Eastern (pastry) promises

January 20, 2015 § 1 Comment

Makowiec (not mine. Read on to find out why.)

Makowiec (not mine. Read on to find out why.)

Hello, my name is Mademoiselle Rêves and I have a confession to make:

I am addicted to poppy seeds.

No, this isn’t a veiled way of saying I have a drug problem. When I say I have a poppy seed problem, I mean the seeds themselves, not any sort of derivative thereof. Or, to be more specific (and honest), cakes containing poppy seeds.

It’s normally a manageable craving and I can sate it whenever I go to Paris: every bakery in the rue des Rosiers has its own version of poppy seed strudel (I’ve tried all of them, and for my money the best is found at Korcarz) and I always end up there at least once. However, I can’t always get to Paris and when the craving hit me a few months ago, I got a bit desperate.

The only place in London I could think of that offers poppy seed strudel (or something more like the Parisian version, pavé au pavot) is Louis Patisserie in Hampstead, and I avoid Louis for two reasons: 1. It’s a pain to get from Crystal Palace to Hampstead and 2. The vile ex-boyfriend of one of my dear friends lives round the corner and I know he’s a regular patron, and if I ever encountered him there is a very real risk of me throwing a teapot at his head. (The fact that my friend split up with him seven years ago and it would still be teapots at dawn if I met him should give you some idea of the bad feeling he engenders…)

By coincidence, around the time of the insatiable poppy seed craving, I was also doing a bit of research on my ancestry and the most interesting and surprising thing I discovered is that I am 1/8 Polish. Well, to be precise, my dad’s paternal grandfather came from Radom, a city about halfway between Warsaw and Krakow, which is now in Poland but was in the part of Poland that belonged to Russia when he emigrated. I don’t know if that technically makes him Russian or Polish, but thinking about it too long makes my brain hurt.

One other side benefit to my research – I discovered that every country from which my family hails has its own version of poppy seed roll: in Russia, it’s bulochki s makom; in Poland, makowiec; Latvia, magonmaizite; and Romania, ruladă cu mac (my inner language nerd is delighted and intrigued that the word for poppy seed is virtually the same in a Romance and a Baltic language as it is in most Slavic languages, but I digress). So that probably goes some way to explaining the craving: it’s in my blood! (As for its addictiveness, I was amused to learn that apparently makowiec means both ‘poppy seed roll’ and ‘opium’ in Polish… at least, according to Google Translate. That said, I’ve not seen that in any Polish dictionary, and given the havoc I’ve seen Google Translate wreak on French, I’m not much inclined to trust it in any other language.)

So my quest for poppy seed roll began in earnest. In theory, it should have ended not far from my doorstep, because there’s a Polish delicatessen just down the street from my flat, yet inexplicably and infuriatingly, they never seem to have any in stock – instead, the windows are piled to the ceiling with panettone. (I’ve never understood the point of panettone, anyway – a lot of labour and expensive ingredients to obtain a result that looks and tastes like a sweet dish sponge. Why on earth would anyone prefer that to a cake that’s dark as night, sweet as sin and beautiful as well?) I’m stumped as to why a Polish deli would advertise itself with three-metre-high walls of panettone, but I guess it will have to remain one of the mysteries of the universe, up there with why whichever District Line train you want is inevitably last to appear, or why so many women find Benedict Cumberbatch attractive.*

My trip to Pitzhanger Manor yielded the best poppy seed roll I’d ever tasted (one which made me realise that most of the ones I’d eaten as a child at countless synagogue functions were frankly pretty grim), and then a few weeks after that I secured a courier trip to Krakow – for June. But Ealing is only a slightly more convenient journey than Hampstead (although with the distinct advantage of no friend’s vile ex lurking around Caffé Magnolia) and June is a long time to wait for my next fix – and I’d also spent far too much time watching The Great British Bake Off and itching for a challenge – so I decided to take matters into my own hands. I could satisfy my cravings and honour my heritage by making my own.

It quickly became obvious that I’d be going for the Polish version, namely because finding recipes for the Russian/Latvian/Romanian iterations (in English, at least) was about as easy as solving the mystery of the Mary Celeste. The only Romanian cookbook I managed to find was actually a Romanian and Bulgarian cookbook, and every recipe that looked remotely appealing started with the words, ‘This Bulgarian recipe…’ I felt a little hard done by.

