The Makowiec Poppyseed Roll: An Eastern European Tradition

The Makowiec Poppyseed Roll: An Eastern European Tradition


I met Lettuce on our third day of law school and we immediately bonded over being science majors, not being from Louisiana and our Eastern European backgrounds, she being Polish, and me being Hungarian. Over the years, we’ve both realized how much these two cultures share, especially food-wise.  Both of us have a particular favorite holiday treat:  the sweet, yeasty poppyseed roll.  Though called by a different name by each of our families, these poppyseed rolls taste just as sweet.  Here’s Lettuce’s story of a Polish Christmas.

Christmas at my house is a week-long affair that starts quietly enough. The five of us kick off Christmas Eve with Polish traditions of waiting to see the first star in the sky before eating, enjoying a meatless (usually trout) dinner complete with mushroom-sauerkraut pierogies, then opening the presents wrapped and sitting expectantly under the tree.  After the appropriate ooh-ing and ahh-ing over gifts, the desserts make an appearance, which usually includes a hazelnut mocha torte, possibly a pavlova meringue, and the bulging, golden brown beauties you see on this page – the poppyseed roll, or “makowiec”.  We kill time ’til midnight mass: someone fiddles with their new electronic device, we try on new clothes and debate sizes and colors, toast a bit of orange liqueur, peel some golden Ferrero Rochers and inevitably, nap. If we’re feeling particularly festive, we may sing a Christmas carol or two. 
Of course, it’s always more magical with our sixth family member, Ciocia, our 93 year-old great-aunt who squeals in delight over her gifts, then cries in gratitude, and then sings, loudly (though well), in three languages – O Tannenbaum!  
One or two days later, things get real with the annual “Lettuce” Christmas party.  Like the poppyseed roll, it is a carefully proportioned recipe. Combine:
One playlist, meticulously compiled by Dad for maximum inebriated dancing-in-the-foyer potential.; includes anything from Britney to the Gypsy Kings 
  • Copious amounts of wine 
  • Bunch of Polish people, liberally sprinkled with non-Polish friends and spouses
  • Possibly fifty different dishes churned out by my mom, who always worries there will a) not be enough food and b) it will not be {insert, salty, tasty, spicy, cooked} enough
  • One game of Trivial Pursuit in the “kids” room (read: 25-35 year olds) complete with alcohol (see ingredient two)
Stir well. Relax, and watch the wine take effect as the night devolves into dancing and general mayhem. After everyone has left, we’ll find my still-tipsy dad playing guitar on the couch and singing to himself. 
The rest of the week is feast of baked goods, and the makowiec is on the kitchen island at all times. My mom makes about ten of them ahead of time, though it’s not unusual for the five of us to plough through more than two a day. 
Mama Buddha also provided her two cents about the Hungarian versions.  While she also makes the bread with poppyseeds, she also makes one with walnuts. We often eat these for breakfast…since it’s technically a bread and not really a dessert.  I can’t decide which one I like better, and each year the debate on my tongue continues as I take a bite of the walnut, followed by a bite of the poppyseed. This year, I think the poppy wins- I think…Every year she asks me if I want to learn how to make them, but by the time I wake up at the “late” hour of 9 am, all the ingredients are prepped and the job is half done. Therefore, I still have no idea how to make them, so mom provided today’s sample.  While the process is long and step-heavy, the results are so worth it!
As the offspring of Hungarian parents, growing up under the influences of the Hungarian culture was probably one of the most cherished memories of my life.  Hungarian weddings, funerals and other social gatherings became an integral part of who I became.  The food and music tell the stories of the lives left behind, many people coming to America as young children.  The men would always talk about how they, as a people, always worked hard to provide a simple life; one filled with good ethics, kindness to others and a true sense of community.  The women would always talk about what life was like in “the old country”.  There were no dishwashers, electric mixers, or other modern appliances,  yet for some reason everything they made, they made with simple ingredients and love.  Perfection was the final outcome.  It didn’t matter how laborious the task, the end product always seemed to be worth the effort, especially for those enjoying the fruits of their labor.  Of course many of my mother’s best recipes were always those without exact measurement, and for some reason they were always perfect.  No chemistry involved here.  I am going to share with you one of my families most loved treats the Hungarian Nut roll/ Poppy seed rolls.  Working this into a doable recipe involved many years of writing down years of preparation with adding a little of this and that and a multitude  of measuring devices (coffee cups, measuring cups, soup spoons…I think you get the idea).  This was one formula I put together 1984.  Hopefully you’re not too daunted by the steps and try it.  I know you’ll love it and make it one of your holiday traditions, too.

Eastern European Walnut or Poppyseed Roll
Yields 2
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For the Dough
  1. 2 3/4 cups milk (total)
  2. 5 cups flour
  3. 1 stick butter
  4. 1/2 cup shortening
  5. 5 egg yolks
  6. 3 TB sour cream
  7. 1 1/4 TB lemon rind
  8. 1 tsp lemon juice
  9. 1 tsp vanilla
  10. 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  11. 1 small yeast cake (proof the yeast with 1 tsp sugar and 1/2 cup of the milk)
  12. 1 cup sugar
For the Fillings
  1. 4 cups ground walnuts or 4 cups ground poppy seeds
  2. 1 TB lemon rind.
  3. A squeeze of lemon juice
  4. 1 cup water
  5. 1 3/4 cups sugar
  6. 1/4 tsp cinnamon
Make the Dough
  1. Mix the dough like you would pie dough. In a large bowl, cut the butter and shortening Into the flour and other dry ingredients.
  2. Make a well and put in wet ingredients, folding them together, adding the rest of the milk as needed. Beat it several minutes with a dough hook until the dough comes away from the bowl (today’s mixers makes this a LOT easier!!) Divide the dough in four portions and set it aside to rise.
  3. While the dough is rising, make the fillings (method below).
  4. When the dough has risen to double its size, roll each roll into a size that fits into a 9 x 13 pan. Brush the rolled dough with melted butter, spread 1/4 of the filling on the dough and roll like jelly roll.
  5. Place in the buttered pan and let rise again. Two rolls should fit into each 9 x 13 pan. Once fully risen, brush with egg wash and bake about 30 minutes at 350 degree. Let rest in the pan and remove when cool.
Make the filling
  1. In a large saucepan, add all the filling ingredients (walnut OR poppyseeds). Cook on the stove until the sugar dissolves and becomes lightly brown. Remove from the heat and cool. When ready to use, fold in the egg whites left over from the yolks above, lightly beaten.
  1. Prep all your ingredients first. It’s much easier that way.
  2. This final dough is based on texture so pay attention. It should not be too firm and not to sticky, so when adding the milk make sure you mix it in a little at a time.
The Hungary Buddha Eats the World
poppyroll slice
The poppyseed roll

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