I’ll be honest, prior to this assignment, I didn’t know much about Slovenia – not its food, its wines or even where to find it on a map. The former Yugoslavian republic was a bit of a mystery.
But after researching its history, culture, wines and its foods, I’m excited to delve into Slovenia’s rich annals and traditional recipes.
Slovenia’s cuisine is diverse, touting influences from its land, neighbors and even professions. Many of the recipes have been passed down for generations, often without measurements or detailed instructions. In fact, the first Slovenian cookbook by Valentin Vodnk in 1799 merely listed ingredients and rarely quantities, forcing the home cook’s creativity to come into play. Fortunately, today we can find many of these treasured recipes in cookbooks and online to help guide us on this journey. But still, don’t be afraid to instill your own creativity. Many a beloved family recipe resulted from an accident or experimentation.
So, what will we be cooking up this month to serve alongside a crisp white wine from Slovenia?
Since the calendar has flipped to March, it means those of us in the northern hemisphere are relishing in thoughts of a forthcoming spring. However, we also know that March can bring some of our worst winter weather. As such, we’re going to tackle a more complicated recipe this month – one that can be made on a wet, cold, gray afternoon, but will also fill the house with an aroma of spring – the Tarragon Potica (poh-teet-za).
Potica, translated loosely to mean “wrap-up” or “roll-up,” is a traditional Slovenian cake often served at celebrations and holidays. While most commonly known as a nut bread roll, the potica has more than 80 possible fillings. One filling unique to Slovenia, and common in spring, is tarragon.
A perennial herb and a member of the sunflower family, tarragon has a subtle anise aroma and flavor. It’s often used for savory dishes and seafood, but in Slovenia you’ll find it’s a traditional component of a sweet potica.
Considered to be an important part of Slovenian heritage and identity, potica is one of those long-standing family recipes passed down through generations. No two are alike, and everyone has their favorite. However, there is one commonality widely agreed upon: a yeast-raised dough is the single most important aspect of a good potica.
While the dough-making technique can vary -- and with modern technology it certainly does -- most have the same basic components and flavor. A sweet potica, which we’ll be featuring here, is comprised of yeast, milk, sugar, butter, eggs and white flour. The more savory varieties are commonly made with buckwheat, corn, rye or whole wheat flour.
Tackling a Yeast Dough
Now, I have another admission before we begin making the dough. While I am often adventurous and creative in the kitchen, I am terrified of making yeast breads and am rarely successful. So, that said, you can trust me when I say, this recipe is worth a shot even for beginning bakers. If I can tackle it successfully, anyone can! And the end result is definitely worth the effort.
Killing the yeast and over-kneading the dough are two of the most common mistakes when working with a yeast-based dough. Therefore, the first trick up my sleeve is to proof the yeast. Old fashioned? Perhaps, but I’ve found more success when letting the yeast activate prior to adding it to the dough. In this recipe we proof the yeast in lukewarm milk with a touch of sugar. It’s important when proofing the yeast to ensure the milk is room temperature – not too cold and definitely not too hot. I warm the milk in the microwave and then let it sit for several minutes at room temperature before testing it with my finger. Once it is an even room temperature, add the yeast and sugar and leave them to activate. After about five to 10 minutes a foam forms on the surface – proof the yeast is alive and ready to be added to the dough.
As for the dough, I use a Kitchen Aid mixer for yeast dough (unlike pie crusts), which helps to ensure I don’t over-knead the dough. The wet ingredients are blended with the paddle attachment, then the hook attachment is used for incorporating the flour. Begin with beating together two eggs, ½ cup of sugar, salt and rum (my touch of creativity to help make the dough more malleable). Then add a hot cup of milk, the yeast mixture and melted butter. Once the wet ingredients are blended together, switch attachments and slowly begin to add the flour. Beat the dough until a moist, slightly sticky dough forms (it will pull away easily from the sides of the bowl). Shape the dough into a ball, brush it with melted butter and set it aside to rise for about an hour.
That’s a wrap!