So makowiec it was. But did that simplify things? Not a whit! It turns out that there are approximately as many makowiec recipes as there are Poles – and when I say that, I don’t mean the current population of Poland, I mean every Pole that ever lived from the dawn of time. (Okay, maybe not. But it felt that way.) I was able to narrow it down a little by throwing out any recipes that called for tinned poppy seed filling (because what on earth is the point? Besides, I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to baking). Even so, there were myriad other considerations:

  • The all-important ratio of filling to dough (most of the mediocre makowiec of my childhood erred on the side of too much dough, but how much filling is too much?)
  • Boiling the poppy seeds versus merely soaking them in hot water (or milk)
  • The nature of the dough – bready or brioche-y
  • The atmospheric pressure
  • The phase of the moon in which the poppy seeds were harvested
  • The direction of the wind, and its force (after all, you can’t very well use the same method to make makowiec in flat calm as you would in a violent storm, 11 on the Beaufort scale)

There is also the fact that makowiec is made with yeasted dough, and yeast and I have a somewhat chequered history. I consider myself a competent baker as long as the leavening involved is egg white or baking powder, but yeast… well, let’s just say it’s very hit or miss. A few times a year I get out The Bread Baker’s Apprentice in a fit of misplaced hope and arrogance, but the odd successful loaf or pizza crust is far outnumbered by collapsed, bricklike fiascos that just slump sulkily in the tin and refuse to rise – they have all the get-up-and-go of a character in a John Hughes film.

Between all of these pitfalls, I was starting to think that I might have bitten off more than I could chew – quite literally. If you saw someone lurking in the cookbook section of Foyles over several weekends in November, by the small and unloved ‘other European’ shelf (where Polish, Russian, Romanian/Bulgarian, Belgian, Dutch, Austrian and Slovenian cookbooks are wedged into a tiny space between entire bookcases of French and Italian tomes), brow furrowed in consternation, that was probably me.

Finally I manage to narrow the candidates down to two – one in a cookbook, one on a food blog written by a young Polish woman who lives in Dublin. What tips the balance in favour of the cookbook recipe** is the filling – it calls for a grand, crazy, possibly excessive 500 grams of poppy seeds, and in the present instance I am very much an adherent of the ‘more is more’ school of baking. Oh, and just to raise the stakes a little more, the audience for my first makowiec will be… my colleagues. (The museum where I work is small enough that we all get together for tea every Wednesday afternoon, with a rota for supplying cake.)

Let it never be said that I don’t rush in where angels fear to tread.

*

And so I found myself, two evenings before tea, with all the ingredients for the filling marshalled on the kitchen worktop like a miniature army, staring at more poppy seeds than I have ever seen in one place in my life. (I bought them from the grain and seed stall at my farmer’s market. The expression on the owner’s face when I asked for half a kilo of poppy seeds was priceless. I think he thought he’d misheard me. He probably still believes I was planning to do something not quite legal with them.)

The filling alone is going to take five hours to make, hence the early start. However, it’s not five hours’ hard work: three hours involve nothing more than letting the poppy seeds soak in boiling water. So I pour my half-kilo of seeds into a strainer, rinse them, scrape them into the biggest bowl I own (wincing at the few that stick in the strainer that I can’t dislodge, much as I imagine prospectors during the Gold Rush mourned every single grain of dust that escaped them) and tip a kettleful of boiling water over them.

It’s like alchemy – a heap of tiny, scentless blue-grey beads instantly turns into a mass of rich black with that unmistakable earthy, bittersweet perfume. I close my eyes as I stand over the bowl and I could be in a Jewish patisserie in the Marais, in a Polish café in Ealing or – why stop there – Krakow, or… I find myself imagining my great-great-grandmothers, their names mostly lost to time, in Poland and Russia, Romania and Latvia, performing the same magic in their kitchens.

However, I have three hours to wait, and one can get a lot done in three hours. For instance:

  1. listen to Quadrophenia twice, back to back
  2. watch Jane Eyre once (three hours isn’t quite enough to watch it twice unless you fast-forward through all the bits that Michael Fassbender isn’t in)
  3. sweep the floors
  4. solve several major world problems
  5. write a very overdue blog post

I end up going for a combination of 3 and 5. (Not very ambitious, I know.)

The three hours are finally up, so I drain the seeds (a few more inevitably make a run for it down the drain), dump them into the food processor and start trying to grind them. I soon realise that I should have done this in batches, as it takes a good twenty minutes of constantly popping the lid off to scrape down the sides to get them all ground. Ah well, at least I don’t have to do it by hand. Small mercies.

Now comes the hard work. Into my Dutch oven go the ground seeds, along with probably injudicious amounts of butter and sugar, chestnut honey (I hesitate slightly over this as chestnut honey has a bitter edge – will it be too much in combination with the poppy seeds?), chopped almonds, sultanas, mixed peel and vanilla… and forty-five minutes of stirring over a low heat.

Forty-five minutes later I have very tired arms, a head spinning from the mind-altering fumes wafting up from the pan, and a kitchen that smells like a Central European bakery. I sneak a spoonful as I wait for it to cool.

The chestnut honey turns out to have been a good idea. It tastes exactly comme il faut (or however you say that in Polish). It is quite possibly the most decadent thing I have ever made. Who needs chocolate?

I fall into bed feeling exhausted, happy and more than a little smug.

They do say pride goeth before a fall…

*

Tonight is Makowiec Making, Part 2. The scary part. The part where I have to conquer my fear of yeast.

