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Thursday, July 25

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My Granny Holub, who just turned 94, is too old to cook any longer, and over the last few years has started to forget her own recipes. Thankfully, the last time she made her poppy seed loaves around Christmastime, my dad helped her out with them, and wrote down the instructions. These loaves are very rich, and are great with coffee or my Granny's favorite Red Rose tea. While I don't think the loaves are native to her Slovak hometown of Michalovce, I have heard a lot from other Eastern European friends that they remember poppy seed loaves in their kitchens during the holidays. This past week, I got up the nerve to try this recipe out and was thrilled at my success.

Poppy Seed Loaves (makes about 5 foot-long loaves)

3 lbs. flour (about 12 cups sifted)
1 lb. Crisco shortening (1 small container)
2 packets yeast (dissolved in 3 cups warm water)
8 egg yolks (reserve whites for filling) plus 1 whole egg for wash
1 can condensed milk

First, mix above ingredients together in a large stewpot. Get good and comfortable, roll up your sleeves and knead dough for 1 hour. (Yup, an hour. I recommend putting a good movie on TV, or listening to a good radio show or just gabbing with friends in your kitchen).

After kneading, let the dough rise for an hour. Find a warm place in your house for this. I set up a space heater in my bathroom (the smallest room in my house) and let it get nice and toasty while I was kneading. Take your dough in the stewpot and sprinkle it with flour. Cover the pot with a dampened cloth or dishtowel, then the pot lid, and then fold up a bath towel and put that on top of the lid. Check on it after an hour. It should have pretty much doubled. If not, leave it for a little bit longer.

While your dough is rising, preheat your oven to 350° F and grease the bottom and sides of some large roasting pans (about the size of a large lasagna pan -- glass or non-stick metal are both fine, though the metal seems to cook better in my oven) with a little bit of shortening.

When the dough has doubled, you're ready to mix your filling. Here are two that my grandmother always used.

Poppy Seed Filling:
1 can poppy seed filling (Solo brand is most common, found in the baking isle of your supermarket)
6-8 egg whites
1-1/2 cups golden raisins, soaked in water to soften them up. (Discard water before adding to filling mixture)

Walnut Filling:
2 cups finely chopped walnuts
Honey (enough to bind together into a loose paste)

Basically, just mix the filling ingredients together. If you want to experiment with fillings, there are many that I've seen out there. You can always use apricot preserves or lekvar (prune butter) which can also be found in the same baking section of the grocery store.

You'll need a large surface for rolling out the dough. A large flexible plastic cutting board works well, or any clean, flat space. Dust the surface with flour and grab about two healthy handfuls of dough from the pot. Use a rolling pin to roll out the dough into about a 10-inch wide circle, about half an inch thick. Don't roll it out too much, or the dough will split when baking. Spoon out your filling into the center of the dough, leaving 1-1/2 to 2 inches around the edge to prevent spillover. When your filling is spread out, roll up the loaf into a loose roll (about 3-4 inches across) and carefully transfer it into your pan, with the seam side down. You should be able to fit 2 or 3 loaves in each pan. Brush the top of the loaf with a mixture of a whisked egg and a little water. This will help to prevent cracking and will give it a nice browned color on top.

When you have a full pan of loaves, put it on the center rack of the 350° oven. Bake for about 30 minutes. Keep an eye on them to make sure they don't burn. When they're nicely browned, pull them out and let them cool.

You can sprinkle the loaves with powdered sugar when serving. You'll want to make sure, as you store them, that you wrap them up tightly, as they have a tendency to dry out quickly.

This seems like a very labor-intensive bread recipe, and I don't think my grandmother made it except on holidays or special occasions. Truth be told, though, it was not nearly as hard as I thought it would be, especially since I had not had it in so long. The kneading is certainly the most hands-on part of the job, but the time goes by quickly if you make sure you've turned the answering machine on, and you aren't standing the whole time. I highly recommend this as a bread you can freeze as well, just make sure you use many layers of tinfoil and plastic wrap.

The wonderful sweet taste -- the satisfaction of completing one of my Granny Holub's famous dishes -- made this bread one of my most favorite cooking adventures.

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