By Marcia Pilgeram
Reader Food Columnist
Recently, I unrolled and floured the old, white cotton sheet I use to cover my table for pastry projects. This time, I was making povitica, the holiday bread of my childhood. It’s an intensive, labor-of-love project that I don’t get around to every year, but I am headed to Chicago for the christening of my youngest grandchild, Samih, and I wanted something familial for his special celebration.
Whenever I make the foods of my childhood, they invoke many childhood memories, and this is especially true of povitica. I grew up in a small town in Montana, where the main industry, a lead smelter, employed many immigrants from Eastern Europe. Besides their strong work ethic, they arrived with some really tasty recipes, and povitica was one of them. The recipe, using walnuts, had many variations (some included apricots or poppy seeds), depending on the specific regions the miners hailed from, and it also came with many different names: potica in Slovenia (pronounced Poh-TEET-sah), povitica in Serbia and Croatia, and Kolac in Yugoslavia. It’s very similar to Hungarian beigli and Russian babka, and sometimes it’s simply referred to as a Bohemian nut roll.
Slovenians take great pride in claiming original heritage to this old-world bread. It’s even a favorite treat of Pope Francis, who routinely talks it up to visiting Slovenian visitors (though last year, when he spoke of it to Melania Trump, she thought he was referring to pizza).
I remember being mesmerized as a kid when I watched neighborhood women, with their sturdy, weathered hands, carefully rolling the dough over the flour-dusted sheet, stretching it until it was so thin you could almost see through it.
I have used one of their handed-down recipes for more than 40 years, and sometimes I wonder if my own kids, who love this holiday-celebration, will carry on the tradition. After I stirred up my last batch, I posted pictures on Facebook, which stirred up a plethora of comments, critiques, poignant memories, and no fewer than a dozen requests for the recipe.
Though there are a dozen names and as many filling variations, one thing’s for certain: judging by all the comments, povitica will not soon be forgotten.
Wishing you a happy holiday season, and a perfect loaf of povitica. Merry Christmas, readers.
Povitica (Nut roll) Recipe • makes 2 loaves
This bread is a perfect holiday treat for breakfast or dessert. Be gentle when you spread the filling, to try and avoid poking holes in the dough. I also use my fingers to egg wash the dough.
For the dough:
• 2 packages dry yeast
• ½ tsp sugar
• ½ tsp vanilla
• ½ barely warm water
• 5 cups all-purpose flour
• 2 tbsp sugar
• 1 tsp salt
• 6 egg yolks, beaten (set aside the egg whites)
• 1 cup butter, melted, cooled (2 sticks)
• 1 cup lukewarm cream
For the nut filling:
• 1 lb finely ground walnuts
• 2 tsp cinnamon
• ¾ cup sugar
• ¼ cup brown sugar
• ¼ cup honey
• 2-3 drops vanilla, divided
• ¼ cup milk
• 1 stick butter
• 4 egg whites, whipped stiffly (saved from dough)
• Mix other 2 egg whites with ¼ cup water, whisk well for glazing dough, before adding filling, and again, before baking
1. In a small bowl, mix the vanilla, sugar and water together then dissolve yeast in the mixture. Let stand until proofed. In the bowl of a standup mixer (with dough hook attachment), sift the flour, sugar and salt. Add the yeast mixture.
Pour in the beaten egg yolks, melted butter and cream. Slowly add 4 cups of the flour, mix, until everything is blended together, add as much as the remaining cup of flour as needed, until the dough is no longer very sticky. Knead a couple minutes in mixer with dough hook, until smooth and not sticking to bowl. Grease a large metal bowl, add the dough, turn to coat with grease. Cover and proof while you make the filling.
2. Prepare the filling:
In a sauce pan, mix together the ground walnuts, cinnamon, sugar, brown sugar, honey, butter, and milk, and stirring constantly, bring to a boil. Turn off heat and while warm, fold in egg whites. Cool and divide in half.
3. When dough has doubled, punch down and divide in half. Place half on a floured work surface. One at a time, roll out each piece of dough to a 14” x 13” rectangle. Turn the dough so that one of the longer edges is facing you.
Using a pastry brush or your fingers, brush some of the egg white mixture over the top of the dough.
Spread one of the bowls of nut filling over the dough, leaving about a 1-inch margin on each side of the rectangle but the far end, where you can leave a little less room (about ½-inch margin).
4. Start rolling the dough away from you, into a spiral, keeping the spiral firm and tight. When you’ve made several turns, fold the 1-inch side margins inward, and then continue to roll all the way up, pinching the seam. Once rolled, coil roll, like a snail. Place the nut roll, seam down, on a parchment-lined and greased baking dish (you can use cake pan, bread pan or casserole). Using a pastry brush or your fingers, lightly coat top of the rolls with egg wash (this will make the rolls nice and shiny). Repeat the process with remaining dough.
5. Preheat oven to 325 F. Let the rolls rise for 30 minutes, glaze with egg wash, one more time, then bake for about 45 minutes until the rolls are a deep tan color. Cool. Cover with plastic wrap. To serve, cut the nut rolls crosswise into slices. Freezes very well (cover plastic wrap with foil).
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