Our Covid-19 related WFH policy kicked in about 2 weeks ago, and I must say I am still trying to find my rhythm. Admittedly, not much has really changed. Work remains busy so I get up at the same time as I normally would, it’s just that I now sit at my dining table instead of my desk. Both my boss and a large part of my team are strewn across the globe (as are many of my friends and all of my family), so, like many of us, I am used to Whatsapp, video calls etc. both for work and for staying in touch with loved ones. Thanks to a lot of work travel, I also already have a list of online workout channels I know and like so the fact that both my yoga studio and the work gym are closed for the foreseeable future does not have such a big impact. Plus, I live close to a really nice forest, so every few days I head there for a run (and to have an excuse to go outside). I guess what is hard getting used to is not knowing when this will all end, when we will go back to work, when travel restrictions will be lifted (e.g. will I be able to travel to Germany for my dad’s 70th birthday at the end of May?) etc.
What has always given me comfort in times of stress and uncertainty is cooking and baking. Aside from how much I enjoy spending time in the kitchen as it is, I think it is the fact that putting a meal together is a daily ritual makes it so calming. And I must admit I have been really enjoying putting together a meal plan of sorts based on our haphazardly stocked fridge and pantry, I have started baking all of our bread and on weekends, I bake us a sweet treat, like this Mahleb and Poppy Seed Braid.
I have written about my love for poppy seed filled baked goods before, including a version of this Mahleb and Poppy Seed Braid that I baked like a babka, in a loaf tin and finished with some glossy sugar syrup. Maybe it is Coronavirus-induced nostalgia, but this weekend I wanted to bake a freeform poppy seed braid covered in a thick icing that looks exactly like the ones you would find in bakeries all across Germany.
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!).
If you are wondering about possible substitutions, here are a few notes on what you could substitute, add or leave out:
Adding ground mahleb to the dough 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!).
I love adding raisins to the filling as they soak up some of the liquid from the filling and turn into these sweet little jammy pockets.
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.
Instead of the thick icing I used for this version, you could also finish the braid by brushing it with simple syrup (which you can make by simple boiling together equal amounts of sugar and water until all the sugar is melted).
Mahleb and Poppy Seed Braid
For the dough
300g all purpose flour
ca. 1.5 tsp dried active yeast
1 tbsp ground Mahleb
A pinch of salt
30g melted butter
For the filling
150 ground poppy seeds
Pinch of salt
For the glaze
80g icing sugar
15g melted butter
1-2 tbsp milk
Some milk for brushing on the braid before baking
Start by making the dough. In a bowl whisk together the flour, yeast, Mahleb, sugar and salt. Form a well in the centre 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 or until doubled in size.
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 or until very thick, 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 seamside 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. Place on a sheetpan lined with parchment paper. 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) – another 30-45 minutes.
Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees.
Brush the braid all over with a little milk, then bake the braid 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.
Once the braid is done baking, whisk together the ingredients for the glaze and brush all over the still hot braid. Leave to cool completely before carefully removing the braid from its pan.
Thanks to the glaze and the poppyseed filling, the braid will stay fresh for several days, just keep it in a closed container at room temperature.