Slovenian Sweetness

Ely woman turns her kitchen into a potica factory for Folk School fundraiser

Mary Louise Icenhour busy rolling out potica dough

Mary Louise Icenhour busy rolling out potica dough

Keith Vandervort in The Timberjay
Wednesday, June 27, 2018

WHITE IRON LAKE –A faded and tattered recipe, produced on a manual typewriter, complete with stains and a few handwritten notes, has a simple heading “Walnut Potica.” That recipe is the basis of Mary Louise Icenhour’s heritage.

Like all recipes, this one is the guideline or first step in mastering a baking tradition handed down through many generations in Ely.

Icenhour’s mother, Rose Mavetz, used her original recipe to teach Community Education classes in the 1970s and 1980s at Vermilion Community College. Mary has decades of experience in making this Slovenian sweet bread and she passes on that knowledge to Ely Folk School students willing to keep the tradition intact.

These days, Icenhour is a one-person potica factory. She’s churning out dozens of loaves of walnut potica at her White Iron Lake cabin this week as she gets enough stock to conduct a fundraiser for EFS.

She is donating the cost of materials and the time it takes to make as many as 50 poticas and will sell them for $40 each at a special bake sale event on Tuesday, July 3. All proceeds go to the Folk School. To reserve a traditional Slovenian-made walnut potica, call her at 218-365-6662.

Icenhour is making five batches or loaves each day over the course of about 10 days. “If this goes well, we’ll look at doing this again at Christmas and Easter,” she said.

“I like to start as early as I can in the morning. That’s when I’m well rested,” said the retired Duke University nursing instructor.

Icenhour spends her summers at the same cabin her father built back in 1954. She recently bought a house in Ely and comes to town for the winter. “I guess you could call me a snow bird,” she joked.

While she waited for the dough to rise, she showed a visitor a Slovenian stamp that featured potica, walnuts and honey. “I get a Christmas card from my father’s cousin every year,” she said. “Potica is so significant to the Slovenian culture that they feature the baked good on their stamps. Our first lady is from the old country and Melania told the Pope last year during a visit that she feeds her husband potica. Slovenians have a real cultural connection to this sweet bread.”

Each batch of Icenhour’s potica contains two pounds of walnuts, one and a half cups of honey, a cup of sugar, lots of heavy whipping cream and three eggs. “The filling is very rich,” she said. “I always use Minnesota honey. And I use at least a pound of butter. I don’t skimp. And get the good high-protein flour.”

The combination of these is really an art. As she described the process, Icenhour added her own tried and true tips which ultimately prove invaluable for the potica novice. “Use a heavy pan, like an old pressure cooker,” and “just bring it to a slight boil. Stir in the honey and butter mixture carefully to get a nice consistency in the filling. This filling is what makes potica, potica,” Mary said.

She noted the golden color of the filling. “If you had cheaper walnuts, it would be darker,” she said. “Drop in the eggs one at a time and stir in each one. Don’t have it too hot or the else the eggs will start to cook too fast. Add a generous cup of whipping cream. Potica can’t be too rich.”

Icenhour has a half-dozen aluminum loaf pans, nearly impossible to obtain anymore, that she uses solely for her potica.

“Back in the 1970s, there was a hardware store next to Kerntz’s (appliance store) run by a family of Slovenes, the Banovetzes and they got a bunch of the pans in,” she said. “This news went through the Slovenian ladies in town like lightning, and my mother got six. I still use her original pans. They never see a dishwasher. I treat them with care. Martha Banovetz, Frank’s wife, never got any of those pans. I heard that from her daughter, Marcia, who was in my high school class here in Ely.”

Icenhour said that she scours e-bay and buys them whenever they are available. “They are an odd size, but just perfect for a loaf of potica,” she said.

“Most Slovenian women use a type of double-woven tablecloth that is hard to come by,” she said. “I have a 100-percent cotton sheet that is only used for my walnut potica. I wash it separately and line dry it. This is important for cleanliness.”

One of the mysteries of potica: “We were fussy about how much flour we added to the dough, but now you want to liberally put flour on the cloth and you want the flour to sink into the cloth,” she said.

Mary uses her grandmother’s square table, resurrected out of the bunkhouse at the cabin. “I like it because it is sturdy and flat and has no leaves and is 60 inches long which is perfect for five loaves of potica,” she said.

This week Icenhour is getting quite a workout with her rolling pin. “You just have to keep rolling. Lean into it. Hear that air come out? It’s the carbon dioxide from the yeast. My mother’s recipe calls for a rolling pin but there is a point where I give it a little help with my hands,” she said.

She prodded the dough to the edges of the table, pulling it, lifting it, and adding flour to keep it from sticking. “Don’t worry about the holes in the dough,” she said. “One thing about ethnic food is there is a lot of range for error. Just make sure it doesn’t stick to the cloth.”

The paste-like walnut filling was added and spread from edge to edge. “It is surprising how resilient the dough is to the scraping and spreading of the filling,” she said.

Icenhour started on one edge and began to roll the dough. “Now this is were the potica cloth really she shines,” she said as she picked up the side of the cloth and allowed gravity to roll the dough onto itself in quick fashion. And just like that, the potica was rolled and ready to rest for 15 minutes before going into the well-buttered baking pans and into the oven for an hour.

A handwritten hint at the bottom of the recipe says, “Before freezing, when potica is well wrapped, let it stand at room temperature for two days to allow flavor to go through.”

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