potica

Bread, Fast and Slow

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Easter and the beginning of Passover coincide this weekend, which presents an opportunity to reprise experiments in bread both leavened and unleavened.


A lesson in povitica

Mamma, matzoh!

Savory, My Sweet

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A couple of years ago, looking up my grandparents Croatian villages on Google Maps (amazingly, yes, there were there!), I discovered that they were located so far north and west in that country as to be practically in Slovenia. Grandpa’s  town was a literal stone’s throw across the river separating the two countries.

Which probably goes to explain my affinity for Kate’s former upstairs neighbors, the charming Bojan and Mateja Kavaš, Slovenian nationals who have been stationed in in D.C. at their embassy; we’re practically kissin’ cousins. And Mateja has shared her family’s own wonderful recipes, like potica, that are virtual twins of those handed down in my family (where it’s known as povitica).

But Mateja’s city sophistication always shows in her culinary daring and unusual variations. Like the Prekmurska Gibanica she brought to last year’s Thanksgiving dinner, a marvel of layers alternating strudel pastry with nuts, apples, poppy seeds and cheese.

This year, her contribution of a potica filled with mascarpone and tarragon graced the Thanksgiving table and it was a revelation. I’ve had lots of cheese potica/povitica made with a sweetened cream cheese filling, but employing mascarpone takes it to another level altogether, while fresh tarragon is a clean, light touch that never would have occurred. It  lightens up the sometimes heavy bread, and takes it away from being strictly a dessert item.

Here’s the  step by step, courtesy of Mateja. Photos by Bojan.

The secret ingredient
Fresh tarragon tops the cheese filling.
Wrapped and rolled, using a tablecloth to shape.
Airy oval givees the bread room to rise.
Bake until golden, with a gloss of beaten egg.

In My Easter Basket(s)

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I always had two Easter baskets as a kid. One was child-sized, filled with plastic grass, a few colored eggs, a Russell Stover chocolate bunny and some jelly beans.  It was mine alone. The other, a more serious large, woven affair, was the family basket, the real Easter basket. My mother handled that one as we made our way to the Catholic church on the day before Easter to have the baskets blessed. It’s a common tradition in the Polish and Croatian communities from which my parents hailed and the specified contents of the basket never varied: ham, kielbasa, home-made bread, colored eggs, spring onions, radishes and povitica, the sweet bread swirled with a nut filling made at holidays and for special events.

Each day of the Easter Week was consumed with the process of procuring and preparing those items, with special trips to the local butcher/sausage maker, and evenings spent with my mom cracking whole walnuts while my dad put them through the old-fashioned, hand-cranked grinder he’d attach to the kitchen table. Thursday was dedicated to povitica baking; Good Friday was always bread baking, egg dyeing and ham baking day. On Saturday morning, the baskets were filled with packets of the meats and breads, along with the prettiest of the colored eggs on which we’d scrawled names of each family member. Then the basket was covered with an embroidered cloth.

The church was always packed to the rafters for the special afternoon service. Baskets lined the aisles and the women toting them would stoop to carefully fold back a corner of their fancy linen covers as the priest made his rounds with incense and holy water.  (Although I always suspected a bit of one-upmanship in their carefully orchestrated maneuvers, each striving to make sure everyone saw that she had the best-looking basket.)

Saturday’s rite served as a punctuation mark on the Easter season, a sign that all the devotion and preparation was about to culminate in the next day’s celebration.  We weren’t allowed to touch anything from the basket until Easter morning, when it would be unpacked and the foods consumed to break our Lenten fast.  Sitting at the table, cracking open an egg, my mother would inevitably say, “Doesn’t the blessed food just taste better?”  We kids would roll our eyes at this oh-so-predictable comment. But somehow, it was true.