Christmas is not considered complete without special occasion baking and Hungarian poppy seed roll is the premier of the genre.
Recipes for Hungarian rolls with a poppy seed-raisin filling are known as Mákos es Dios Kalacs (known in village slang as a Beigli). Every home has it’s own recipe for these rolls and they are a favorite sweet bread.
My Aunt Marge remembers helping my grandmother make these rolls, and this recipe is the closest I could come to her recipe, which was never written down. My aunt gave me a Hungarian cookbook from the local church, circa 1972, celebrating the 1,000 year anniversary of the Hungarian state. The savory recipes have an inordinate amount of bacon, but I wanted the book mostly for the baked goods since my grandmother didn’t write any of her recipes down. Hungarian wheat was on the par of the gold standard in Europe as they invented the first sophisticated roller milling (finer and whiter flour which was a great delicacy), so their traditional baking was known for being excellent and influenced by the sophisticated Viennese coffee house style. I get great satisfaction making breads that echo my ethnic DNA.
After my grandmother passed away, Aunt Marge would go to the Christmas fair connected to the St. Ladislav Roman Catholic Church in New Brunswich, New Jersey (where my paternal grandparents were married in 1921), where the Hungarian women bake all the holiday specialties to raise money for the church building fund.
The Hungarian Festival is held in June on Somerset Street and another venue for home baked Hungarian breads, cookies, and pastry along with folk dancing, violin playing, and emotional poetry reading in Hungarian. Aunt Marge would always pick up a poppy seed roll or two and some kifli, the crescent cookie filled with jam that is said to echo the crescent on the Turkish flag (they occupied Hungary for a century or two). Both are like the culinary emblems of Hungarian culture, the Magyar federation of 7 tribes. Both my aunt and father had notorious sweet tooths, so there were always lots of goodies, including homemade kifli, at my grandmother’s during the holidays.
New Brunswich was founded in the early 18th century by Royal Charter from the King of England, on an Indian village whose tribe is long extinct, named after a town in Hanover, Germany. It was on the King’s Highway, centrally located between New York City and Philadelphia, a hot Colonial traffic conduit in those horse and carriage days. Philadelphia was the Colonial center of culture, finance, government, and industry for the early US. The Declaration of Independence was read in New Brunswich for one of the first public readings.
Rutgers University was then Queen’s College, started around 1760, and classes were held in taverns during the Revolution. The British occupied New Brunswich during the Revolution. The Delaware and Raritan Rivers, both emptying into the Atlantic Ocean, were the first polluted rivers in the US, already polluted by the time of the Revolution since everyone conveniently dumped their garbage in the rivers.
New Brunswick has been referred to as the “most Hungarian city in the United States.” After a crushing defeat when they fought for their independence from Austria in 1848/1849, a significant number of Hungarian exiles—soldiers, military officers, political leaders, and other professionals—emigrated to the United States. There
were 2 dozen Hungarian churches started at this time in New Jersey alone. During the Civil War some eight hundred officers and veterans of the Hungarian War of Independence, renown for their cavalry (Hungarians are great horsemen due to their nomadic warrior DNA), joined the Union Army. Their style is a melding of the Turkish and Slavic warfare practices.
New Brunswich was at one time the home of almost a third of the Hungarian population of the state, many coming through Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century (when both my paternal grandparents’ families arrived). 1.5 million left the Kingdom of Hungary between 1890 and 1910 due to the abject poverty in Europe at the time. This became the melting pot with Dutch, French, Scots, Irish, Italian, and a multitude of Jewish immigrants from Germany, Russia, Poland and eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But the Hungarians retained their own cultural stamp, a throw back to the Mongols, Ottoman, and Hapsburg influences.
A third influx came after WW2, when thousands of displaced Hungarians arrived from the camps in Europe. In October and November 1956, when Hungarians fought to free themselves from Communist and Soviet domination, some 200,000 Hungarians—university students, young professionals, professors, skilled technicians, and industrial workers—immigrated to New Jersey. At that time New Jersey had lots of rich agricultural land for gardening that was incredibly similar to the Hungarian soil, so lots of family farms dotted the state.
