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Archive for December, 2009

Potica — The Bread of Memory
Those who lived, worked or grew up in the coal camps and mining towns from northern New Mexico through southern Colorado will remember the taste of a rich nut-and-fruit filled loaf served during the Christmas season called potica bread (pronounced pah-TEET-zah). From Raton to Gallup, where it is known as povitica (po-vi-TEEK-a), and north to Pueblo, Colorado, this cake-like bread conjures memories as sweet as its melt-in-the-mouth taste. Baked into every loaf is the warmth and tradition of the holiday season spent among cherished friends and family. The recipe, brought to the American west by Slovenian miners, was gladly shared with Italian and Hispanic neighbors in mining communities.

While potica may be served at Easter, weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and confirmations, Christmas is the time to count on finding it. Says dedicated potica baker Betty Antonucci of Raton, who was raised in Pueblo, “My mother made it for years. All the Italian people do. It was just always there at Christmas time. It can be used as a bread with the main course but is generally a dessert. It’s very good served warm with hot butter. I like to serve it at Christmas time when somebody comes over.” Many old-timers enjoy their potica with a slice of proscuitto, preferably homemade.

Betty’s husband, Frank, who immigrated from Italy at age 14 to join his father working in the coal mines near Raton, finds that baking potica “brings back a lot of memories” of family members. “It was always in the family,” he says. “ When I taste potica, I think about them. It’s part of the heritage, and it goes back a long time.”

According to Pots and Pans: A Slovenian-American Cookbook, compiled and edited by Hermine Dicke and published by the Slovenian Women’s Union of America, the word “potica” means “something rolled in.” While many kinds of filling may be used, including chocolate, hazelnut, herbs such as tarragon or chive mixed with bread crumbs, pork cracklings, cottage cheese or poppyseed, either the plain walnut or the walnut and raisin or date remain the most popular.

“Potica is as Slovenian as apple pie is American,” says Dicke. In the old days in Yugoslavia, it was made in quantity. The women used to mix it in washtubs, 100 loaves at a time, then each woman would take loaves home to bake in her oven.

Potica, which freezes well, was traditionally baked the day before it was to be served. The round ceramic mold it was baked in was known as a “toroidal,” which means “with raised hole in the middle.” Slovenian women would bless the dough with a sign of the cross before rolling it out “thin enough to read a newspaper by.” To avoid air pockets, they pricked the dough with a knitting needle.

Potica is not easy to find, in fact, the search for it may become something of a quest. While two bakeries, one in Raton and one in Gallup, used to sell it at Christmastime, I now order my poticas from Gagliano’s an Italian specialty shop in Pueblo, Colorado that has been baking them since 1928 and make the trek north over Thanksgiving weekend to pick them up. Poticas make great holiday gifts, and they freeze well. Several bakeries in Pueblo produce them, in fact, there is a saying there that, “If you have a tamale in one hand and a potica in the other, you can tell you are from Pueblo.”

Baking potica is an elaborate and time-consuming process that requires patience and skill. One of New Mexico’s champion povitica bakers, Lube Grenko of Gallup said, “It’s a lot of work, but I’m used to it. I go one, two, three and the dough is all over the kitchen table. My husband made me a special board that covers the table, and I put a tablecloth on top of that. There’s no rolling pin. I just use my hands. I just keep pulling it, I always have good luck. If you don’t get your dough just right, with just enough, not too much flour, you’re in trouble. If the dough starts breaking and getting holes in it, just forget about it and throw it away.”

Lube learned the art by watching her aunt. She started her baking in October every year and froze them, estimating that in her lifetime she  baked “every bit of” 2000 povitacas. Lube recommended serving povitica with coffee, ice cream or jello

If you do not happen to have a loving Italian or Croatian aunt or grandmother to bake potica bread for you, you can create your own from this recipe:

Betty Antonucci’s Potica Bread – a citrus-scented loaf that is very rich but not too sweet.
(Note – I have baked potica with Betty several times, and the experience is a joy and a day well-spent.)

Note from Betty: “This dough is much easier to work with than the old-time recipe. I think it’s because of the addition of sour cream, which makes for a dough much easier to roll out. And it’s thinner, too.” She has been baking potica every holiday season for at least 45 years, from the time she first began helping her mother.

Dough

1/2 warm milk
2 packages yeast
1 tablespoon sugar

Dissolve yeast in warm milk Add sugar and let stand in warm place until foamy, about 10 minutes.

4 cups sifted flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup sugar (less that used for yeast)
1/4 pound butter at room temperature (do not use non-fat butter substitutes)
3 beaten egg yolks
1 cup sour cream at room temperature (light sour cream is fine, but do not use sour cream substitutes)

Pour flour in large bowl. Add salt, sugar, softened butter, beaten eggs and sour cream. Add yeast mixture, mix well. Knead until dough is pliant, about 10 minutes. Divide in three parts. Place each one in a separate greased bowl or pan. Cover with waxed paper and cloth. Set aside in warm place to rise 1/2 hour.

