07 March 2009

short and round, always smiling



I already said that for me, cooking often is connected to memories of some sort. Some recipes more than others, and this special cake has gathered up a surprising payload of emotional connections for me.

There is my beloved grandmother, short and round, always smiling. I have never met anyone else who even at the age of 92 was still excited about new things, and who would boast among her (usually much younger) friends about her latest adventures.

One of these friends was a surprisingly tall lady, a little shy and a great home baker. One day, she brought this great poppy seed cake with her, and my grandmother called me downstairs because it was soo good. And it was, I basically forced her friend to hand me over the recipe on the spot. I still remember her her dentures clicking while she dictated me the ingredients, beaming with all the attention her cake had gotten her.

the poppy seed mill I got from my late uncle...The third person connected to this cake is one of my uncles. A great gatherer of things and stories, a one-of-a-kind adventurer and clutterbug. Living in an old farmhouse with foundations reaching back into the deepest middle ages, he collected old kitchen stuff, among many other things.

One day, when my brother and I were sleeping over, I noticed a small hand-mill among his latest findings. Curious about kitchen things even then, I asked about it, and he explained. It was a mill for oily seeds, like sesame, linseed and poppy seeds, as they would just clog an ordinary mill. I was intrigued, and at the end of our stay, he gave me the mill as a present. Quite a treasure for a boy at my age then.

Though for whatever reasons, I never came around to use either the recipe nor the mill until a few years ago.

It was when I stumbled across a batch of unmilled poppy seed in the supermarket that I remembered the cake and that I had always wanted to make it. But all of the people I connected to this recipe had passed away by then, and it took me a while to realize. It was quite a shock.

So, this cake remembers me of so many things: people who have touched my life, loved ones I miss dearly. It remembers me of the great things that come to us, sometimes in the simplest forms. It's like a little shout-out, saying look, I am here, and your memory lives on.

But even without the emotional baggage, this recipe is one of the best I have, and actually one of the very, very few I have never been tempted to meddle with. It is just so pitch perfect - the chunky almonds add structure, the raisins fruity highlights, and the lemon peel in the dough most pleasantly balances and contrasts the dark, mellow spicy taste of the poppy seed filling.

The name of this cake has given me quite some headache in terms of how to translate it.
The direct translation of 'Mohnrolle', poppy seed roll, would't work, because it's rolled but not a roll.
It might be called a strudel, but then every self-respecting home-baker in central Europe would (rightfully) rip my head off, because it's made with yeast dough, and not with proper strudel dough which is a class of its own. Neither would it be a roulade, as they are made with sponge...

In the end, I settled for 'poppy seed crown', as it seemed the least controversial option. Nothing controversial about the taste, though.

So, grandma, Mrs. Berkemeyer, uncle Günther, this one's for you.

I love how the whole house smells of lemony yeast dough when I am baking this one.

poppy seed crown
(makes twenty generous slices)

for the dough:
500g flour
100g sugar
250ml milk, lukewarm
1 scant teaspoon dry yeast
100g butter, soft
a pinch of salt
2 eggyolks
zest of half a lemon, or more to taste

for the filling:
500g poppy seeds
3/8l milk (375 ml)
250g sugar
65g butter
65g almonds, unpeeled and coarsely chopped
150g raisins
2 tablspoons dark rum
2 eggs


The day before baking, put the raisins in a jar or little bowl and soak with the rum. Leave overnight.
I think it might work with 2 tablespoons rum exactly, but I just top them up with rum so they're plumb and juicy the next day.

For the dough, combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix with the kneading hook attachment until fully developed.
The dough will have to hold quite a lot of filling, so don't be afraid to knead it till it feels like a little rubber ball.

Leave to rise until doubled, best over night in a cool room.

Mill the poppy seeds right before you need them, as their oils, once exposed to the air, go rancid very quickly.
I have once tried to use pre-milled poppy seeds and found them atrocious. There really is no substitute for the real, handmade thing in this case.
Also, I have read several times by now that you actually can run them through the food processor until they are smooth, but I doubt this. And, given the history of my dear trusty handmill, this will hardly ever be an option for me.


In large pot, bring the milk to a gentle boil together with the butter and the almonds. Once the milk is infused with the almond taste, take off the fire and leave to cool for a moment.

Add the poppy seeds and the sugar and stir until well incorporated. Leave to soak for half an hour.
Mrs. Berkemeyer rather sternly pointed out never to boil the poppy seeds. I have no idea why, but consider yourself warned.

When the filling has soaked, add the eggs and the raisins. If there is some rum left, add to the filling. Stir well and keep at hand.

Take the dough and roll out to a large rectangle.
So far, I have never found proportions that wouldn't lead to a mess, so feel free to trust your instincts. It helps to transfer the dough onto a sheet of some kind, a kitchen towel or proofing linen, once it's ready, to roll it up later. (But as you can see in the picture below, I was lazy, and didn't, and got the mess.^^)

Pour the filling onto the dough and spread onto roughly 2/3 of it. Brush the remaining third lightly with eggwash.

I think I rolled it out a bit too large this time, so the dough got a little too thin. And just ignore all the booze...

Beginning with the filled side (opposing the third you left bare), start to roll up the dough. Put onto a braking tray and shape into a ring.
Of course, if you end up with a rather stocky roll, you can just leave it like that and call it poppy seed strudel instead. Or a roulade. Or whatever...

Luckily, I remembered to brush the eggwash from the centre outwards, so the baked crown got a nice pattern.

Brush the top with the remaining eggwash and bake at 175°C for about half an hour, until a skewer inserted comes out dry.
There will always be some poppy seed bits clinging to the skewer, so I didn't say 'comes out clean', but you'll see the difference.

Leave to cool on a rack and only cut once completely cooled.

Keeps nicely several days if wrapped, and in my humble opinion is better on the second day.

P.S.: Once again, this post is submitted to the YeastSpotting section of Susan's formidable blog Wild Yeast. Check it out, it is a great resource for all home bakers.

3 comments:

Susan/Wild Yeast said...

This is a beautiful cake, made even more so by the wonderful memories that accompany it. That mill is really a treasure.

Stefanie said...

That cake looks delicious! I like poppy seeds in cake so much!

Reuben Morningchilde said...

@Susan - Thanks, it really is to me. And thanks for having me on your site!

@Stefanie - same here, and thanks for the comment!