Pita or Potica?

I challenged my grandson Joey to a bake-off last week and guess what? He beat me. Joey is a student in the school of Culinary Arts at Joliet Junior College. I really thought he could pick up a few pointers from the Old Man (me). He stepped into the kitchen, I handed him an apron which he donned immediately. I thought for sure he would wimp-out and hand it back to me, but he put it on and made me proud. The challenge was to bake a walnut-roll from the recipe found in my mother’s (his great grand mother’s) cook book.

Every year at Christmas and New Year I get a strange yen to eat walnut-roll. Most likely because Mom raised me eating walnut roll, and many other beautiful baked goods. She was an excellent baker. How she became one is a mystery. She came to the USA when she was sixteen, so she didn’t have a lot of time to develop epicurean cooking or baking skills while still in her native Hungary. She married my Dad when she was twenty-three. Until then she worked as a domestic for families in the Chicago area, and might have developed some experience during that period.

My parents lived in a neighborhood called Burnside on the far South side of Chicago. Burnside had a very heavy population of immigrants from many European countries: Hungary, Italy, Poland, Ukraine, Germany, Slovenia, and few I forgot. The name of the Catholic Church in the neighborhood was Our Lady of Hungary, so a lot of Hungarians lived there. My guess is that Mom learned to cook and bake from her girl friends in the neighborhood. If they shared something, or baked something at a bake sale which she liked she would ask them for a recipe, and make it for my Dad. He was a man who never disappointed her because he ate every experiment she put in front of him without a complaint. Being the observant type, she would notice how quickly he devoured her experiments. Being a quick learner she kept making the things that disappeared from the table fast.

My brother, sister and I were also willing test subjects. I can honestly brag that she brought me up on her walnut roll, blackberry and apple pie, poppy-seed or apricot kiflik, and a myriad of other delectable bakery. Her white bread was to die for. She didn’t bother baking small loaves in those wimpy nine by four-inch bread pans, but rather a turkey roasting pan. The image of a giant loaf of white bread still warm from the oven makes my mouth water.

We two Joe’s set out to bake the best walnut roll made by any human on earth. Because Joey was in a strange kitchen, I obeyed his requests for tools, and ingredients. He never looked back and jumped into the process with a vigor I had never seen him have before. Being a good grandfather, and a believer in the benefits of positive reinforcement I became his assistant. I never said anything, but observed as he steadily assembled the ingredients. I merely asked if he finished using the dish, spoon, pot, etc so I could rinse it clean.

When it came to deciding when the dough was ready he became frustrated by the elasticity, and I finally chastised him for his impatience with a “nothing is perfect comment.” He bought my argument and proceeded to work the dough into a beautiful thin sheet ready for spreading the filling and the last roll up. Finally, I was able to teach him my technique of rolling the dough on a sheet of waxed paper which made the last windup easy. We popped two finished rolls on a greased cookie-sheet slid it into the oven and anxiously awaited for it to bake. I set a timer for thirty minutes called for by the recipe. Joey just opened the oven door occasionally and lightly touched the surface of the dough with his fingertip. He pulled the rolls from the oven at twenty-five minutes declaring the rolls done. It seemed an eternity for the them to cool enough for us to cut, and when we finally did it turned out he was right, the rolls were fully baked and ready, and delicious; just like my Ma’s.

I sent Joe home with one of the rolls, and wrapped the other to keep it moist. There was enough filling left over to make another loaf. I decided to make it the next day, but I wanted to try a different recipe. My mother’s recipe did not use yeast in the dough, so I chose a Slovak recipe using the same ingredients plus yeast. To make this loaf totally different I added cinnamon and honey to the filling. This dough was very elastic and would have met Joe’s requirements. The recipe made enough dough for two loaves, but when I spread it out into twelve by sixteen inch rectangle I realized I could have made four loaves by thinning the sheet.

I used up all the filling on one loaf and baked it using a timer. My walnut-roll came out browner on the top but still very soft inside.

Another eternity passed as I waited for the loaf to cool enough to cut. To pass time, I cut a slice of Joey’s to make a comparison. The slice almost didn’t make the side by side as I had not yet eaten breakfast and my mouth started watering.

Eventually, I cut the new roll and took side by side photos. It is obvious to see which slice had the yeast. Next came a taste test. Honestly, they were nearly identical. I didn’t taste the honey or the cinnamon. Joey’s roll tasted a bit more of flour than did the yeast dough. Both were good and I look forward to devouring them in the days ahead.

So, which is it Pita or Potica? My mother’s cook book calls it Pita, the Slovenians, and Polish call it Potica.

4 Responses

  1. I am sure this was one challenge you were happy to lose. Wish you a Happy New Year!

    • It was, and a Happy New Year to you and yours.

  2. Whew. I call it “just go to the bakery shop”. HNY

    • I did. Last year I sent to a bakery in Ohio that specialized in Hungarian nut rolls. Expensive but deelicious.

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