Finding a Piece of my Grandma in Slovenia

Grandmothers always make the best dishes, don’t they? And our feeble attempts to recreate them can be frustrating, sad and downright depressing.

In my mom's parent's house, my grandpa did most of the everyday cooking, but my grandma had three specialties that would immediately bring all of her children and grandchildren into the kitchen. They were scones (more of a cookie than what we think of as a traditional scone), pasties (a meat, potato and vegetable filled pastry) and what we called roly poly. Roly poly was a jelly-rolled cake filled with nutty and sugary deliciousness and always best as it cooled down after being pulled from the oven. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone else who made roly poly and I was pretty sure that wasn’t the most commonly used name for it.

When my grandma passed away in 2002, we lost an amazing person and all three of these things. Our family has tried to recreate them in various ways and while we have had some light success with scones and pasties, no one can perfect roly poly. It takes a long time to make, requires a lot of patience and most of us have given up after just looking at the recipe.

Before my grandparents passed away, they also had a running controversy on where my grandmother’s family was from. My grandma insisted she was Austrian, while my grandpa insisted she was Slovenian. There was never a resolution so we have grown up knowing that we either have Austrian or Slovenian blood running through us. I’m not sure why my grandpa had a say since it wasn’t his side of the family, but he was persistent enough to make us believe him.

He may have been on to something.

We just spent more than a week traveling through Slovenia and if my grandma wasn’t from there, it sure is a place she would have loved. The tall mountains, fresh air, and miles and miles of walking paths would have been her thing. Like the Slovenians we met, she also had a great sense of humor and could match anyone wit for wit.

And then happened - I found roly poly.

In our rented apartment in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital, I saw it when flipping through a cookbook. In Slovenia, it is called “potica,” but it was the real deal. Potica is a Slovenian recipe for a marvelous yeast bread, jelly-rolled around a filling of chopped nuts, honey, butter, cinnamon and raisins. It is said that Slovenian miners who settled in the upper Midwest (my grandma was from the Upper Pennisula in Michigan) introduced this sweet yeast bread to American cuisine. My real mission for Slovenia was then handed to me - to find potica and see if it was like grandma’s.

On one of our last days in town, we took the Ljubljana Free Walking Tour and I grabbed some down time with our guide Neja to ask her about potica and where I may get some. She had her own take on the Slovenian treat: “It is said in Slovenia that you can’t get married until you know how to make potica.” This was getting serious. Neja pointed to a few bakeries inside the city’s Central Market and said it would be the best place to find some.

The next morning, I ran down to the Central Market when it opened and wandered through the stalls. I found a few options that all looked similar so I paid my four euros and took half of a cake home.

 Potica from Ljubljana's Central Market.

Potica from Ljubljana's Central Market.

Basically skipping with excitement, I made it back to our apartment, unwrapped the cake and cut off a slice. It looked right. The dough was nicely rolled around the filling and the top crust was just crispy enough.

I took a bite and sank down into my chair in relief. It was “it". Roly poly in Ljubljana. It wasn’t right out of the oven and could have been a little fresher, but the taste was the same and it made me ridiculously happy to be back in my grandma’s kitchen, eating a slice while she puttered around on the other side of the counter.

 Happy morning with grandma's roly poly!

Happy morning with grandma's roly poly!

We will probably never know if she was actually Austrian or Slovenian, but at least I finally know where to go when I need some roly poly. I even wrote down the cookbook recipe so I could make another feeble attempt at it this Christmas. If you're game, here is a recipe.

What food did your grandma make that you miss? Where can you go in this world to find it?