I remember the Hungarian refugees in 1956 being sheltered at Camp Kilmer army barracks for the Hungarian Escapee Program established in the United States. The camp was within walking distance up the street from my maternal grandmother’s house in neighboring Edison, where my mom grew up. It was a big deal back then and my grandfather used to take us on a drive-by to look since the barracks were built shouldering the main road. They came to the area to work at Johnson & Johnson factories, where my father’s mother worked all during WW2. My mom’s Irish aunt Annie from County Cork, who worked at J & J as the floor lady, made the first bandaid. My mother’s grandfather started the first motor vehicle department and was proprietor of GW Cigar Factory, considered an affluent career.
The Hungarians, or Magyar people, speak a language that belongs to the Uralic language family. The closest linguistic relatives of the Magyars in Europe are the Finns, Estonians, and Lapps. No one can figure out where the Hungarian language came from since it is so different than other European languages. Prior to WW2, the Hungarian culture and language was taught in the churches. Beginning in 1971, the Hungarian language was offered as an elective subject at Saint Ladislaus School in New Brunswick. In 1989 the American Hungarian Foundation built and opened its museum, library, and archives facility in New Brunswick. An Institute of Hungarian Studies was established at Rutgers in 1991.
The corner of Somerset Street and Plum Street, site of the spring ethnic festival, is named Mindszenty Square. Having a landmark street and recreation park is very Hungarian as they love picnics and any reason for a sausage fest. This is where the first ever statue of Cardinal Josepeh Mindszenty was erected (there is another one in Chile) and a stone memorial to the victims of the 1956 Revolution. Unless you are of Hungarian heritage, you wont have heard of Mindszenty.
Mindszenty was the head of the Catholic Church in Hungary, a position every bit as important, or even more so, than the local politicians, and publicly anti Communist way back in 1919. He then became adamantly anti Nazi and worked against the Hungarian Jews’ deportation to the death camps. Little known is that most Eastern European countries had their own racist political parties that ran along the Nazi lines, and the Arrow Cross Party was in Hungary. Our Hungarian neighbors while growing up in California, the uncle was a pilot for the Luftwaffe in the Eastern European theatre. Still they had to trade their jewelry and silver flatware in the 50s to buy their freedom and cross into free Europe. While pro Catholic, the Arrow Cross Party’s ideals were based upon mythos, similar to the Nazi and the ancient Aryan connection, endorsing a respect to the throwback for the pagan traditions of the Magyar and Avar peoples. The Arrow Cross Party was also more radical economically than other fascist movements, advocating socialist-oriented worker rights and land reforms. Sounds familiar to many political agendas today.
Mindszenty became known as a steadfast supporter of Church freedom and vocal opponent of Communism and the brutal Stalinist persecution in his country post WW2. In 1949 he was convicted of treason against the occupying Communist government. He ended up living in asylum in the US Embassy in Budapest for 15 years, unable to leave the grounds. Hungarians have great revolutionary spirit.
New Brunswick is the center hub on the south side of Raritan Valley along with Piscataway, Highland Park, Edison, and South Plainfield. My grandparents lived in Highland Park and my mom grew up in Edison. The local RKO movie theatre, where I was taken every Sunday to the movies, was often a cooking class on Saturdays in the 40s and 50s, and my grandmother went to learn about the latest new commercial convenience foods, like Crisco and Toll House chocolate chips. One of the first McDonalds in the country was opened in this area on the edge of town on the then Lincoln Highway around 1958 and it was a really exciting day when my dad took my sister and I to eat cheeseburgers on fluffy white buns (15 cents), crisp thin-cut fries (a real treat-we never ate fried foods), and a real Coca Cola or root beer there. Everyone cooked at home in those days, so going out anywhere was a big deal.
My claim to celebrity fame is that actress Susan Saradon grew up in Edison, Jon Bon Jovi grew up in New Brunswich, and Michael Douglas was born in the same hospital as myself in New Brunswich while his father worked on Broadway before going to Hollywood.
While northern New Jersey is now associated with the Sopranos (the Barrens woodlands) and Boardwalk Empire (Atlantic City), southern New Jersey is still very agricultural. It is a big cranberry producer since the coast is boggy. Think Jersey cows for dairy, Jersey corn which rivals anything from the midwest, and over sized Jersey tomatoes from the Rutgers Ag program that make you sink to your knees in worship they were so perfect tasting and looking. My grandparents used to drive out to our cousin’s farm and orchard, the Tackacs (they also owned the local bowling alley), less than an hour drive from Highland Park on the far side of Edison, and load up on homegrown produce and fresh eggs, just like in the old country. That area was all bulldozed into a housing development.
