Helen Serving Potica

My mother’s family emigrated from Croatia before 1920. Grandma Rapinac was an amazing baker. When she visited from Minnesota our house would fill with the comforting scent of freshly baked bread. My Mother was a great cook, but bread wasn’t her forte. However every Christmas she’d spend a long day preparing Potica, a sweet, rolled strudel, from a recipe in her Croatian Womens Club Cookbook. As I got older Potica became more precious to have each Christmas. With my Mother’s passing I tried to continue the tradition but somehow a new tradition emerged – creating a Cherpumple.

How did Mom do Potica by herself? There’s sweet, yeasty dough that rises several times. She’d always make a double recipe, so the strenuous mixing and pounding must’ve been tiring. There were pounds of dates to slice and pit, walnuts to chop, eggs to break, measuring and mixing spices, timing and waiting. Just putting the massive rolls, that she snaked into the largest baking pan that could fit into the oven, was a skill that I still marvel at.

For the first few years since her passing, I’d call my sisters-in-law and we’d meet at one of our houses for a day of baking. This year I just couldn’t muster the energy or the troops. A new recipe was called for. I didn’t know when my cousin Fran sent a video with Charles Phoenix making Cherpumple but it somehow fit the need perfectly.

I’ve never been an especially timid baker. Given a special occasion, I’d rather try a new recipe than something tried and true – to mixed results. Still, I decided that the kitsch and craziness of constructing a ‘monster pie-cake’ would be fun and the perfect thing to bring to my partner’s family Christmas dinner.

Elaine's Cherpumple

My first Cherpumple

You must know too that I don’t do prepared foods often. I’ll open an occasional can or bottle but prefer simple, freshly cooked fare, so that made the Cherpumple a different kind of challenge. Following Charles Phoenix’s lead, I purchased three frozen Sara Lee pies: Cherry, Pumpkin and Apple. I bought Duncan Hines Yellow and Spice cake mixes, since Betty Crocker brands weren’t available at the local grocery emporium.

The next task was simply baking the pies. I borrowed a cake pan and bought two new ones. Once the pies were cooling, I mixed the Yellow batter. Setting a pie into a cake pan without having it collapse in your hands was the first major challenge. About a cup of batter went into the generously greased pan (and sorry Charles, I just couldn’t bring myself to get Pam. Grape-seed Oil worked just fine along with a layer of parchment paper) One, two, three and tilt. It worked. Soon all three pie/cake layers were baked to golden deliciousness and ready for transport.

It would be impossible to move a finished Cherpumple without it sliding into a gooey mess. Once stacked, the ‘monster’ stands pretty precariously and YouTube is flush with pictures of  failures. We packed the separate layers in boxes and carefully set them onto the floor of the back seat for our two hour drive to Riverside.

All was well through an early dinner. After scattered naps, watching ‘Home Alone’ and playing word games, we had room for desert and the final challenge ensued. It was really a performance, as I slathered each layer top with frosting, said a silent prayer and tilted each disk onto the cake plate. The stacking was successful! Frosting blended the ridges of the layers and soon the cake was ready to slice.

Cherpumple Sliced

Cherpumple Sliced

Then the fun part!

Soon we were serving huge slices of cake/pie/cake/pie/cake/pie/cake onto wide dinner plates. Hardly anyone could finish but it was all worth it, even when the remaining half of the cake crumpled onto the table. I was happy and tickled to have tried the whole thing.

Next year I hope to be in my own home hosting Christmas dinner. I think it’ll be time to bring back Mom’s Potica. Cherpumple – will I do it again? Probably not, unless there are requests, but I confess to wanting to see what Chef Phoenix comes up with next year.