MN Writes Reads

Slowdown in the Kitchen With Mary Louise

Mary Louise Icenhour teaches students at the Ely Folk School how to make walnut potica, a Slovenian holiday sweet bread. (all photos by Keith Vandervort)

Walnut potica (pronounced “po-teet-zah”) is a Slovenian sweet dough pastry. Potica was and remains a celebratory treat served at Christmas, Easter, and other festive occasions. Potica is so emblematic of Slovenia that it was featured on some of the first stamps produced by the newly independent Slovenian government after it broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991.

Mary Louise Icenhour is a second-generation Slovenian, born and raised in Ely, Minnesota. She grew up eating Slovenian foods, made by and with her mother. The recipe was given to Icenhour by her mother, Rose Mavetz. In the 1970s and 80s, Mavetz taught students how to make it at the Vermilion Community College.

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I came to walnut potica, and to Mary Louise, by way of the Ely Folk School, which builds community by providing learning experiences that celebrate the wilderness, heritage, art, culture, and craft of the people of northern Minnesota. This was exactly what I was looking for when I moved from the Twin Cities to the Northwoods in January 2018.

My mom was visiting and took the class with me. She  said our time learning how to make potica reminded her of youthful summers spent cooking with her grandma Evelyn.  I am envious of those summers. Being the youngest of many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, born into a family that had embraced the industrialized kitchen, I did not spend summers baking with grandmothers as they measured flour by feel, emboldened by centuries of collective experience. Great-grandmother Evelyn had passed away by the time I was curious about cooking.

My great-grandmother was a self-proclaimed Bohemian who specialized in Czech kolaches, a culinary cousin of the Slovenian potica. I have never tasted a kolache. To be honest, I am still not quite sure how to pronounce the word kolache, or what it means to be Bohemian.

Our Bohemian roots were not something we celebrated at home. Rather, we joked about our status as “European mutts” and our “Heinz 57” heritage while eating American-style spaghetti, pizza, steak, and potatoes. When we made dessert, we made chocolate chip cookies or brownies from the box.

Who has time to roll sweet bread dough into a 40” x 60” rectangle and grind two pounds of walnuts into a paste with a cup and a half of local honey? Who can justify the cost?

One of the many gifts of the potica class was to comprehend the unquantifiable value of creating something from nothing — executing a task that is neither quick nor easy.

What is easy is to romanticize the idea of slowing down. Actually slowing down is difficult to do — or so has been my experience. I spent the last several years (or perhaps my whole life) going, going, going.

Mary Louise taught our small group of students to map out at least ten minutes to knead the dough, an hour to let the dough rest, and another 30 minutes to roll it and stretch it to its fullest capacity.

I had a novel realization during this slowdown time. Perhaps the compulsion to fill my days will remain, but if I am wise enough to choose activities that cannot be rushed, the pace of life could be less frantic.

My mom and I spent four hours at the Ely Folk School that Saturday morning. We stood around a butcher block counter, at a bright yellow table, in an airy kitchen full of sun shining in from a wall of windows  overlooking  Sheridan Street. We made and stretched the dough and prepared the honey walnut filling. There was ample chit-chat over bottomless cups of coffee with a few other local women enrolled in the class. It was time well spent in a pleasant space.

Mary Louise guided us in our handling of the dough — encouraging us to be more bold, and cautioning us to be more gentle, at the right moments.

Mary Louise is as full of helpful insight as potica is full of walnuts and honey.

  • Cane sugar is best.
  • Salted butter is okay.
  • One lump of lard is about two inches. Don’t skip the lard. (Mary Louise’s mother Rose was a big advocate for lard, which had something to do with enzymes.)
  • Don’t use rapid rise yeast.
  • Blonde walnuts are the best walnuts; the dark ones will taste bitter.
  • Leave a little flour out when cooking in the winter, as everything is drier in the winter. There is no substitute for high quality flour; the protein content makes all the difference.
  • Tacky dough is good.
  • Use a large, heavy pot.
  • Glass is hotter than metal; if you are going to cook with glass, turn the temperature of your oven down by 25 degrees.
  • If you are baking with aluminum, you want it to be light and shiny. Consider investing in Nordic Ware.

I did not spend summers making kolaches with my great- grandma Evelyn. My family recipes came from the side of a Hamburger Helper box, and only date back to 1971.

Now, I am thrilled to join in on the fun of celebrating the wilderness heritage, art, culture, and craft of the people of northern Minnesota, many of whom are Slovenian.

It is time to practice making my holiday sweet bread now.


Lacey Squier moved from St. Paul to Ely in 2019. She writes at painfullyearnest.com. More information about potica classes and other courses can be found at elyfolkschool.org