We baked potica, and you can, too. (Becky Krystal/TWP)

Small talk in big situations: It can be awkward.

So props to Pope Francis for trying to chat up first lady Melania Trump about potica, a baked specialty from her native Slovenia. And a big ol’ “we feel ya, girl” to Mrs. Trump, who seemed caught off-guard by the question, which took place Wednesday during President Trump’s visit to the Vatican. To further complicate the situation, it involved a translator.

According to accounts from such sources as the Associated Press and the Guardian, the pope gestured toward the president and asked something along the lines of, “What do you give him to eat? Potica?”


President Trump and first lady Melania Trump talk with Pope Francis during a meeting at the Vatican on May 24. (Evan Vucci/Reuters via pool)

Now here’s where it gets interesting. Interpretations of the scene differ, though it seemed that at least momentarily the first lady thought the pope was talking about pizza. The AP concluded that she eventually caught on and said, “potica, ah yes,” while the Guardian suggested she said “pizza.”

The Internet then had some fun, naturally.

Regardless, we’re going to stick with potica, because it’s a heck of a lot more interesting than pizza. It’s also apparently a favorite of the pope, who, according to the AP, routinely talks to Slovenian visitors about it.


This is Slovenian potica. Looks pretty good, right? (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

But what exactly is potica (pronounced poh-TEET-sah)?

“It’s kind of a sweet bread,” most commonly made with a walnut filling, said Borut Zunic, who works at the Slovenian embassy in Washington. “It’s very traditional.” You’ll also see it in Serbia or Croatia as povitica; the Hungarian beigli is a close relative.

You might also see potica referred to as a cake. Consisting of a butter-and-egg-enriched yeast dough that is spread with a nut filling and then rolled up, potica might remind you of babka.

“We’ll have it for holidays or special occasions,” Zunic said, especially Easter, when the treat rivals eggs in terms of importance on the Slovenian table.

“Slovenia, it’s a small country, but it’s very diverse,” he said, meaning you’ll find many variations on potica. It might be shaped into a log or a round loaf with a hole in the middle. Besides walnuts, a sweet cheese-tarragon combo is a common filling, Zunic said. The Slovene National Benefit Society says other fillings might include chocolate, poppy seeds and hazelnuts.

Like a lot of yeasted breads, potica takes time and effort to make. That’s why even back in Slovenia, you’re more likely to grab one at the local bakery or grocery store.

A potica enjoyed by Bernadette Kovacic Fitzsimmons’s family at Christmas. (Courtesy of Bernadette Kovacic Fitzsimmons)

“It’s a dying art,” said Bernadette Kovacic Fitzsimmons, president of the Olney, Md., Branch 108 of the Slovenian Union of America. Fitzsimmons, who helped edit “The Slovenian American Table,” a cookbook published in 2015 by the Slovenian Union of America (available by calling the group), said there are plenty of recipes out there that call for shortcuts, such as using a store-bought refrigerated dough, to make the process less demanding.

Still, as the daughter of two Slovenian immigrants, she’s determined to make everything from scratch, frequently alongside her mother. Slovenian cooks may keep a potica in the freezer to serve when guests show up, in addition to making it for the holidays. More often, it’s served as a snack, or maybe for breakfast. “It’s a little heavy for following a dinner,” Fitzsimmons said.

While her family adores potica (there’s a homemade loaf ready for her daughter’s high school graduation this week), it can be a bit of a harder sell for Americans, she said, because it’s not necessarily as moist as the cakes we tend to favor.

 

That’s one reason Zunic wasn’t always as much of a fan as he is now.

“As a kid, I hated it,” he said. But “it’s actually nice. I kind of grew to like it.”

Want to make your own potica? Here’s a recipe.


Our potica, before being sliced. (Becky Krystal/The Washington Post)

Scale, print and rate the recipe in our Recipe Finder:

Potica

12 to 16 servings

This version’s baked in a large Bundt pan.

MAKE AHEAD: The dough needs to be refrigerated overnight.

Adapted from a generations-old Slovenian family recipe via Washington Post national digital editor Terri Rupar.

Tested by Bonnie S. Benwick and Kara Elder.

INGREDIENTS
For the dough
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 cup warm water (105 degrees)
4 1/2 teaspoons (2 packets) dry yeast
3 large egg yolks
2 1/2 cups flour, plus more for rolling
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar
For the filling
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups finely chopped walnuts
3 tablespoons plus 1 cup sugar
1/2 cup chopped pitted dates
3/4 cup whole milk
3 large egg whites, at room temperature

STEPS
For the dough: Combine the butter and milk in a small saucepan over medium-low heat; cook until the butter has melted, then turn off the heat and let cool to lukewarm.

Pour the warm water into the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer, then stir in the yeast. Let sit for at least 5 minutes (to make sure the yeast is active; it should bubble or foam on the surface).

Stir in the egg yolks and the milk-butter mixture, then add the flour, salt and sugar. Beat on medium-low speed to form a sticky, smooth dough. Transfer to a mixing bowl greased with cooking oil spray; cover with greased plastic wrap directly on the surface and refrigerate 8 to 12 hours (overnight). The dough also can be mixed by hand.

For the filling: Combine the cinnamon, walnuts, 3 tablespoons of the sugar, the dates and milk in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook for 7 to 10 minutes, stirring, until the mixture thickens. Let cool.

Pour the egg whites into the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer fitted with a balloon-whisk attachment. Beat on medium speed until frothy, then increase the speed to medium-high. Gradually add the remaining 1 cup of sugar, beating to form a meringue that holds firm peaks.

Gently fold the meringue into the cooled walnut mixture.

Divide the rested, refrigerated dough in half. Lightly flour a work surface.

Working with one portion of the dough at a time, dust on both sides with flour and roll each one out to a round that’s 18 to 20 inches in diameter.

Spread half the walnut mixture on each round of dough, leaving a 1-inch margin at the edges. Starting at the bottom, roll each round into a fairly tight log, like a jellyroll.

Grease a large Bundt pan with cooking oil spray; transfer one rolled filled log there, wrapping it around inside the pan. Fit the second log the same way, on top of the first one. Their ends should not meet in the same place.

Cover and let rise in a draft-free spot for 30 minutes.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the Bundt pan on a baking sheet; bake (middle rack) for 50 to 60 minutes, until the top is nicely browned and a tester inserted into the bread comes out clean.

Let cool in the pan for at least 5 minutes, then invert onto a platter. Cool further before slicing.

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