My paternal grandmother recently turned 97. The older she gets the more incredible I find it that a large part of what I learned in history lessons is stuff she read about in daily newspapers growing up. While my maternal grandmother is tech-savy enough to own an iPad and send me birthday wishes (plus emojis!) on Facebook, my dad’s mum kind of lost interest in learning about new technologies right about when video cassettes came out (and instead focusses her energy on reading and following current affairs). This makes for some fun conversations – I tried to explain internet dating to her the other night – and the best comparison I could come up with was singles night at your local church, but 24/7.
Having spent all of her life in Germany she still finds it difficult to understand how my sister Helena and I have willingly spent over half of our lives abroad with no intention of ever returning to Germany long term. Like most grandmothers she is always interested in knowing what we eat (I guess it’s that everlasting worry we might not be eating enough or feeding ourselves properly). And for someone who has never eaten a pizza in her entire life, she finds it intriguing how rarely typical German fare features on our dinner table. She is always happy to hear that once in a while I do get cravings for the sorts of things I grew up eating. And this Mahleb Poppy Seed Braid is what happens when a craving for the poppy seed braids (Mohnzopf) of my childhood in Germany clashes with the contents of my spice drawer, hence the unorthodox but delicious addition of Mahleb.
I love many things about this recipe, mainly because it is just so forgiving. It all starts with the dough which is a dream to work with (and doesn’t care whether you make it with butter or oil, dairy or non-dairy milk). And then there is that poppy seed filling – it is beautifully moist and ensures the poppy seed braid stays fresh for days (should it even last that long!).
With those two basics, you can start playing around: I love adding raisins to the filling as I have done for this version because they soak up some of the liquid from the filling and turn into these sweet little jammy pockets. Adding ground mahleb to the filling is optional but highly recommended – its bitter almond flavour complements the poppy seeds beautifully (also, mahleb has a tendency to go rancid quickly so you might as well make the most of it while you have it!). You can also add some chopped nuts to the filling should you be so inclined – toasted pine nuts are delicious, but hazelnuts, almonds or walnuts would work equally well. You can finish the braid by brushing it with simple syrup like I did here or even drizzle over a thick icing.
Mahleb Poppy Seed Braid
Loosely adapted from Teubner’s Handbuch Backen
Notes: Most (if not all) sweet recipes from Germany, Austria, Hungary and Poland calling for poppy seeds require ground poppy seeds. As a result, at least in Germany, you can buy pre-ground poppy seeds (‘Dampfmohn’) in most grocery stores. If that is not available to you, an electric spice grinder does a great job at grinding poppy seeds, even if you will have to grind the poppy seeds in 2-3 batches.
For the dough
300g all purpose flour
3.5g yeast (ca. 1.5 tsp)
A pinch of salt
30g melted butter
1/2 egg (you can use the other half for the egg wash – see below)
For the filling
150 ground poppy seeds
3 tsp ground mahleb
Pinch of salt
For the finishing syrup
Egg wash: 1/2 egg whisked together with a pinch of salt and a small glug of milk
Start by making the dough. In a bowl whisk together the flour, yeast, sugar and salt. Form a well in the center and add the milk, melted butter and egg. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until you have a shaggy ball of dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic (10-15 minutes of kneading by hand). Return the dough to the bowl, cover and set aside somewhere warm to proof for 1.5h.
While the dough is proofing, make the filling. Bring the milk to a boil in a medium sauce pan. Add all the ingredients and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly to avoid any lumps. Set aside to cool.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and roll into a 30-50cm rectangle. Try and spread the filling as evenly across the dough as possible (not easy given that the filling is pretty thick, but just try and get it as even as possible). Starting from one of the long sides of the rectangle, carefully and tightly roll up the dough. Turn the dough seaside down, then, using a pastry cutter or big, sharp knife, cut the dough in half lengthwise. Turn the two pieces of dough cut-side up. Pinch together the ends furthest away from you then carefully twist the two pieces, making sure that the cut sides of the dough always face upwards. Once you get to the end of the braid, twist together the ends and fold underneath the braid.
Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees and butter a loaf pan. Carefully place the braid inside the loaf pan. Cover and set aside to proof until well-risen and puffy (you will notice that the braid is ready to bake if you poke it with a finger and your finger leaves a mark that only very slowly disappears).
Brush all over with the egg wash then bake for 35-40 minutes or until golden-brown and a wooden skewer inserted into the centre of the braid comes out clean. Keep an eye on the braid and in case it starts to colour too much, cover with parchment paper or tin foil.
In the last 10 minutes or so of baking, prepare the sugar syrup. In a small pan, bring the water and sugar to a boil just long enough for the sugar to melt. Set aside.
As soon as the braid is out of the oven, brush all over with the sugar syrup. Leave to cool completely before carefully removing the braid from its pan.