Makowiec from Poland for Christmas Eve
If you are Polish, then it is possible your Christmas and Easter holidays have been filled with the delightful makowiec, a lovely dessert with poppy seeds.
Laura and Peter Zeranski, co-authors of Polish Classic Desserts (Pelican Publishing, 2013), say their recipe for the dessert comes from Peter’s mother, noted cookbook author of the acclaimed Art of Polish Cooking, which she wrote in 1968 (Doubleday; reissued in 1989 by Pelican Publishing). No doubt she received the recipe from her mother, who got it from her mother — and so on. “Our branch of the Zeranski family has documented its roots in Poland to the mid-1800s, and it is entirely conceivable that this recipe goes back at least that far, since Christmas Eve suppers are highly traditional from generation to generation,” says Laura.
According to old folk tales, it was believed that eating poppy seeds on Christmas Eve would bring happiness. Moreover, young women who prepared poppy seeds for Christmas Eve were destined to marry soon. “In more modern times, eating poppy seeds was viewed as a symbol of fertility and restful sleep, the latter no doubt having something to do with the poppy plant being an opiate, but we don’t talk about that,” jokes Laura.
Washington, D.C.–based home cook Stacie Mruck grew up eating poppy seed roll and says she associates it with big family gatherings and holiday traditions. Her grandparents were from Poland, and the family’s poppy seed roll tradition in the United States started with them. “I grew up in Northeast Pennsylvania where there is a large population with Polish ancestry. Grocery stores all carry ground poppy seed for the rolls, and they are widely available in bakeries. Also, in our family poppy seed roll and nut roll always traveled side by side. Nut roll is similar but with a walnut filling instead.” She admits not being very fond of the rolls when she was young, as they weren’t very sweet. “But today, that is exactly what I do like about them!” she says.
While many European cuisines focus on eating pork and sauerkraut for luck during New Year's, the Poles believe that eating fish (carp, herring or cod) will ward of bad luck in the coming year. “Additionally,” says Laura, “foods should be served on round plates, symbolizing a complete cycle of life with its endings and new beginnings. Serving round foods, such as donuts or babas, is even more powerful!”
Recipe adapted from Polish Classic Desserts by Laura and Peter Zeranski (Pelican Publishing, 2013)
No collection of heritage Polish desserts would be complete without a recipe for poppy seed rolls, which are such an iconic part of traditional Polish Christmas menus. Peter does not remember one Christmas without a poppy seed roll on the table, even if it was not homemade. As Peter and Laura traveled to many Polish festivals with their first book, Polish Classic Recipes, this confection was one of the first that everyone asked about, and one of the favorites everyone remembers their mother or grandmother baking for Christmas.
Cooking spray, for greasing the cookie sheet (optional)
In the bowl of a stand mixer, cut the butter into the flour with a knife or pastry cutter, then rub in with your fingertips. Add the confectioners’ sugar to the butter and flour.
Mix the yeast with the water and sugar. Let stand briefly to activate.
Add the dissolved yeast, eggs, egg yolks, sour cream, vanilla and lemon rind to the flour mixture. Using the dough hook attachment, knead the dough for 5 to 8 minutes until it is smooth and elastic.
Lightly oil a large bowl. Place the dough in the oiled bowl, cover, then set aside in a draft-free place to rise until doubled. It should take about 2 hours. During that time, you can make the filling.
Simmer the poppy seeds in a pot of water (enough to cover) until soft, about 40 minutes, stirring frequently.
Drain the poppy seeds, using a very fine sieve. Press as much water as you can from the seeds. Spread the seeds in a thin layer on paper towels and set aside to allow excess moisture to evaporate.
Grind the poppy seeds in a food processor for about 4 minutes. Add the almonds and grind for a few seconds.
Melt the butter in a saucepan or skillet. Add the poppy seed mixture, sugar, raisins, vanilla, honey, Candied Orange Rind and grated lemon rind. Cook over medium-low heat for 10 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and cool slightly. Add the beaten egg.
In another bowl, whip the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold into the filling mixture. Let cool.
After 2 hours, when the dough has doubled, punch it down. Knead it briefly, then divide the dough into 4 equal parts. Roll each piece into a rectangle. Spread each rectangle with an equal amount of filling, leaving a 1-inch margin from each edge. Starting at the long end, roll the dough into a log and seal the ends.
With the seam side down, place the rolls on a nonstick or greased cookie sheet.
Place the rolls in a warm oven to rise. Let stand until the rolls double in size, about 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
If using the glaze, brush the rolls with milk and sprinkle with poppy seeds before baking.
Bake the rolls for 30 minutes. Cool. The rolls may be served as is from the oven, or decorated using either the icing or the glaze.
To make the icing: Mix the confectioners’ sugar and lemon juice. Spread on the rolls and decorate with Candied Orange Rind.
To make the glaze: Heat the preserves and lemon juice on medium-high until bubbling. Pour the mixture through a fine sieve to remove any remaining fruit pieces, reserving the liquid. Stir the rum into the liquid. Brush the glaze over the rolls and scatter almonds on top.
Put the orange peels in a saucepan with enough cold water to cover. Boil for 10 minutes, then drain. Cover again with cold water and repeat the cycle 2 more times. Drain the rinds and rinse with cold water. Scrape off the pithy, white part of the rind and cut the rind into very thin strips.
Measure the volume of orange rind strips. For each cup of rind, in a saucepan prepare a sugar syrup of 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water. Add the rind strips to the syrup. Cook low and slow until the syrup is completely absorbed. Be patient. This process takes several hours. Stir the mixture occasionally. Be vigilant near the end of the process to prevent burning.
Cool the rind strips on wax or parchment paper. Coat the strips with granulated sugar. Dry strips overnight on a rack. The sugared peel will keep for several months in an airtight container.
Monica Bhide is the author of “Modern Spice” (Simon & Schuster, 2009).