My great grandma Mary passed away this October. She was the eldest link in the chain of 5 living generations in my family since my other great grandma (Sally) passed away a few years back. While all of the generations she left behind will surely miss her sass, her warmth, and her humor… Mary lived a long and full life. Nobody could say otherwise.
I’ve always been interested in my family heritage. My great grandma Mary was a proud Italian. Apparently the name on her birth certificate wasn’t the “Mary Louise” she always went by but “Maria Magdelena Carmella DeBortolo”. Her mother Tulia DeBartolo was apparently just as fiery and fierce – a trait that I am pretty all of the women on that side of the family directly inherited.
I grew up as a proud “Italian”. (Despite the fact that the last four generations of my family were born in the USA.) Nobody would believe me because my last name was “Dedin” and my red hair seemed to betray me. Everyone at St. Pat’s (my Catholic grade/middle school) probably assumed I was Irish, and then I’d open my mouth and talk with my hands and everyone would shut up about it.
I grew up naively believing that I was somehow “pure” Italian… or at least “mostly” Italian and I am sure a large part of that is because I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. We ate pounds of pasta, enjoyed our Italian beefs, made our lunch sandwiches out of stinky deli meats and were all Catholic.
Our holiday treats were not the lefse & krumkrake of the Scandinavian Plains but potica and pizzelles of the suburbs. It turns out that while I do have a ton of Italian ancestors (De Bartolos, Musaracas, Olivos, etc)… I am also a good chunk Lithuanian and a little Polish as well! I had no idea how much my understanding of heritage was really tied to food until I started making it myself.
A few years ago I decided to tackle pizzelles, the crisp wafer style cookies sprinkled with powdered sugar and often flavored with anise. My grandma Judi always made them during the holidays and I got my recipe from her. They were a simple bake, and apart from figuring out the perfect amount of batter to put on the iron- they turned out just like grandmas!
Last year I borrowed from my husband’s heritage and made lefse for the first time with my friend Alex. Lefse is a Norwegian treat made from potatoes mushed up (with a potato ricer) and rolled out paper thin… cooked on a hot griddle and flipped with a long lefse stick. You eat these bad boys with heaps of butter and plain old white sugar. Yep. That’s how Norwegians do dessert apparently… a sweet potato tortilla. I had never heard of lefse before I moved to Fargo and it isn’t part of my heritage… but in the 8 years I’ve lived here it has become dear to my heart.
This year I knew I wanted to tackle potica. This sweet, rich, dense, nut loaf was a real Christmas treat. If you could score of a loaf of potica back home during the holidays your celebration was complete. It turns out that potica is actually a Slovenian treat but for some reason it is super popular among Italians and hey, the two countries are sorta neighbors, right?
Good potica is so dense and so rich you can only handle about a 1/2″ slice of it. Bad potica is basically cinnamon swirl bread. It’s an intimidating bake especially when you grew up with stories about how your great grandma would roll her potica dough as big as the kitchen table and so thin you could read a newspaper through it!
I knew this was a recipe I wanted to revive and a tradition I wanted to bring to my family in Fargo and to future generations. Because I knew this wasn’t something I’d get right on the first try I wanted to start practicing before December. Naturally I decided a Tuesday night in early November was the perfect time!
The component parts of potica are simple… it’s the assembly that takes practice and skill. You really do have to roll that damn dough out thin as hell. I could have probably gone a little thinner with my dough but that’s something I’ll do on my next try! Since there wasn’t a recipe that got passed down in my family I used this one. It was simple and easy to follow and even has a companion step-by-step tutorial!
I was surprised that there was no cinnamon in the recipe because I was sure that was a flavor I recalled w/ potica but I followed the directions and to my surprise the taste was totally on point. I’m sure you could add a little cinnamon to the mix but it honestly doesn’t need it at all.
My favorite part of this process was rolling out the dough… it sort of gave me goosebumps. I thought back to my great grandmothers and their ancestors rolling out potica dough as thin as they could – a skill that requires patience that doesn’t necessarily come easily to fiery tempered gals like us. I have to say my first loaves turned out WAY better than I could have imagined… the roll was tight, the filling was the right consistency and I got the signature brown gloss on the exterior that comes from brushing on a nice egg wash before baking.
Next time I’ll be sure to roll my dough a little thinner (as big as my kitchen table will allow!) and to seal the ends of the dough a bit better (there were quite a few explosions of filling). It’s hard to describe the feeling that I get when I bake or cook something from my heritage but it’s a powerful, visceral sense of connection to my past that makes me willing to try even the toughest tasks in the kitchen!