However controversial this ingredient can be in some parts of the world, poppy seeds are indispensable in Slovak cuisine, especially baking. Like our much bigger European neighbours, we use poppy seeds in some of our vintage recipes for sweet breads, hot desserts, cakes and various little bakes.
I remember quite vividly the summers at my grandparents’ house in the south of Slovakia, where the climate was hot and dry enough for poppyseed pods to thoroughly ripen and mature. We as children would help harvest them and spread the tiny blue poppy seeds on blankets after they had been removed from the pods. My Grandma would then leave the seeds to dry in the sun for a few days. They were put in hand-made cotton bags afterwards, and left on the shelves behind large glass windows to soak up still more sunshine and dry further. We all loved Grandma’s home-made pasta filled or sprinkled with freshly-ground poppy seeds. Her strudels with cherries or apples smothered in poppyseed paste were something we could die for. She was so imaginative – and practical at the same time – when it came to using fresh, seasonal produce from the garden in her kitchen.
When I last went to see the old house, I asked my aunt, who lives there now, for locally grown poppy seeds. I wanted to try some of the old recipes, and was hoping to get quality regional ingredients. To my dismay, the vast poppy fields I remembered from my childhood were all gone. Neither could I see poppies in the village gardens or on the people’s little farms. I was told it’s because of strict European regulations, and poppy seeds don’t seem to be on the list of ‘approved staples’. We can still buy them in most shops around the country, but it appears we are no longer allowed to grow them. So I had to content myself with a packet of shop-bought poppy seeds imported from – well, the label on the packet read: ‘Country of origin – EU’.
Ground Poppy Seed Rolls
For the pastry:
150 g butter or margarine
350 g plain wheat flour
100 ml lukewarm milk
½ packet baking powder (about 7 g)
1 tablespoon sugar
For the filling:
1 cup ground poppy seeds
1 packet vanilla sugar (about 20 g)
jam and/or hot milk to bind the poppy seeds
sugar to taste
orange or lemon zest to taste
Take the butter or margarine out of the fridge and place in a mixing bowl. Cut into pieces and let soften for 15 – 20 minutes. Add all other pastry ingredients and knead well to obtain a smooth, shiny dough. Cover with a dish-towel and put in the fridge for an hour.
Now let’s make the poppy seed filling.
Although there are ready-to-use, ground poppy seeds available in our supermarkets, I prefer to buy whole seeds and grind them in a mill, specifically designed for poppy seeds. It’s quite laborious but well-worth it, as freshly-ground seeds do taste different. To bind them and make into paste, I used my runny plum jam (5 tablespoonfuls) and hot milk (about a third cup). Honey, too, is an excellent binding agent that we prefer to use in the winter. To finish the filling for the rolls, I added the vanilla sugar and freshly grated lemon zest to the seeds. When all is well combined, the poppy seed paste should look like that in the picture below, right:
Put the poppy seed paste aside and line a baking tray with baking parchment.
Take the dough out of the fridge and transfer onto a floured rolling board. Dust your hands with flour and form a long roll. With a dusted knife, cut the roll into 6 pieces.
Knead each piece into a ball and set aside. With a rolling pin, roll each dough ball out to make a round shape the size of a plate. Divide into 8 triangles using a pastry wheel. Place half the teaspoon of the poppy seed paste onto the outer edge of each triangle and roll it in starting from the outside:
If you are as generous with the poppy seeds as I was, you might have to look for an alternative filling like jam, Nutella or even cheese to fill up all the dough. Leave your rolls straight or bend them at both ends like I did – the choice is yours:
Lay the rolls out on the baking tray and bake in the oven at 180°C for about 20 minutes or until golden. Serve warm or cold with a cup of tea or coffee.
Hmmmh … sitting back and watching the sun coming through the heavy clouds after the storm, I think I’ll bake them again for my niece’s wedding next weekend. We might have been denied our poppy seed farming, granted, but we’re not going to have our distinctive baking culture taken away.