This is quite possibly the worst recipe imaginable for conquering that fear. The dough is going to be the stickiest I’ve ever worked with – it contains not only melted butter and eggs but also sour cream. How on earth is it going to hold together?

It does – just. Kneading it is another matter entirely. It sticks to my hands. It sticks to the pastry mat. I can all but see Paul Hollywood standing over me with his ice-blue glare, watching me flounder and flail.

Ironically, it’s Paul Hollywood (or his spectre) that saves me. Every time I’m tempted to try adding more flour, I can hear him berating some hapless Great British Bake Off contestant for over-flouring their dough and drying it out. I keep grimly at it, flinging and folding and pummelling the dough, and gradually something miraculous happens, without the aid of flour – it starts to feel like proper dough. Soft and sticky, yes, but workable – so much so that I even manage to roll it out to the proper dimensions without tearing it.

Now for the moment of truth. I spread the filling over the dough. My heart nearly stops when I see how much there is. How will I ever be able to roll it without the filling bursting out?

There’s nothing for it but to try. Holding my breath, I start gently coaxing the far edge of the dough toward me. One turn. Two. It’s holding together. Breathe, just breathe… Three, four. Five. Ends tucked under. Hurrah!

Then I look at the size of it, compared to the size of my baking sheet, and turn three shades of white.

I have, quite literally, created a monster.

The makowiec will only fit on the baking sheet diagonally, and only just. And it still has to prove. I throw a tea towel over it and start praying that everything I’ve ever heard about sweet dough (namely, that all the rich stuff inhibits rising) is doubly true in this case. And it is, more or less, although to this day I’m still not sure how I managed to get the makowiec into the oven. The only explanation I can come up with is that my oven must actually be a TARDIS.

Nevertheless, into the TARDIS oven it goes. An hour later the kitchen smells even more divine than it did the night before. I open the oven door to find…

Disaster.

You might notice a distinct lack of photos here. This is because, on the basis that a picture is worth a thousand words, words are slightly less wounding to my pride at this moment.

The makowiec has collapsed and spread across about three-quarters of the surface of the baking sheet. (I knew it was supposed to flatten out a bit, but surely not this much?) The recipe said it would ‘serve six’. Which six was it referring to – six giants? Six Tour de France cyclists who’d just conquered Mont Ventoux?

But that’s not the worst of it. It’s exploded.

Well, perhaps exploded is an exaggeration. What’s actually happened is that there are several large cracks in the sides (although, weirdly, not at the seam) through which molten black filling is leaking like so much lava. I’m torn between wanting to burst into tears and thinking that Exploding Makowiec would be a good name for a band, perhaps the Polish answer to Einsturzende Neubauten.

I gently, gingerly manoeuvre the monster onto a cooling rack, patching up the leaks as best I can, lay a tea towel over it and go to bed with death in my soul. By this time tomorrow, my reputation among my colleagues as a baker will be in ruins.

*

By morning the cooled makowiec is no longer a poppy seed volcano, but there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s too large to transport. After tossing out several wishful-thinking options (telekinesis, teleportation… what can I say, I’ve watched too many X-Men films for my own good) I bow to the inevitable. I saw it in half with a bread knife, wrap each piece in several layers of foil, and pop each one into a loaf tin for extra protection. I also fill a jar with icing sugar, because, as everyone knows, icing sugar hides a multitude of sins.

Teatime arrives. I unwrap one of the halves (the whole makowiec, in the end, serves twenty-four (!!), not six), arrange it on a platter and pour a snowdrift of sugar over it. ‘Sorry,’ I apologise to my colleagues as I set it on the table, ‘it kind of exploded, but it should still taste good…’

My words fall on deaf ears. ‘What are you talking about? It looks amazing!’ ‘It tastes amazing!’ ‘Could I have another piece?’

I’m stunned, and relieved beyond all measure. It does taste delicious. I still think it looks like a wreck (although there’s something gloriously excessive about the filling tumbling out of the spirals of dough), but icing sugar obviously has uncanny powers of deception. Interestingly enough, the people most enthusiastic about it are those who are either of Central or Eastern European extraction (my German boss; a colleague who is, like me, of Ashkenazi Jewish descent) or have spent a lot of time there (an English colleague who spent a large chunk of her childhood in Vienna). And if they like it, I guess I must have done something right.

So my adventures in makowiec ended happily, rather than tragically. At least, so far. I intend to attempt it again – probably with Magda’s recipe, which makes what I have learned the hard way is a more sane and realistic amount of filling.

After all, as William Blake (who probably never tasted makowiec – poor, deprived man) once said, you never know what is enough…

…until you know what is more than enough.

 

*I don’t dispute that he’s an excellent actor, but there is no getting round the fact that HE LOOKS LIKE AN ALIEN.

**If you too want to make your own ridiculously gigantic, explosion-prone, yet delicious makowiec, the recipe I used comes from Classic Recipes of Poland by Ewa Michalik. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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