Filling

1 1/2 pounds ground walnuts
1 1/2 cups sweet cream
3 egg yolks
1/4 pound sweet butter, melted
3 egg whites beaten stiff
1/3 cup honey
1 tablespoon orange rind
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon brandy (peach)
1 tablespoon lemon rind
1 1/2 cups sugar

Scald cream and pour over chopped nuts. Add melted butter and let stand 10 minutes. Add honey, sugar and mix well. Add lemon and orange rind, vanilla, brandy and slightly beaten egg yolks. Mix again. Add 1 tablespoon sugar to egg whites and beat until stiff. Fold into nut mixture and set aside.

Roll out dough on lightly floured cloth or tabletop to 1/8 inch thickness. Should be long oblong shape. Spread nut mixture in thin layer over rolled dough, leaving 4 inches at one end and an inch border all around. Roll up dough with layered mixture as a jelly roll. Start at end that has the filling. Tuck in ends to seal as you roll. Prick occasionally with fork to allow air to escape. Seal at the end. Grease pan, prick top of roll several times. Place in pan or on cookie sheet. Brush with egg white mixed with a little water. Bake at 350 degrees for 1/2 hour. Lower oven, then bake at 325 degrees for 1/2 hour. Let cool completely before slicing. Makes 3 loaves.

This story originally appeared in
the Santa Fe New Mexican
in November, 2004.

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In the never-ending quest for self-improvement (surely a karmic task), I have resolved that a meditation practice, abetted by visits with and thoughts from the masters, shall be my numero uno 2010 New Year’s resolution. I shall build a little altar in my office, and upon my cushion I shall sit very still,  for ten minutes a day, twice a day, watching my thoughts. Along with swallowing the numerous supplements dispensed by my excellent chiropractor, massage, engaging a personal trainer, meeting my writing deadlines and rough drafting a new novel, that should round out the year. Every day I will write, move, meditate, and meet with a friend.

Three books I have selected to start me off on the path are: How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama; Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying; and The Pema Chodron Collection. I had the good fortune to meet and study with RamDass and Pema Chodron at the Lama Foundation north of Taos, NM; I heard the Dalai Lama when he visited Santa Fe many years ago. These books all speak to me clearly and with love. I can hear the voices of these teachers in the words on the page. I can hardly put them down. They are especially wonderful to read before sleep and in the early morning. I am very thankful for them.

The loneliness of living in a small New Mexico town on the Colorado border, the lack of distraction, the bitter cold winter up here in the mountains, and my advancing age, are all, thankfully, turning me in this glorious direction. It’s really down to basics – home, hearth, friends, books. I have waited a long time for this kind of peace. Whatever the future holds, I look forward to a rich and full 2010.

May you all enjoy the blessings of health, prosperity, close connections and peace in the coming time.

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I used to think there were only two people in New Mexico who did not want to be writers. Now I am not so sure. Including myself, there are almost four novelists working away on my street in Raton, New Mexico.  I say almost four because I know for sure there is a park ranger aspiring mystery writer up the block and a former newspaper of record copy editor down the block hard at it. I count as one-half the couple who just moved here from Minnesota. She is a journalist of twenty years’ experience who says she is done with all that. However, her husband has already begun publishing features in the Raton Range. And I count as another my 13 year-old neighbor, Savannah, who wears the Twilight insignia the way we used to wear the rings of our high school boyfriends around our neck to show we were going steady. She is so excited about living down the street from a “real writer” that she stops by for hot cocoa and popcorn and whatever inspiration she can find.

If there are that many actual and wannabe authors on my street alone (and I am not even counting the lady who contributes to High Country News and gets paid for her thoughts), there must be several hundred more typing away just here in my town of approximately 9,000.

Multiply that by every small town in America, and it is evident that the most commercial project one might launch is yet another “how to write” book. While I don’t expect to approach the sales figures of Annie Lamott, Stephen King, or Natalie Goldberg, I humbly offer a few of my thoughts on the subject from the

Butt in the Chair School of Novel Writing

*There are very few writing problems that cannot be solved by putting your butt in the chair;

*Put your butt in the chair for an hour a day for one year, and you will have a first draft;

*Putting your butt in the chair every day for at least an hour will lift your mood and make you less grouchy and more popular;

*After one month of putting your butt in the chair for an hour a day, the muse will know where to find you and deliver the goods;

*Putting your butt in the chair for an hour a day can be easily accomplished by neglecting such addictions as texting, Facebooking, websurfing and the rest;

*Stay tuned to this blog for more wisdom, and check out my website at

http://www.sharonniederman.com

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Winter for Sure

The back porch thermometer has not moved above 16 degrees all day. Fog and frost transforms our world into a black and white abstract landscape; color is erased, save for a flash of blue jay. Too brutally cold to go out. We warm ourselves with popcorn, cocoa, fire, puppy antics, vintage jigsaw puzzle, “British Soldiers and Battles,” retrieved from the basement. The very basement we pledged last summer to clean up on a day like this.

Suspended, suspense, suspicion. This feeling of waiting: for the blizzard moving our way to hit, for news from Albuquerque, for visitors from NYC, for changes of travel plans, that are always, this time of year, “weather permitting.” The weather, that small talk desperation topic, rules.

What matters today is long underwear, a woodpile close to the house, and a pot of soup, the same things that mattered to the people who built this house in 1906 on a fragment of the Maxwell Land Grant.

Shall I bake oatmeal chocolate chip cookies or bread?

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