When it comes to fancy bread-making, Diana Bruns has street credibility.
|Diana Bruns shows her Potica, a nut-laden Yugoslavian coffee cake. (Photos: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
Her "resume" includes a multi-year stint as a television background cook for the late Marcia Adams of PBS fame.
Bruns acquired lots of good recipes from that 1990s time period, none more mouth-watering than one for Potica, a traditional Yugoslavian Christmas coffeecake notable for the rich vein of walnut filling hidden in a swirl within each slice.
To this day, the rural Bowling Green resident is known for making and giving Potica, but her own until-now-secret version is actually "a conglomeration of two recipes.
"I got the original recipe from a cooking magazine about 20 years ago." It might have been Bon Appetit, she's not sure.
"The other recipe I came across in the early '90s, when I worked on a WBGU-TV series, Marcia Adams' "Cooking from Quilt Country." Her book containing the recipe, Heartland, was published in 1991."
The TV series was produced by another Bowling Green resident, Denise Kisabeth, and Bruns thoroughly enjoyed her role as a background cook.
"We had such a good time working in the background. The ladies would just laugh and eat," she recalls.
It was the background cooks' job to prepare the multiple recipes in different stages for Adams to show on TV, as well as to shop for ingredients and plate the foods.
"It was really fun to do. I couldn't believe I was getting paid."
Bruns was tapped for the job because she knew Kisabeth from their church, St. Mark's Lutheran, "and she needed some cooks in the background.
Bruns had watched Adams' first series on television "when she only had, I think, Denise's mom helping her out with the food. And then she decided she needed more helpers, so I was a helper for all the other series."
1991's "Heartland: The Best of the Old and the New from Midwest Kitchens" cookbook turned into "a good series. She had a lot of good hearty recipes," among them the Potica, on page 142. "It was healthy - well, of course, with a lot of butter and eggs. That's how the Amish cook."
The Potica is special for one other reason.
"I did help Marcia with this recipe on camera and I was very nervous because I don't like cameras. It was my only on-camera appearance, as a matter of fact."
The other Adams series with Bruns acting as a background cook were "'Cooking From Quilt Country' and there was also a Christmas-themed book."
After 20 years, Bruns remains loyal to her own version of the Yugoslavian bread.
"I now use the dough recipe from Marcia Adams and use the filling - with some minor changes and additions - from the original recipe. Marcia's dough is a much richer dough with more fat/butter, so it's a more forgiving dough and easier to stretch and work with."
With all that yummy butter, most of us would agree, "but I'm thinking the original recipe is the true, authentic version. I don't think the Slavs had that much butter to make such a rich dough back then."
A few years back, "in the 1994 Wood County Fair book published by the Sentinel," Bruns noticed a recipe for Potica, to be used as one of the entries in the baking department.
"That recipe follows pretty much the same as my original recipe," she discovered from her original yellowed and tattered copy.
Potica is time-consuming; it takes five or six hours to make.
"That's why I make it four or five times during December and don't make it much the rest of the year.
"I enjoy making Potica for friends and family as part of their Christmas gifts. I might make three or four small breads (from one recipe) for giving for small families or single friends."
She saves just one of the small coffeecakes for herself.
Occasionally, Bruns will prepare a batch during other times of the year, "but I don't make it as much now since the kids are grown and out of the house."
Daughter Katie is 30 and has given Bruns two grandchildren. Son Erik is 26.
"I think of it more as a cold weather recipe and really enjoy it with a cup of tea on a cold morning," something she has leisure to do since she retired from Bowling Green State University two years ago. During her 30-year career she was secretary to the director of the student union and a proofreader for Popular Press.
One secret to successful Potica is to "stretch the dough really thin. After I rolled it out awhile, I used my fists to stretch it out."
And like any yeast bread, "on humid days, that changes the amount of flour you might need - the rate of absorption. So you just have to make it by feel so the dough should be elastic, smooth and firm so that it can be stretched.
"This one you're rolling it out. If you tear, that's OK, it's not a disaster. You just press, or smoosh it together again. So all is not lost."
Bruns clears her whole kitchen table before making Potica because spreading the dough takes a lot of room.
"There is a trick I use for rising the dough in a cold kitchen: turning on the oven for one minute, turning it off, putting the dough in the oven to rise and closing the door."
She also reminds bread bakers how to measure flour: "Spoon (or sift) flour lightly into the measuring cup, being careful not to pack it down. Level off with the straight edge of a knife or spatula."
Bruns always buys her flour and her yeast down in Ohio Amish country.
"I like to make breads and pies; I made breads almost weekly when the kids were at home.
"I still like homemade bread; it's one of my favorite food groups.
"I enjoy the kneading process," she added. "It takes out frustrations. On very frustrating days I really knead a lot. It's good for the soul. I would never use a bread machine. I like to get my hands in the dough."
Potica (Yugoslavian Christmas Spiral)
1 pkg. yeast
¼ C. warm water mixed with ¼ tsp. sugar
¾ C. milk
¼ C. sugar
¾ C. butter, at room temperature
1 egg plus 2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1 tsp. salt
4 ¼ - 4 ½ C. flour
2 C. walnuts, ground
1 egg, beaten
¼ C. packed brown sugar
2 Tbsp. honey
¼ C. whipping cream (or milk)
1 Tbsp. butter, melted
2 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. vanilla
Grated rind of 1 lemon, optional
In small bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm sugared water.
Scald the milk and add the sugar and ¼ C. of the butter.
When cool, add the beaten egg, egg yolks, and salt to the milk.
Meanwhile, place 4¼ C. flour and remaining ½ C. butter in food processor or mixing bowl. Process for 15 seconds or until well combined, then add the milk and egg mixture plus the yeast mixture. Process until the mixture forms a ball. If the dough is too sticky to form a ball, keep the processor on and add flour 1 tablespoon at a time until it comes together. Continue processing until the ball rotates around the bowl 25 times. If doing hand mixing or using the dough hook attachment on your mixer, mix or knead until a smooth dough is formed. If flour needs to be added, less is more. Dough that is sticky is better than dry dough.
Let the dough rest 5 minutes, then turn it onto a floured surface and knead a few times. Place the dough in a lightly greased large bowl, turn once, and cover lightly with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm spot until doubled, about 1 hour. Punch down thoroughly, oil the top, and let rise again until doubled, about 1 more hour.
While the dough is rising, make the filling. Heat the cream/milk until hot (but not boiling) and mix in all the remaining filling ingredients.
After the dough has risen the second time, punch it down the divide in half. Cover and let it rest for about 10 minutes. Transfer to a floured surface and roll each piece of dough into a rectangle about 14” X 24” and 1/8” thick (the thinner the better). You can stretch the dough gently, working from the center to edges, and pull it to make it very thin, almost to the point where you can see through it.
Spread each rectangle with half of the filling, spreading it to within 1-inch of the edges. Starting from the long side of each rectangle, roll up the potica firmly, as you would for a jelly roll. Pinch edges to seal. * Place one end of roll in center of large greased baking sheet, seam sides down. Coil dough to make a snail-shaped spiral. Tuck the ends under and pinch the seal. Cover (I use a tea towel) and let the potica rise again until doubled, about 45 minutes.**
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush the tops of the potica with a beaten egg and bake for 30-40 minutes, or until lightly browned. Cool.
Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar. Or, you can make a glaze of confectioners’ sugar and water (or milk) and drizzle over potica. (I usually add some flavoring to the glaze, like maple, vanilla, or nut extract.)
* You can also shape dough into 2 long rolls and not coil them (but snail-shape is so much prettier!)
** Dough can be refrigerated overnight at this point if you don’t have enough time to finish it then.