Tuesday, December 23, 2008

the taste of christmas

For me, the holidays don't begin with Black Friday shopping, or putting up the Christmas tree (no thanks, not in our teeny apartment), or getting that first holiday card in the mail. The season begins with a box from my grandparents in New Mexico containing an aluminum foil-wrapped log of potica. My grandma has been making potica since way before I was born and every December she ships it to various relatives scattered across the country. She also sends cookies, and dense cubes of walnut fudge, jars of homemade preserves, and I even remember getting bread and butter pickles one year. But it's the potica, a sweet yeast bread spiraled with cinnamon, dates, and nuts, that I always look forward to the most.

Not too long ago, my editor Mark and I were reminiscing about potica. I always assumed it was strictly Italian, but he told me it's also a Polish specialty. As with most things, he was right: it's even more common in Croatia, Slovenia, and most of Eastern Europe, often called povitica. So how did it become a tradition in my family? After some more research I discovered the Italy connection—in a way that is surprisingly specific to the Cericola family. Southwestern writer Sharon Niederman says that the recipe was brought to the American west by Slovenian miners, who shared it with their Italian and Hispanic neighbors in coal mining communities including Raton, the small town in New Mexico where my grandma (and great-grandma) lived for some time.

After Raton, my grandparents stayed in New Mexico and raised three kids, moving around a bit, eventually to Santa Fe and later, Albuquerque. My dad didn't stay out west. As a young man, he moved to Florida, met my mother, and later, they had me. I visited New Mexico many times as a kid and loved it, but I've never spent the holidays with my grandparents. We exchange cards and emails and the big box of year-end sweets, but our relationship has always been somewhat distant.

Which is why I'm always a little surprised at how nostalgic I am for this stuff. Even though I've never been there to help Grandma make potica, I can see her rolling out the dough on the kitchen table, wrapping the baked loaves in foil, and labeling the silver logs with family members' names. It's a memory I wish I had experienced in person, but I've imagined it so many times now that it's real to me. When I bite into a soft slice of the bread, I taste sweetness and Christmas morning, but also New Mexico—juniper bushes, and posole, and dried chiles, and every food memory of that place and my family intertwined.


My grandma Jennie's recipe. This bread is significantly better hot out of the oven or warmed up in a toaster. I like it for breakfast, but it's kind of an all-day-long snack food.
(Makes 3 loaves)

For the filling:
1 lb. pecans, chopped
2 lbs. sun palm dates, chopped
1 cup half and half
1 cup sugar
2 Tbsp. honey
2 Tbsp. butter
2 tsp. vanilla
2 eggs, separated
1 Tbsp. cinnamon

For the dough:
8 oz. sour cream
3 Tbsp. butter
5 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
2 packages yeast
2 eggs
3 cups flour

Make the filling: In a saucepan, warm the half and half over medium heat. Add sugar, egg yolks, cinnamon, honey, butter, pecans, and vanilla. Stir until combined then remove from the heat, and let cool to lukewarm. Beat the egg whites until stiff, fold into the nut mixture.

Make the dough: In a saucepan, warm the sour cream. Remove from heat and add the butter, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Cool to lukewarm, then add the yeast and eggs, stir until the yeast is dissolved. Pour into a large mixing bowl. Add in the flour, mix well, and let stand 15 minutes. Roll the dough out onto a floured counter. Spread on the filling, then roll it up. Let it stand one and half hours. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 20 minutes, then reduce the heat to 325 degrees and bake for 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 300 degrees and bake for 10 to 15 minutes. Let cool before serving.


Anonymous said...

A beautiful tradition and
memory. Enjoyed your additional information about the origin of the bread. Our box arrived in the mail today!

Lisa said...

Thanks, Mom(?). Glad you enjoyed!

Anonymous said...

Your mom just gave us a piece of this bread. It's delicious. I was dying to try it after I read your blog but sounded way to complicated to make. The goyim are so good at this Christmas baking thing. Donna's cookies are pretty and tasty (I've already eaten five) and so was the box I received from my cookie slam down (throw down?) buddy. I guess it's in the genes.

rebekah said...

Delurking to say Merry Christmas!

Daniel said...

I must say, this stuff is delicious.

Very interesting when the food we eat can become a window into history.

Anonymous said...

Grandma Diana served us (not all at the same dinner!)fried squash blossoms on occasion-- polenta...rabbit...onion pie from her Italian heritage,
do you remember any of that?

Lisa said...

Hi anonymous #2 (who is this??)
I wasn't lucky enough to eatany of those dishes by Grandma, but I definitely have heard stories about all of them. And when I make squash blossoms I always think of her. http://adinnerparty.blogspot.com/2008/08/public-service-announcement.html


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