In Croatia, poppy seed cakes are a staple for Christmas holidays. The traditional poppy seed roll cake called makovnjaca (mak means poppy) is baked all winter and especially for the Christmas table. The relationship people have with poppy is rather clear – you either love it or you don’t.
When I was a child, we used to celebrate Christmas at my grandparent’s house where we would have a family lunch.When we would finish the meal, my grandfather would go the other room to get desserts. There were always two loafs sitting in a large white enamel pan covered with a linen cloth: makovnjaca, the poppy seed roll and orehnjaca, a walnut roll. I remember the dark brown crust of the loafs and yellow dough between the fillings, sweet and moist opposing the tangy walnut and poppy flavours. I’d always cut both ends of the loaf where the crust was thick and crispy, followed by a gentle disapproving murmuring of my grandfather.
One day when I had just moved to France, as I walked through the busy streets of the Parisian Marais neighbourhood, I passed by a polish bakery, packed with Slavic sweets and cakes in the windows. One of these cakes was a poppy seed pie which we call pita. A rich dense layer of grounded poppy seeds between two thin layers of pastry crust. I immediately stood in the line in front of the bakery and found myself buying a piece of that pie and demanding if they sell poppy seeds. It turned out they did so I came back home with a bag full of beautiful blue seeds thinking about grandmother’s moist poppy seed filling and how I’m about to roll it into a simple puff pastry I bought at the store.
The next day I heated up the milk and sugar, mixed in the seeds and added a pinch of caramel flavoured rum, just as my grandmother explained to me over the phone. I filled the pastry sheet, rolled it and popped it in the oven. But as I sliced through the baked crust, the filling appeared dry and crumbly, not remotely resembling that dense black poppy I remembered. When I called home in search for an explanation of what went wrong, my mother asked me whether the seeds were grounded. What do you mean, grounded, those tiny little seeds?, I asked. Until I realised the poppy I used was the whole, ungrounded seed you can find decorating a bun or bread. Silly as it my be, I confess I never realised that what we were using for the cake were those same seeds, only finely grounded.
I’ve found it to be a rather memorable inauguration to poppy. Next thing I knew I was smuggling little blue packages filled with grounded poppy in my suitcase every time when I’d return back to Paris. I’d put it everywhere, from chocolate cakes to puff pastries.
As winter is slowly approaching, my yearning for poppy filled pastry is growing. I was to make a poppy bun, with grandma’s filling, something I would be able to have for breakfast or in the afternoon, with a cup of hot coffee. It may not be the traditional Croatian Christmas cake but it’s still a perfect winter comfort bun with that recognizable flavor of poppy, milk and rhum.
Poppy seed swirl brioche
For the brioche
550 g flour
250 mL milk (you can use non dairy)
80 g butter
25 g light brown muscovado sugar
2 tsp dry yeast
1 tbsp rum
pinch of salt
For the poppy seed filling
150 g grounded poppy seeds
120 ml milk
30 g light brown muscovado sugar
2 tsp rum
Mix flour and salt in a large bowl. Warm up (37° C) half of the milk with one tbsp sugar, add the yeast and mix well. Cover with a dry cloth and leave at a warm place for 10 minutes until the yeast becomes foamy.
Mix the rest of the milk with remaining sugar and rum. Melt the butter and add to milk. Make a well in the middle of the bowl containing the flour and pour in the milk-butter-sugar mixture, then add the milk with yeast. Carefully scrape all the sugar that might stick to the bowl. Mix the flour into the liquid using a spatula. Continue kneading the dough with your hands for a couple of minutes until it stops sticking to the surface. Form it into a ball, cover with a kitchen towel and leave for one hour in a warm place to rise.
Poppy seed filling
Heat the milk and sugar in a small pan. Add the poppy seeds and rum into the hot milk and stir for a couple of minutes on low heat until the seeds have absorbed all the liquid. If the mixture is too dry add a tablespoon of milk. Set aside to cool down.
Swirl brioche assembly
Roll the dough in about 25×40 cm rectangle. Spread the poppy filling on one longer side of the dough then carefully flip the other side of the dough over the filling, making a sandwich.
Press the dough down with your hands to flatten it nicely it and then cut the dough in the middle so you have two parts. Cut each part in half, and repeat it again with each slice. You will get eight 4 or 5 cm slices.
Cut each slice in the middle, lengthwise, leaving 0,5 cm of the upper part where the dough is folded uncut. In the end you will obtain eight pieces of dough in the shape of pants. Taking one piece at the time, twist each “leg” to expose the filling and then swirl the right “leg” around the “waist”. Flip the other “leg” vertically over the top.
Place the buns on a baking tray and let them rise again for 15 min. Brush each bun with eggwash and then bake until golden for 30 min at 180° C.
You can look at this amazing Donal Skehan’s video to get the full idea of how to make the swirls. I like to swirl the first leg in another direction over the waist, as I found the buns to be prettier this way.
Enjoy with a cup of milk of choice or hot coffee.