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Get Ready for the Holidays with Potica — The Bread of Memory

Betty Antonucci of Raton shows off her perfect holiday potica.


Text and Photo by
Sharon Niederman

Those who lived, worked or grew up in the coal camps and mining towns from northern New Mexico through southern Colorado will remember the taste of a rich nut-and-fruit filled loaf served during the Christmas season called potica bread (pronounced pah-TEET-zah). From Raton to Gallup, where it is known as povitica (po-vi-TEEK-a), and north to Pueblo, Colorado, this cake-like bread conjures memories as sweet as its melt-in-the-mouth taste. Baked into every loaf is the warmth and tradition of the holiday season spent among cherished friends and family. The recipe, brought to the American west by Slovenian miners, was gladly shared with Italian and Hispanic neighbors in mining communities.

While potica may be served at Easter, weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and confirmations, Christmas is the time to count on finding it. Says dedicated potica baker Betty Antonucci of Raton, who was raised in Pueblo, “My mother made it for years. All the Italian people do. It was just always there at Christmas time. It can be used as a bread with the main course but is generally a dessert. It’s very good served warm with hot butter. I like to serve it at Christmas time when somebody comes over.” Many old-timers enjoy their potica with a slice of proscuitto, preferably homemade.

Betty’s husband, Frank, who immigrated from Italy at age 14 to join his father working in the coal mines near Raton, finds that baking potica “brings back a lot of memories” of family members. “It was always in the family,” he says. “ When I taste potica, I think about them. It’s part of the heritage, and it goes back a long time.”

According to “Pots and Pans: A Slovenian-American Cookbook,” compiled and edited by Hermine Dicke and published by the Slovenian Women’s Union of America, the word “potica” means “something rolled in.” While many kinds of filling may be used, including chocolate, hazelnut, herbs such as tarragon or chive mixed with bread crumbs, pork cracklings, cottage cheese or poppyseed, either the plain walnut or the walnut and raisin or date remain the most popular.

“Potica is as Slovenian as apple pie is American,” says Dicke. In the old days in Yugoslavia, it was made in quantity. The women used to mix it in washtubs, 100 loaves at a time, then each woman would take loaves home to bake in her oven.

Potica, which freezes well, was traditionally baked the day before it was to be served. The round ceramic mold it was baked in was known as a “toroidal,” which means “with raised hole in the middle.” Slovenian women would bless the dough with a sign of the cross before rolling it out “thin enough to read a newspaper by.” To avoid air pockets, they pricked the dough with a knitting needle.

Potica is not easy to find, in fact, the search for it may become something of a quest. While two bakeries, one in Raton and one in Gallup, used to sell it at Christmastime, I now order my poticas from The Little Tart, a Ukranian bakery in Pueblo, Colorado and make the trek north over Thanksgiving weekend to pick them up. Poticas make great holiday gifts, and they freeze well. Several bakeries in Pueblo produce them, in fact, there is a saying there that, “If you have a tamale in one hand and a potica in the other, you can tell you are from Pueblo.”

Baking potica is an elaborate and time-consuming process that requires patience and skill. One of New Mexico’s champion povitica bakers, Lube Grenko of Gallup says, “It’s a lot of work, but I’m used to it. I go one, two, three and the dough is all over the kitchen table. My husband made me a special board that covers the table, and I put a tablecloth on top of that. There’s no rolling pin. I just use my hands. I just keep pulling it, I always have good luck. If you don’t get your dough just right, with just enough, not too much flour, you’re in trouble. If the dough starts breaking and getting holes in it, just forget about it and throw it away.”

The 91-year-old Lube learned the art by watching her aunt. She starts her baking in October every year and freezes them, estimating that in her lifetime she has baked “every bit of” 2000 povitacas. Lube recommends serving povitica with coffee, ice cream or jello

If you do not happen to have a loving Italian or Croatian aunt or grandmother to bake potica bread for you, you can create your own from this recipe:

Betty Antonucci’s Potica Bread – a citrus-scented loaf that is very rich but not too sweet.

Note from Betty: “This dough is much easier to work with than the old-time recipe. I think it’s because of the addition of sour cream, which makes for a dough much easier to roll out. And it’s thinner, too.” She has been baking potica every holiday season for at least 45 years, from the time she first began helping her mother.

Dough

1/2 warm milk
2 packages yeast
1 tablespoon sugar

Dissolve yeast in warm milk Add sugar and let stand in warm place until foamy, about 10 minutes.

4 cups sifted flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup sugar (less that used for yeast)
1/4 pound butter at room temperature (do not use non-fat butter substitutes)
3 beaten egg yolks
1 cup sour cream at room temperature (light sour cream is fine, but do not use sour cream substitutes)

Pour flour in large bowl. Add salt, sugar, softened butter, beaten eggs and sour cream. Add yeast mixture, mix well. Knead until dough is pliant, about 10 minutes. Divide in three parts. Place each one in a separate greased bowl or pan. Cover with waxed paper and cloth. Set aside in warm place to rise 1/2 hour.

Filling

1 1/2 pounds ground walnuts
1 1/2 cups sweet cream
3 egg yolks
1/4 pound sweet butter, melted
3 egg whites beaten stiff
1/3 cup honey
1 tablespoon orange rind
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon brandy (peach)
1 tablespoon lemon rind
1 1/2 cups sugar

Scald cream and pour over chopped nuts. Add melted butter and let stand 10 minutes. Add honey, sugar and mix well. Add lemon and orange rind, vanilla, brandy and slightly beaten egg yolks. Mix again. Add 1 tablespoon sugar to egg whites and beat until stiff. Fold into nut mixture and set aside.

Roll out dough on lightly floured cloth or tabletop to 1/8 inch thickness. Should be long oblong shape. Spread nut mixture in thin layer over rolled dough, leaving 4 inches at one end and an inch border all around. Roll up dough with layered mixture as a jelly roll. Start at end that has the filling. Tuck in ends to seal as you roll. Prick occasionally with fork to allow air to escape. Seal at the end. Grease pan, prick top of roll several times. Place in pan or on cookie sheet. Brush with egg white mixed with a little water. Bake at 350 degrees for 1/2 hour. Lower oven, then bake at 325 degrees for 1/2 hour. Let cool completely before slicing. Makes 3 loaves.


This story originally appeared in
the Santa Fe New Mexican
in November, 2004.


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