The long, baked poppy seed loaves are a bit flattish, more of an oval than round like a roulade, although the technique for filling is exactly the same as for cinnamon rolls without cutting into individual rolls. The dough is bready rather than cakey, and quite addictive. Hungarians get quite excited if you offer them a slice of poppy seed roll. Ground poppy seed-raisin and a thick walnut filling are the traditional fillings. Take a bite of Hungarian history.
Hungarian Poppy Seed Roll
Makes 4 rolls
- 1 tablespoon (1 package) active dry yeast
- Pinch of sugar
- 1 cup warm milk (105° to 115°)
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter or soy margarine, at room temperature
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 large egg
- Grated zest of 1 lemon
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour or white whole wheat flour
Poppy Seed Filling
- 1 1/2 cups whole black poppy seeds, ground in a blender or food processor
- 2 2/3 cups light cream or half-and-half
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon pure almond extract
- 1/3 cup cornstarch
- 2 large egg yolks
- 1 1/3 cups golden raisins
- 1/3 cup Amaretto liqueur
- 1 whole egg, beaten, for glaze
- Plain or scented geranium powdered sugar, for dusting
In a small bowl, sprinkle the yeast and the pinch of sugar over 1/3 cup of the warm milk. Stir to dissolve. Let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes
In a large bowl or in the work bowl of a heavy-duty electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the egg and beat vigorously for 1 minute. Beat in the remaining 2/3 milk, the lemon zest, salt, and 1 cup of the flour. Then add the remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until a soft dough is formed that just clears the sides of the bowl, switching to a wooden spoon as necessary if making by hand.
Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth and pliable, about 1 minute, adding only 1 tablespoon flour at a time as necessary to prevent sticking. The dough will be very soft but not sticky. Place in a greased deep container, turn once to coat the top, and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise at cool room temperature for 4 to 6 hours, deflating once or twice, or as long as overnight in the refrigerator. This dough can also be mixed and risen in a bread machine.
While the dough is rising, prepare the Poppy Seed Filling: In a small saucepan, combine the poppy
seeds and 1 cup of the cream. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes, stirring
occasionally, until slightly thickened. While the mixture is simmering, stir in the sugar and extract with a whisk. With a whisk or food processor, blend the cornstarch and yolk with the remaining 1/3 cup cream, until smooth. With a whisk, gradually add the cornstarch mixture to the simmering poppy seed mixture, stirring constantly until very thick. When the whisk becomes clogged, switch to a wooden spoon. The filling should clear the sides and bottom of the pan as it is being stirred. Cook 1 minute more, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and, with a spatula, scrape into a small bowl to cool completely at room temperature before using. Cover tightly with plastic to refrigerate. Makes about 3 cups. Place the golden raisins and Amaretto in a small bowl and macerate for at least 30 minutes. (If made ahead, store in the refrigerator.)
Turn out the dough onto the work surface and divide into 4 equal portions. Form each portion into a thick rectangle, set on some lightly floured parchment paper, cover loosely with a clean tea towel, and let rest 30 minutes.
Using a floured rolling pin on a clean or very lightly floured work surface to minimize sticking, roll or pat out each dough portion into a rectangle about 13-by-7- by 1/8 inches thick. Evenly spread the surface of each portion with one-fourth (about 3/4 cup) of the poppy seed filling; sprinkle each with 1/3 cup of the macerated raisins. Working with 1 rectangle at a time and starting from the long side, fold over a 2-inch section. Continue to fold the dough in this manner to create an flattish oval (rather than round) log of dough. Pinch the seams together and tuck under in the ends. Place seam side down on a parchment-lined baking sheet. I fit all 4 rolls horizontally with about 2 inches in between, but a second baking sheet can be used. Brush with the egg glaze and prick all over with a fork. Let rest, uncovered, at room temperature about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°.
Brush once more with the beaten egg and bake in the center of the preheated oven until golden, 30 to 40 minutes. (If using 2 baking sheets, change the rack positions halfway through baking.) Let rest on the baking sheet 10 minutes, then, using a large spatula, transfer to a rack to cool completely. Handle the hot breads carefully, as they are quite delicate.
Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2016
Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.