing it so I could try? Thank you!
I grow up on the range and very proud to say I’m bohunk. My grandmother and mom made potica. I have tried but never turns out like theirs. I will keep trying and will continue showing my grand kids. We make kifiles at Christmas and they turn out good, and the grand kids do real well.
I too am Slovenian and our families were from northeastern Pennsylvania. My grandmother and three aunts made Poticia as well as my mom. They all seemed to have recipes that varied. While this article is very interesting, where can I find recipes? My cousin is also trying to recreate a recipe that would be like grandma. Can anyone help?
Thank you so much for your story. My great grandparents immigrated from Yugoslavia. We always called this grandma’s Christmas bread. Every year with out fail she made one for each family. She never shared or taught any of her children or grandchildren how to make it. One year when I was older going through the 1956 first edition og Betty Crocker’s cook book I found it. It was a lot of work for me then as a new mom and outside my comfort zone. However my grandmother was not able to make it. I made it for her and she said it was as good as hers. I have held that all these years. Then last week I was being told how my aunt always wanted that recipe. She has passed now and her sons wife was telling me the story and I told her I have it. Now I am in the process of typing it all out and it will be my gift of sharing with her great, great great, and great great great grandchildren. It’s funny how things circle back. Much love to you and your family