Archive for Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Holiday loafing: Dense, delicious povitica boasts rich flavors and a hard-to-pronounce name

Povitica bread is an Eastern European holiday tradition that mixes a sweet dough and nutty filling.

Povitica bread is an Eastern European holiday tradition that mixes a sweet dough and nutty filling.

December 9, 2009


Making povitica in a loaf pan is an Americanization of the bread says Strawberry Hill Povitica Company owner Dennis O'Leary.

Making povitica in a loaf pan is an Americanization of the bread says Strawberry Hill Povitica Company owner Dennis O'Leary.

It's rare that a food's name is as difficult to pronounce as that food is to enjoy.

But every time someone new visits Strawberry Hill Povitica Company in Lenexa, Dennis O'Leary gets a reminder of his sweet bread's special status. And sometimes a craving for pizza, too.

"We get people that butcher it every day. And, you know, when someone says it incorrectly, I won't correct them unless they want to be corrected," says O'Leary, the owner of the country's premier povitica producer. "But it's povitica. And then they say, 'What?' and then you have to spell it. When I say povitica to people, they say, 'pizza?' and no, 'povitica' - it's very confusing to a lot of people."

Yes, that's po-va-teets-sa.

It's a holiday staple in Eastern Europe and, in some parts of the United States - including Kansas City's Strawberry Hill neighborhood - a tradition more popular than eggnog. And it's easy to see why: A sweet, dense bread, it's so packed with nuts and spices that each of Strawberry Hill's loaves weigh in at a hefty 2.5 pounds.

Families from Croatia to Serbia to Hungary to Poland make the bread, as do many Americans whose families brought the "swirled bread" to America in the 1800s and 1900s.

An introduction

If you haven't heard of it, let alone the proper way to pronounce it, you're missing out on one tasty dessert, says Clay Belcher. He should know, because until he received a loaf as a gift a few Christmases ago, he had no idea it existed. From the first bite, he decided to serve it year-round in his coffee shop at Signs of Life.

"We opened in like March, and the Christmas before, somebody had given me a loaf as a gift. And I'd never had it before but I just loved it and thought, 'Boy, if we open up this coffee shop, we've got to offer this stuff,'" says Belcher, who sells it by the slice and the loaf. "I'd never heard of it before someone gave me a loaf, but people come in all the time, 'Oh my grandmother used to make that or my mom makes that every year.'"

Not that making it is any easy task. The bread's distinctive inner swirls are the product of lots of work. Each loaf consists of dough and filling, made separately and then swirled together to form a free-standing roll or a mass wedged into a loaf pan.

O'Leary explains the differences of roll verses loaf as an Americanization of the bread, or at least that's the story his father, Harley, the company's founder, had shared.

"The story that my dad used to tell everybody was his mom's family, when they were in the old country, used to make povitica, and it was more similar to a nut roll. You know, they had bigger ovens and they could fit them into those bigger ovens," O'Leary says. "And when they came to the United States, they couldn't figure out how to fit them in the ovens. So what they did was they took that roll and twisted it into an 'S' shape and baked it in a pan, and that way they could fit three or four of them in the oven and bake them that way. I think that's really how povitica has been Americanized."

Past Event
Lawrence Farmers’ Holiday Market

  • When: Saturday, December 12, 2009, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
  • Where: Columbus Hall, 2206 E. 23rd St., Lawrence
  • Cost: Free
  • More on this event....

Labor intensive

No matter how it's baked, it's a long process, says Megan Paisley. Paisley, who runs Crane River Farm out of Stilwell, bakes a Polish version of the bread for the Lawrence Farmers' Market. For this year's Holiday Farmers' Market, which runs from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Paisley is planning on spending a swirling and baking 24 to 36 loaves - something that will take her eight or so hours.

"The dough has to rise three times and then the filling - actually we've got to grind the pecans, they're not just chopped, we've got to grind them and then it gets cooked on the stove because there's eggs and things in it with milk and it has to be actually cooked and boiled," Paisley says. "And then that's got to cool while I roll out the dough and then spread the filling and then roll it up."

It's not cheap, either. Paisley says she's not making a profit on the bread, though she has consistently sold out of it.

"I don't really make any money on it whatsoever because there's so many pecans in it. Just in mine, $3.50 worth of pecans now go in each loaf," she says. "Then add in all the other ingredients and my time, so ... $6 a loaf, I'm not making much."

But she says it's worth it to introduce customers to something she found amazing the first time she tried it - even if it was years before she produced it herself.

"I kind of thought that everybody had heard of povitica bread ... so it was really fun to talk about it and explain it to people," she says. "And once I explained to them that it was a kind of a sweet bread that is rolled up like a cinnamon roll and then I roll it like a snail and it's got a nut filling with a little bit of cinnamon and cocoa to it, they were excited."

So excited that O'Leary jokes that this time of year, "We could probably sell it in a hardware store if we wanted to." No need though, as Belcher says he usually sells hundreds of loaves between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Not bad for a delicacy that doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

"There's not too many people who get it right on their first try," O'Leary says. "I always joke I wish it was called 'nut bread' because it would be so easy to tell people to go to"


pickaname 8 years, 5 months ago

Growing up in the Strawberry Hill district of K.C.K., povaticia was always in abundance. I have finished my first loaf for this season wil another in the freezer. If you have not tries Strawberry Hill Brand, its to die for. Yummy!

royalpain 8 years, 5 months ago

Great article! Anyone care to post a fool-proof recipe?

Sarah Henning 8 years, 5 months ago

Royal Pain: Hey there, I did find a recipe on for the bread. Nothing we had permission to print, though. There are recipes all over the web, if that one doesn't look good to you. Happy baking!


labmonkey 8 years, 5 months ago

I always wonder what that stuff was called. We always had it at Grandma's house around Christmas.

Jeanette Kekahbah 8 years, 5 months ago

Strawberry Hill makes the best povitica on the planet. English walnut is my favorite. Nice to see the LJW covering an area business that produces a uniquely special product.

littlelody 8 years, 5 months ago

My great-grandmother, who came from Croatia in the early 1900's and lived on Strawberry Hill, always made povitica. I am from KCK, very close to the Hill, and I remember visiting her regularly when I was just as tall as her kitchen table. I have just recently taken over the privilege in my family and am selling it by the loaf for $15.00...I've had tremendously positive responses from everyone who bought it for Thanksgiving. I think Strawberry Hill is good too, but I wouldn't be baking it if I thought it was the best! =) I remember dancing to the Polka music at my great-grandparents 75th wedding Anniversary, taking time outs only to eat povitica! Let me know if you want me to make you a loaf: - you'll love it. I am in Lawrence baking this weekend and next, so get your order in soon if you are interested! Thanks!

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