February 15, 2015

Floating over the past

It started in the baking aisle of the grocery store. A package of Bob's Red Mill poppy seeds: An aide-memoire, a coup de foudre, a sudden shock of recollection, and then a drifting, dreaming mind, floating over the past, landing on a specific memory and than a handful of fuzzier ones.

I was standing in a parking lot in the blazing heat, unfurling a twist tie and letting it drop to the ground, then pulling back the crinkly tight plastic that enclosed a sticky loaf of bread, little beads of condensation lining the inside of the bag, the loaf, sturdy and earthy-smelling and laced with black-as-night poppyseed filling.

I remember thinking that I couldn't believe that I had finally found one. That I actually held in my hands what I then thought of as a "poppy seed danish." It must not have been the first time, because I recall the sense of longing; the satisfaction of the surprise discovery; the memory triggers that shot through me. I think I was thirteen.

The romantic in me imagines that my first poppy seed sweet bread came from one of those charming old-world Eastern European bakeries on the lower east side of Manhattan. The ones that were warm and steamy against the cold winter, filled with familiar, heavenly aromas. Stewed fruits. Yeasted breads. Staggeringly sweet fondants. Butter and sugar and ground nuts. There is a little old lady behind the counter with dyed brown hair, a thick accent, and a gentle smile. She is Russian. Perhaps she asks me if I, too, am Russian, because my name is Vera.

I can construct this, and it must be drawn from some elements of truth, but I have no actual memory of the first poppy seed danish, which is odd, because my food memory is solid, whereas I mostly forget other things: family events, the names of my elementary school teachers, what I did yesterday.

For example, I remember the first palmier I ever ate, and the first meringue, and the first zabaglione, and the first time I saw the word "zabaglione," and the first apricot pastry (on the upper east side, from a fabulous, caricatured baker named Frederique). But the first poppy seed danish evades me.

Maybe it's not actually important if I remember it, though it does torture me just a little. I'd like to be able to trace this back, because I know it goes back a long way. I want to capture that part of myself that first tasted this unusual thing and was immediately transfixed.

But I am a better baker now than I was ever before, and so I can posses this thing today, in 2015, in my Oakland kitchen.

Let me describe it a little: It's a sturdy, yeasted bread, just slightly sweet. After rising and resting, the bread gets rolled out into a large rectangle, over which you spoon the most heavenly black mass—a paste of poppy seeds that have been ground together with nuts, honey, dates, and a little milk. You then roll this into a log, split the log lengthwise, twist the inverted pieces around each other, and nestle them into a loaf pan. You wait, you glaze with egg, you bake. What you get is an earthy, sticky, sweet bread filled with poppy seeds. It's the poppy seeds that make it. You will search out the dense crevices that deliver only a little dough and a mouthful of filling.

It's weird and completely wonderful.

It'll keep you going back for more slices, until the whole thing is reduced to a handful of crumbs. It'll make your kitchen smell like the most grounded and lovely place on earth. And it'll freeze great too, which allows you to be nice to your future self, some days off, if you can wait that long.

Poppy Seed Sweet Bread
Adapted from here and here

1/2 cup warm water
4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 sugar (scant)
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 stick unsalted butter
2 egg yolks
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 cups flour

1 cup poppy seeds
1/3 cup chopped dates
1/3 cup walnuts
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 cup honey

Egg wash:
1 egg with 1 tablespoon water, beaten

Prepare the dough: In a small mixing bowl, combine the water, yeast, and sugar. Set aside. Pour the 1/2 cup of milk into a small saucepan and bring just to the simmer. Turn off the heat, add the butter, and stir until melted. Let it cool for five minutes. Whisk in the egg yolks and mix thoroughly. Place this mixture in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, add the yeast mixture, and combine for a minute or so.

Add the flour and salt gradually, with the mixer on low, until combined. Mix for eight minutes on medium speed. It should become a smooth dough.

Cover the dough (in the bowl) with a dishtowel and allow it to rise for one hour, or until it has doubled in size.

While the dough rises, make the filling: Place the poppy seeds, dates, and honey in a blender (or food processor, or mortal and pestle) and process until the nuts are ground, the poppy seeds are somewhat crushed, and the dates bring the two together as a paste. Place this mixture in a small saucepan, and add the milk and honey. Simmer over low heat until it thickens, about 20 minutes, stirring intermittently.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Prepare the egg wash. Prepare the loaf pan, by lining with parchment.

After the dough has risen for one hour, punch it down, and turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface. Using a rolling pin, roll it into a rectangle, roughly 10 x 20 inches and 1/2–3/4 inches thick (it doesn't have to be precise). Spread the poppyseed filling over the rolled dough, leaving a half-inch border all around. Brush the exposed edges with the egg wash.

Roll the dough tightly into a log, starting at one of the short ends, as if making a jelly roll. Cut the log lengthwise down the center, so you have two halves that expose the interior filling. Twist these two halves together, keeping the filling facing out, and then arrange it in the prepared loaf pan.

Brush the surface of the bread with the egg wash, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rise again for 1 hour to 1 hour and a half.

After this second rise, remove the plastic wrap, brush it with egg wash again, and bake the bread at 325 degrees for about 1 hour, or until the top is deeply brown and glossy (begin checking it at 45 minutes).

Allow the bread to cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, and then continue cooling on a rack. It is wonderful warm and equally good at room temperature. To freeze the bread, slice the loaf and then place the slices in a freezer bag. I ended up defrosting mine after only one week, but I imagine it would keep longer than that (maybe a month?). Defrost by warming in the toaster.