Toward the end of the rising time, prepare the filling. Two separate bowls are needed – one for combining the butter, sugar and egg yolks, and the other for the egg whites which are whipped to stiff peaks. The egg whites are then gently folded into the beaten egg, sugar and butter mixture. If using fresh tarragon (which is preferable; although here we used dry), clean, dry and roughly chop it while the dough is rising.
As for the dough, after it has risen substantially, carefully shape it into a rectangle and roll it to about 1 centimeter in thickness. Spread the filling over the dough and sprinkle it liberally with the chopped tarragon, as well as a little confectioner’s sugar. Next, roll up the edges of the dough to keep the filling from spilling out. Then, from a long end of the dough begin rolling toward the other side (think log roll), ultimately sealing the ends.
Now, traditional potica is cooked in either a ceramic or metal pan similar to a bundt pan, but here we’ve rolled it into a spiral for simplicity. Regardless, it is again set aside for another hour.
Finally, prior to baking, brush milk, butter or an egg wash over the top of the dough and bake the potica for 45-60 minutes at 350F. Be sure to not test the potica for doneness until at least 45 minutes to ensure the moisture stays locked in the bread. When ready to test, insert a toothpick into the center. If it comes out clean, the bread is done. If not, bake for another five to 10 minutes. At this point the aromas of tarragon and sweet bread will be filling your home. Remove the potica when done and serve it warm alongside a crisp white Slovenian wine, which also has a long, fascinating history.
The tarragon potica is a bit contradictory – much like the month of March. It’s a sweet bread with a soft crumb, complemented by the savory tarragon. The anise flavors are both prominent and subtle; and it’s also a light, yet filling cake. It can be served as an afternoon snack, featured on a Sunday brunch table or even as a dessert. But always with wine!
Now, how will you add your own creative touch to this traditional family recipe? I say crack open a bottle of Slovenian wine and experiment. Here’s to changing seasons, celebratory meals, newly discovered wines and wine regions, and long-standing traditions. Na zdravje!
Ingredients For the Bread
2 packages of quick rise dry yeast
1/2 c plus 1 T sugar divided
1-1/4 c milk divided
1 t salt
1 T rum
1/4 c plus 3 T butter divided
4-1/2-5-1/2 c flour
Zest of 1 lemon
For the Filling
1/2 c butter, melted
1/2 c confectioner’s sugar
3 egg yolks
1/2 c sour cream
3 egg whites
1/4 c dried tarragon or 1/2 c fresh
Making the Bread
Dissolve yeast and sugar in 1/4 cup of room temperature milk and let rise for 10 minutes.
Beat together 2 eggs, 1/2 c sugar, salt and rum.
Heat 1 cup of milk until it’s hot and add the butter.
Sift together flour and lemon zest.
Beat together all of the above ingredients, reserving the flour. Then in a standing mixer and with the hook attachment, slowly add the flour and beat until a moist, slightly sticky dough forms. Begin with 4-1/2 cups of flour and add more if the dough is too sticky. The dough should easily pull away from the sides of the bowl.
Form the dough into a ball, coat with 3 tablespoons of melted butter. Cover and let rise in a warm place for one hour.
For the filling:
Beat together the melted butter, sugar and 3 egg yolks. Then in a separate bowl, whip the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Gently fold in the egg whites with the butter mixture.
Take the risen dough from the bowl and gently form into a rectangle on a flour-lined flat surface. Roll the dough with a rolling pin until about a centimeter thick. Spread the filling completely over the dough, sprinkle liberally with tarragon and add a touch more confectioner’s sugar over the top of the tarragon.
Gently roll up each of the four edges of the rectangle to help keep the filling from spilling over. Then from one of the longer ends of the dough begin rolling to form a giant log. When completely rolled, either roll the log into a spiral on a greased baking sheet, or place into a greased bundt pan.
Set the rolled dough aside for another hour.
Once re-risen, bake the bread in the oven at 350F for 45-60 minutes. Test with a toothpick after 45 minutes. If it comes out clean it’s done. If not, cook another 10-15 minutes.