I used to think that I already knew about every fattening confection known to man or woman until I watched “The Great British Baking Show,” a television baking contest that recently concluded its current season. This is where I first heard about Povitica (pronounced po-va-teets-sa), a Croatian coffeecake that I was eager to try.
But before I go on about this cake, let me hasten to add that I take pride in not watching television cooking contests because I get angry at the sight of haughty judges taking little nibbles of a dish while anxious and browbeaten young cooks wait for a verdict on their efforts. I dislike watching the power relationship between the mighty judges and the humiliated contestants. Furthermore, since I can’t taste the food being judged, who’s to say that I would agree with the praise or condemnation bestowed upon a dish? Everyone knows that tastes vary, that ingredients and flavors appealing to one person will leave another cold. For instance, were I to judge a contest, any dish containing cilantro or beets would automatically fail with me, but I at least recognize that this isn’t fair.
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So, if I dislike cooking contests, then why did I watch and enjoy “The Great British Baking Show”? And why did I find myself eager to bake Povitica, the complicated and gorgeous sweet bread I’d never heard of that was one of the challenges facing the British contestants?
To start with, I find the setup of this British show interesting in that a diverse group of 12 talented amateur bakers are brought in from around Britain to compete for the crown. And I should add that there is no big prize money involved — just the honor of winning. One of the men was a construction worker, and one of the women was a 17-year-old schoolgirl, so the makeup of the group defied stereotypes. I was struck by the sweet natures of the contestants, who routinely helped one another so that if someone finished a bake early, then he or she would pitch in to help another complete a dish.
What I especially liked was that one of the judges, Paul Hollywood, an artisan baker, was terrific at explaining the qualities expected of any of the three baking challenges that occur during each show. Contestants placed their dishes on a table and Hollywood cut them in half before pointing out their successes or shortcomings. He brings important standards to the contest, examining the overall appearance of the product, whether or not fillings and frostings are even and of good consistency and not lopsided or runny, or if a batch of cookies is uniform and not mismatched. Underbaked dough is usually the worst offense and is guaranteed to put a contestant at the bottom of the heap.
As a viewer, I can see for myself the points Hollywood makes, and when a dish hits the mark, his explanation brings new understanding to what successful baking is all about. Of course the flavor of a dish also counts and is discussed, but as I have already mentioned, taste is a matter of opinion and the judges on the show sometimes disagree.
The emphasis in this program on the visual gave me an insight as to why I sometimes watch another reality show, “Project Runway,” where young clothing designers compete for a large cash prize and the chance to show their work at a New York fashion week. Top designers serve as judges and point out the flaws and glories of a given garment, and I learn from their sophisticated sense of design, for I can see what they are talking about.
While I would never attempt to stitch up a garment — sewing machines have always terrified me — I couldn’t wait to whip up Povitica, which turned out to be a challenging yeast product with a tricky shape.
It is similar to cinnamon bread in that the dough is rolled flat, covered with a filling, then rolled and placed into a standard bread pan.
But with Povitica the dough, rich with butter and eggs, is rolled out extremely thin and then filled with a heavy mixture of chocolate and walnuts, all of which inhibit the rising of the dough. Then, the rolled dough goes into the pan and is intricately shaped so that the finished product, when sliced, exhibits beautiful swirls. My first attempt at Povitica, using an online recipe, was a flop. The dough didn’t rise properly and the finished cake was inedible except for the filling of chocolate and walnuts, which I forbade myself from scraping off and eating.
With my next attempt I added more yeast to the dough and bravely carried on. I made another important adjustment to the traditional recipe by not spreading the rolled dough with butter before putting on the filling, for the slippery butter made it difficult to evenly apply the filling. Instead, I put the butter into the filling so that distributing it over the dough became a cinch.
If I do say so myself, my second Povitica turned out to be a demystified triumph, rising beautifully during the bake and when cut in half exposing the signature swirls of the dish. I will make one again without trepidation, and I now find myself looking forward to next season’s British Baking Show when I hope to learn about even more new fattening treats.
Prep time: 1 hour
Rising time: 3 hours
Baking time: 1 hour
Total time: 5 hours
For the dough:
1 package rapid-rise yeast
1/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup milk, heated to 115 F
1 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
1 large egg
2 1/2 cups flour
For the filling:
2 cups walnuts
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup milk
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 egg white
1 teaspoon sugar
Make the dough:
1. In the stand of a mixer fitted with a paddle, add yeast, 1 tablespoon sugar and half of the warm milk.
2. Let rest until foamy, about 10 minutes.
3. Add remaining sugar and milk, salt, butter and egg, and mix for 30 seconds.
4. With motor running, slowly add flour and beat until smooth and dough is not stuck to the sides of the bowl.
5. Cover dough with plastic wrap and let rise for about 90 minutes.
Make the filling:
1. In a food processor, chop walnuts together with sugar and cocoa until walnuts are finely chopped. Do not grind them to a paste.
2. Heat milk and butter to boiling and pour over the nut mixture.
3. Add egg yolk and vanilla to nut mixture and stir thoroughly.
4. Keep mixture at room temperature until ready to spread on dough.
Constructing the cake:
1. Grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with butter.
2. On a lightly floured surface, roll out risen dough as thin as you can until dough is at least 15 inches long and 10 inches wide. (I use a tabletop for this.)
3. Spread dough with nut mixture.
4. Starting from the long end, roll dough into a tight cylinder.
5. Place in pan in a U shape and circle the ends of the cylinder over the top of the dough already in the pan.
6. Cover and let rise for about 90 minutes.
7. Beat egg white with a fork until foamy and spread over surface of the cake.
8. Sprinkle top with pearl sugar or with regular granulated sugar.
9. Heat oven to 350 F and bake about 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Let cool in the pan.
Note: Make sure filling is spreadable. If too thick, add a small amount of milk before spreading on the dough. Before the last 15 minutes of baking, if cake is brown enough, cover with foil to prevent burning. When ready to slice the cake, it is easier to cut from the bottom or sides.
Main photo: Slices of Povitica, a Croatian coffeecake, feature beautiful swirls of the chocolate walnut filling. Credit: Copyright 2015 Barbara Haber