A Christmas Tradition

Christmas is time to spend with family and friends. I sort of got to do both.

A couple of my coworkers and I co-hosted an afternoon tea time at my place, since, out of the three of us, it is the biggest. Due to poor planning on my part, we decided to host it just when the kids in Colorado would be waking up and wanting to do stockings and presents. Oops.

Co-hosting worked out great, since I basically provided the venue, and the others greeted people as they arrived and made them welcome. They also brought some fantastic food, which helped since my meager contribution was egg salad in cocktail puffs, fudge, candied pecans, gingerbread, and potica (pronounced po-TEETS-a. There’s probably supposed to be a mark on the c to let you know, but since I’m not entirely certain where the recipe comes from, I don’t know which mark it should be. I can think of three or four possibilities.).

In terms of recipes, I made up the egg salad. Hardboiled eggs, some mustard powder, some salt, some mayonnaise, and you’re basically good to go. My cream puff recipe and technique needs some work. Suffice to say these were OK, but not great. They didn’t puff as much as I had hoped.


Gingerbread, pecans, and potica


I liked the fudge, but suffice to say it was a first attempt. For the candied nuts, I put the pecans in a skillet with a couple tablespoons of butter to toast them, then I added sugar and cinnamon, cooking until the sugar caramelized and stuck to the nuts. I spread the pecans out on buttered foil to cool, then stored in an airtight container.

The gingerbread was the Gingerbread Snacking Cake from Smitten Kitchen.

Now for the potica. There is, of course, a story with this. Growing up, my great aunt Lorraine made this most years. Probably not every year, but often enough that it became somewhat of a tradition, and is indelibly imprinted on my childhood memory. So, fast forward until I hit university. Aunt Lorraine had stopped making potica by now, so I asked my mom if she had the recipe. Sure enough, she did. I copied it, and have made it almost every year ever since. This is the one non-negotiable Christmas dish.

It isn’t always the same. For example, last year I couldn’t find walnuts, so I made the filling with pecans. It was a little on the sweet side since pecans lack the slightly bitter edge of walnuts. This year, I was looking at the recipe for the St. Lucy buns and the ingredient lists read almost exactly identical. Since that dough was so easy to work with, I went with Peter Reinhart’s recipe and technique. I’ve had, in the past, trouble with the dough rising. I suspect that since I use whole wheat flour, the liquid measure in the original recipe should be increased. Since I never measure the liquid that I add, it’s always hit or miss. I think I’ve added too much liquid in the past, and compensated with adding too much extra flour, so the dough gets tough.

In theory, this comes from central Europe. Aunt Lorraine was at least part Polish/Slovakian, more or less. It is unclear if she got the recipe from her parents, or exactly what the lineage is for this particular chain. It might be a recipe she found somewhere that she liked. In any case, it’s tradition for me now. I’ll share both versions of the dough recipe, so maybe you can make this a tradition in your own family.

Aunt Lorraine’s Potica:


1 package yeast

¼ cup lukewarm water

¾ cup lukewarm milk

¼ cup sugar + 1 tsp to proof yeast

1 tsp salt

1 beaten egg

¼ cup butter (ok, the original calls for shortening, but I think that was shorthand for butter, margarine, or shortening)

3 ½ – 3 ¼ cup flour


2 ½ c ground walnuts (1 qt shelled)

1 ½ cups sugar

2 eggs beaten

¾ cup milk

dash of salt

cinnamon (optional (not really, and I add ginger and cloves (maybe 2 tsp cinnamon, ½ tsp ginger, dash of ground cloves)))

To make the dough:

Proof yeast in water with 1 tsp sugar.

Dissolve sugar and salt in milk, and add butter. Stir in yeast.

Add egg, mix.

Stir in flour and add enough so the dough is soft but no longer sticky.

Turn out onto lightly floured surface and let stand 10 minutes.

Knead until smooth and elastic.

Put in greased bowl, cover, let rise until double (about 1 hour).

While rising, make the filling:

Scald milk in small saucepan.

Dissolve sugar into milk.

Add nuts (and spices if using).

Cook 5 minutes on medium, stirring constantly.

Add eggs, cook 5 more minutes. (The original doesn’t say this, but temper the eggs before you add them to the filling!)

Turn off heat. Allow to cool, stirring occasionally until the dough is ready.


Roll out the dough as thin as possible into a long rectangle.

Spread with filling.

Roll as tightly as possible, and seal the edges.

Put on cookie sheet. You may need to gently curve it to get it to fit.

Let rise until doubled.

Bake at 375 until lightly brown. (say 15 minutes)

Turn down to 325 and bake for a total of an hour. [Edit–actually, this should be no more than an hour.  If you go down to 325, it may take that long, or it might only need 45 minutes total.  Check it every 15-20 minutes or so.]

Cover with foil or a brown paper bag if it browns too quickly. (Yes, the original recipe called for a brown paper bag from the local grocery store.)

Remove, let cool before slicing.

Reinhart’s Method:

If you bake with whole wheat flour, Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads is worth a look. I would suggest checking it out from the library first, if you can, because you might be put off by the technique. It’s a little more complex, but, once you get the swing of it (about two loaves), it’s really easy. It involves making two pre-doughs the day before you bake, then mixing them together with the rest of the ingredients on baking day. Active work time is actually less, since you’re letting time do some of the gluten development for you.


Soaker (pre-dough 1)

227 g whole wheat flour

4 g salt

170 g milk

Mix soaker ingredients together in a bowl until all the flour is hydrated and the dough forms a ball. Cover with plastic wrap, and leave at room temperature for 12-24 hours (longer than that and you can put it in the fridge. He says it is good for three days, but I’ve never waited that long.).

Biga (pre-dough 2)

227 g whole wheat flour

1 g yeast

142 g room temperature water

1 egg, lightly beaten.

Mix biga ingredients in a bowl until it comes together. Wet your hands and knead for about two minutes, until everything is well mixed. It will be very tack. Let rest for about five minutes, then knead it for another minute. The dough will come together, be smoother, but still tacky.

Cover, place in fridge for at least eight hours, or up to three days. Two hours before mixing the final dough, take out of fridge to remove the chill (this is when you would remove the soaker from the fridge as well if you stashed it there).

Final dough:



113 g whole wheat flour

5 g salt

7 g yeast

71 g honey or sugar (you can use brown sugar, and probably should).

57 g butter

Tear or chop the pre-doughs into about 12 smaller pieces.

You can knead by hand, but I use my stand mixer. Here’s how I do it: Place all ingredients, except the butter in the mixing bowl. Start with dough hook on low until the dough comes together. Add the butter a bit at a time, and turn up to the next highest setting (but still low). Knead until it comes together into a cohesive, well-mixed dough. It will be slightly tacky, and medium-soft, but not sticky.

From there, you proceed as above.


Dough rolled out


Filling applied


Baked and cut