potica: slovenia’s best kept secret ::::
Dandelions blaze yellow, waiting to turn to the soft gray puff of summer’s end. Without guilt, I smash summer squash beetles, their bodies emitting an inky spiciness. Once baby pea green grasshoppers, now a nutty brown as the summer lopes on, spring with wide hops and wriggle to force themselves from my fingers. Hypertelomeric cicadas stop their droning buzzing when I approach too closely. As if I can’t see them, the size of Mejool dates, sitting stiffly on the willow branches. Days go on, the cicadas disappear.
The long end of a California summer also signifies autumn and the advent of the holidays. At the cusp of Halloween, department stores were already in the Christmas spirit, advertising months of layaway service. There were already bins of fake silver-plated bells, smiling glittery snowmen ornaments in crispy cellophane boxes, and cheery pine trees in every imaginable color gracing each corner of the stores. For me, I think of cinnamon, nutmeg, the warm spicy smells of mulled wine and freshly baked cookies and breads. Our family never made a point to stick with everyone else’s traditions and only make pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, or Christmas cookies at Christmastime, or even a big fat ham for Easter.
I tend to do the same thing. It was actually springtime when I first made this holiday bread, Potica. It is almost like a double- swirled cinnamon roll: the dates (cicadas!), walnuts (grasshoppers!), and spices (squash beetles – ew!) are rolled up into a long snake of dough, then swirled again, into a nautilus of layered cinnamon and walnuts. Why wait until the holidays to make this? It’s too good to keep relegated to only once a year. What I love most about this bread is that it is everything you want in a cinnamon roll without being too sweet. It doesn’t need icing. It doesn’t need brown sugar. It doesn’t need to be slathered with butter. It is really that good.
Round 1 of bread-making: we ate it too fast to take photos. After Round 2 and photographing the bread, I found myself unable — yes, unable — to make it look pretty. I tried a myriad of angles. I tried ambient lighting inside versus outside. I tried ripping off part of the bread so the wonderful layers could be appreciated. The camera would not give me what my eye was seeing. It lied to me! The camera does lie! So disgusted with this, I finally just ate the bread and scrapped the photos. I had to start over and make the bread again. Eh, not so bad, since I got to eat more of it.
Now Round 3: see those layers in the header photo? That’s what makes this bread so delicious. The layers show themselves beautifully with the dates and walnuts contrasting with the light dough. And the walnuts? Red. Yep. Why red walnuts? Just for show. There is no difference that I’ve noticed in flavor of the red walnuts versus the brown. I bought these red walnuts for a little holiday spirit, but found that they really didn’t seem to give that color pop I was hoping for.
I think the secret is the sweetness of the dates and the subtle crunch of the walnuts swirled in each bite. Traditionally, it can be served with savory foods or as a sweet course. Often, it is served with ham. A variety of fillings are used: poppy seeds, cottage cheese, leek, chocolate, or honey. Different pans and sizes of loaves are expected from home to home. Whatever kind of potica you make, any festivity is worthy of celebration. It could be the end of summer. A new baby. Christmas. Even that you finally folded all the laundry. It’s all good.
- DOUGH: 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
- ¾ cup warm milk (110 degrees F)
- 2 tablespoons sugar plus 1 tablespoon for sprinkling on top
- 3 large egg yolks (save whites for filling), plus 1 large egg, beaten, for brushing on top
- 2½ to 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 packages rapid-rise yeast (1 package = 2¼ teaspoons)
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- FILLING: ¾ cup dried dates, chopped finely
- ¼ cup milk
- 3 tablespoons plus plus ¾ cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 3 large egg whites
- ½ cup walnuts, chopped finely
- FOR THE DOUGH: Lightly grease a large bowl with cooking spray or neutral oil. Mix the butter, milk, sugar, and egg yolks together in a large measuring cup. Sift 2½ cups flour, the yeast, and salt together in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the dough hook. With the mixer on low, add the milk mixture. After the dough comes together, increase the speed to medium and mix until shiny and smooth, 4 to 6 minutes. (If the dough is sticky after 3 minutes, add the remaining ½ cup flour, 2 tablespoons at a time.) Turn the dough out onto a heavily floured surface and shape into a ball. Knead just until the dough becomes smooth, about 20 seconds. Place the dough in a greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest in a warm place until doubled in size, 1½ to 2 hours.
- FOR THE FILLING: While the dough is rising, bring the dates, milk, 3 tablespoons sugar, and cinnamon to a simmer in a small nonstick skillet medium-high heat (I actually used a small saucepan). Lower the heat to medium-low and cook until the milk is evaporated and the mixture becomes a thick paste, about 5 minutes. Cool to room temperature, at least 30 minutes.
- With an electric mixer, beat the egg whites at medium-low speed until frothy, about 1 minute. Increase the speed to medium and gradually add the remaining ¾ cup sugar until incorporated, about 1 minute. Increase the speed to high and beat until the whites hold soft peaks. Finally, add cooled date mixture and beat on low speed until just incorporated, about 10 seconds.
- Coat two 8-inch cake pans with cooking spray. Deflate dough, remove it from the bowl, and divide into two balls. Rolls each pieces of dough into a 20-inch square on a lightly floured surface.*** Spread each square with half the filling and top with half the walnuts. Roll each into a cylinder and arrange in the prepared pans in a spiral. Cover with plastic wrap coated with cooking spray and let rise 1 hour.
- Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees F. Brush the dough spirals with the beaten egg and sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon of sugar. Bake until golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Serve warm (but cold is still awesome).