At 14, I single-mindedly set off to get a job. Barely a few months into high school, I got hired as a cashier at a small, independent neighbourhood grocery store: the kind of place that sold spelt bread and sulfate-free dried apricots and organic produce--before organic produce was really a thing. Eventually my responsibilities grew: by 16, I was one of the senior cashiers, and by the end of my tenure in my last year of high-school, I was placing bakery orders and counting tills and cutting the cheese. You heard me.
Cheese was delivered in giant wheels or squares or, in the case of the feta, floating in giant buckets of brine, and someone needed to divide it all out. The same went for the baked goods we received. Sheets of carrot cake and lemon bars needed to be cut and wrapped to individual, $2.49 portions. One of my favourite bakery deliveries was the poppy seed loaf. Delivered in a long envelope, it was portioned into slim slices and displayed among the other treats. But it always held a particular fascination for me. Shiny from an egg-wash on the outside, the pastry was soft and pillowy, cradling the dense seed filling inside.
I've since learned that similar poppy seed pastries are ubiquitous on Eastern European dessert tables (alternately known as makowiec (Polish), makovyi knysh (Ukranian), and makos beigli (Hungarian), among other iterations), but at the time it was utterly new to me. The idea of a pastry filled with poppy seeds was amazing; to me, they had always just been something sprinkled on top of bagels or throughout a lemon muffin. But I fell in love with the sticky, honey-scented filling.
I'm not sure what prompted me to think about them recently. Perhaps it is my impeding move to a new part of the city, Toronto's traditionally Polish neighbourhood. Or perhaps it was simply a pang of nostalgia. Either way, I set about creating my own version of that poppy seed pastry.
I've made some alterations from that original loaf. I wanted a dough that baked up slightly crisper than the traditional soft, bread-like dough, so I used a slightly adapted version of Nigella Lawson's danish pastry dough. I also decided to forgo the traditional long loaf shape; I've used a 10" round quiche pan here, but a similarly-sized pie plate, cake pan, or oven-proof skillet would work just as well. Just don't try to free-form the pinwheel on a sheet pan, as the filling will run and the shape will be lost as soon as the dough hits the hot oven.
Where I did want to stay true to the original pastry was in taste. While researching traditional recipes, I found several that combined fruits (prunes, raisins, dates, apples) or nuts (pecans, walnuts) in the filling. In an effort to recreate the pure poppy seed taste of that original pastry, I wanted to keep the filling simple, with only some vanilla extract and a hint of cardamom to accompany the slightly fruity nuttiness of the seeds themselves.
Poppy Seed Pie
(adapted slightly from Nigella Lawson's "Processor Danish Pastry" from How To Be A Domestic Goddess)
1/4 cup warm water
1/2 cup warm milk
1 egg, room temperature
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
7g instant yeast
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp white sugar
1 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into 2cm chunks
2 cups poppy seeds
2/3 cup hot milk
1 1/2 tbsp butter, softened
1/3 cup white sugar
2 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp honey
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 pinch ground cardamom
1/3 cup flour
1 egg, beaten
turbinado, or other coarse sugar, for sprinkling (optional)
While Nigella Lawson's original danish pastry recipe calls for it to be made in a food processor, I don't happen to have one. Instead, I use the same low-tech, but incredibly effective technique I use for making pie dough, which I learned from Chez Pim. As with pie dough, it is important to develop thin sheets of butter within the yeasted danish dough to achieve crispy, flaky results out of the oven. If you have a food processor, by all means use it, but I've come to love the steady, home-y feeling of making dough on a table top with my hands. I humbly suggest you give it a try!
In a bowl or measuring cup, whisk together the water, milk and egg until well combined. Set aside.
Whisk the flour, salt, sugar and yeast together in a bowl, and dump the contents onto a clean countertop. Add the pieces of cold butter, and toss so they are completely covered in flour.
Using the heel of your hand, press the butter down and away from you, forming thin sheets. When the pile begins to grow from all your pushing, and starts to creep towards the edge of your counter top, use a bench scraper (I use this one) or a stiff spatula to scrape the pile back together. Repeat flattening the butter and scraping the edges back on top of the pile (flattening and scraping, flattening and scraping) until you have a scraggy pile of flour, flecked with irregular pieces of butter: some as small as peas, others as large as matchbooks.
Transfer your shaggy pile of butter n' flour to a bowl, and add the wet ingredients. Stir until just combined; the mixture will be sticky and uneven, with pieces of butter visible. Don't fret. Instead, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and stick it in the fridge overnight (8 hours or more).
When ready to make the pie, remove the bowl from the fridge and bring to room temperature (this took about 2 hours in my fairly warm kitchen, so plan accordingly). Preheat the oven to 350°F.
As the dough is warming, make the filling. Add all ingredients except the flour to a blender (or food processor) and pulse for a few seconds to combine the ingredients and slightly grind the seeds themselves. Remove mixture to a bowl, and slowly stir in the flour until the filling becomes smooth and thick. Place filling in the fridge to cool and set up to a spreadable consistency.
When the dough is at room temperature, roll it into a long rectangle on a floured counter. Fold both ends back into the middle (like a business letter, one over the other) to form a square. Repeat the rolling and folding four times, at which point you should have a smooth, elastic dough.
Roll the dough into a large rectangle, approximately 12" x 18", and spread the poppy seed filling to within an inch of the edge on all four sides. In a small bowl, beat an egg, and brush it on the edges of the pastry.
Roll the pastry into a tight tube, sealing the edges as you roll. Place the dough into your chosen pan, twirling the roll around itself to create a pinwheel-type shape. Leave to rise for 15-20 minutes, then brush the entire pie with the remaining egg wash. With a sharp knife, make slashes through the dough down to the first layer of filling at a few regular intervals.
Sprinkle with coarse sugar (if desired), and place in the hot oven. Cook for 50-60 minutes, until the outside is browned, and a skewer stuck in the middle of the pie comes out free of any remnants of sticky dough. Let the pie cool, before slicing it into wedges. Serve accompanied by some hot milky tea and a few pangs of nostalgia.