If I had to pick my favorite muffin flavor, it would undoubtedly be something fruity, or maybe even with a cream cheese filling. In my carefree college days when I would find myself at Nussbaum and Wu for an afternoon snack, I would choose either blueberry or pumpkin/chocolate cheese, always turning my nose up at the lemon poppy seed option behind the counter. Given my love of lemons, I can’t really explain why this muffin never appealed to me, but knowing my goody goody self, I strongly suspect that the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine fails a drug test because of a poppy seed muffin turned me against them. So it was with a great deal of surprise that I found myself longing to make the Poppy Seed Whirliwig Buns that the Wednesday Chef writes about with such nostalgia in My Berlin Kitchen.

Where this urge came from, I’ll never know. I’ve started to wonder if something is perhaps happening to me, if the world–my world–is shifting in irreversible ways. It just seems that no matter what I do, evidence that my tastes and proclivities are changing stares me in the face, from my churning mint chocolate chip ice cream to my desire to break away from the Slavic path that I so eagerly embarked on over a decade ago. Whereas once upon a time, I also would have gone on a long rambling walk so as to clear my head, I now knead dough as if it’s going out of style.
 Strangest of all, these newfound pleasures make me really happy. When I’m folding the dough upon itself over and over again, things seems simple; my body and mind buzz with energy and I feel as if I’ve found my place. When I whisk semolina into steamy and fragrant milk, I’m intently focused on making certain that there are no lumps, living in the moment and nowhere in between. And in the great rolling pin vs. chalk debate (that exists only in my weird little mind, but let’s go with it), I’d take the rolling pin any day.

 Maybe I feel this way because I’m more than a little tired; as much as I love the uphill battle of teaching and the excitement of those “aha!” moments you can experience in the classroom, it becomes, semester after semester, a question of how much you can afford to give of yourself. What are your boundaries (even better, do you have boundaries?), how many drafts will you read and how do you get students to care about the process, instead of about that elusive, yet all too common, A?

 Even as I say this, however, I’m still fighting the proverbial “good fight.” I believe that there’s value in teaching and, most days, I love doing it. The thing is, I just can’t do it without my weekly escape into the kitchen. I need to know, when the hours spent in my office rapidly accumulate and I feel so hunted that I don’t even want to check my email (this, from an email addict!), that there’s something else out there for me–something that doesn’t involve thesis statements and questionable word choice.

This past week, this “something” was wrapped in aluminum foil in my freezer, just waiting to be popped into the oven to provide a quick pick-me-up. Even though I would never have called myself a fan of German food (not that I even knew what German cuisine entailed until recently), this is something else that’s changing. I now can’t stop fantasizing about these buns. They’re so soft and pillowy, and filled to the brim with a simultaneously crunchy and creamy poppy seed studded semolina. They sing of spice when they’re baking in the oven and, upon their removal, dark swirls of color dance across their now golden brown exterior. Paired with a cup of coffee or tea, they make for a filling breakfast, one that is pleasantly, but not overpoweringly sweet. Forget cinnamon rolls and even muffins, I never want to have a freezer that doesn’t contain these buns.
If this is a sign of change, let’s hope the changes keep coming.

Poppy Seed Whirligig Buns

Yields 14-15 buns
Adapted from Luisa Weiss’ My Berlin Kitchen

For the most part, I followed this recipe to the letter, although I made a few essential changes. The first stemmed from my lack of fresh yeast; I decided to use the rapid-rise yeast I keep on hand for bread baking instead, changing the 1/4 ounce fresh yeast that Luisa called to 2 teaspoons of rapid-rise. The dough still rose and the buns turned out beautifully.
       The other change I made stemmed from a mixture of impatience and a lack of time. While I’m usually quite careful about giving dough time to rise properly, I didn’t quite understand why, after letting the dough rise for an hour and then adding the poppy seed semolina, the dough needed to go in the freezer for an hour–and all before rising for another 45 minutes. I assumed the freezer was important for firming up the dough before cutting it into slices, but I reduced the freezer time from 1 hour to 20 minutes and had no problems slicing the dough. Next time, I think I might skip this step entirely. After the freezer, I then let the dough rise for only 30 minutes; the extra 15 may have helped, but again, the final product was more than satisfactory.

For the yeast dough: 

3/4 cup 2% milk
2 teaspoon instant yeast
1/4 cup sugar
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon salt
canola oil

For the filling: 

2 cups 2% milk
Peel of half a lemon, zested
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup sugar
pinch of salt
1/3 cup + 2 tablespoons semolina
1 scant cup of poppy seeds

For the egg wash: 

1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons 2% milk

sugar, for sprinkling

-Pour the floor into a large bowl and whisk in the instant-rise yeast. Make a well in the middle and sprinkle the 1/4 cup sugar around the edges of the flour well.
-Then, pour the lukewarm milk into the well and begin to stir with a wooden spoon, incorporating a little flour from the sides of the well with each stir.
-Add the eggs, butter and salt and begin to knead with your hands. When the dough begins to come take shape, dump it onto a lightly floured workspace and knead until smooth and supple (about 3-5 minutes).
-Rinse out the bowl and then coat the bottom with a small amount of canola oil. Place the dough back in the bowl and cover with a cloth. Put the cloth-wrapped bowl in a warm place and then let rise for an hour, or until doubled.
-While the dough rises, make the semolina filling. Put the milk in a small saucepan and heat over medium heat. Add the lemon zest, cinnamon, vanilla, sugar and salt and bring to a boil.
-At this stage, slowly pour in the semolina, whisking continuously so that no lumps form. Allow the semolina to cook for a minute, stirring continuously, and then stir in the poppy seeds until they’re thoroughly incorporated.
-Remove the pot from the heat and let sit for about 10 minutes.
-As the poppy seed mixture cools, punch down the yeast dough and knead on a lightly floured surface for another minute or two.
-Then roll the dough out into a large rectangle with a thickness of about 1/2 inch.
-Spread the still warm poppy seed mixture evenly over the dough, almost to the edges, and roll up the dough lengthwise.
-Then, wrap it tightly in aluminum foil and place the foil-wrapped log into the freezer (N.B. this step may be skipped; see recipe notes above).
-Butter either a large cake pan or several small (9-inch) cake pans. Remove the dough log from the freezer and discard the aluminum foil wrapping.
-Cut the roll into 1 and 1/2 inch slices and then place the slices in the greased baking dish(es).
-Cover with a cloth and let rise for 30-45 minutes (again, see recipe notes above) as the oven preheats to 375 F.
-In the meantime, mix the egg yolk with the milk. When the buns have finishing rising, brush them with the mixture and sprinkle on some additional sugar.
-Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes, or until the buns are golden brown.
-Enjoy immediately with a hot drink. Since Luisa says the buns don’t keep that well, I followed her advice and wrapped the extras into aluminum foil and placed them in a freezer bag. I can now enjoy one whenever a difficult moment arises by simply popping the foil-wrapped buns back into the oven.

16 thoughts on “Pillows of Poppy Seeds

  1. Gorgeous! I can definitely see some of those changes in taste and goals in myself too–I guess we really are all mysteries. Hurray for you taking time to do something for yourself! I find chopping vegetables weirdly calming, and I try to do it as much as possible 🙂

  2. You don't know how much I loved waking up to this enthusiastic message–and one in Russian to boot! Oddly, I think I missed out on this treat while I was in Russia, favoring ice cream cones in babushka-pulled carts. 🙂

    I'm now a little torn: when you're here for the conference (it's so soon!!), should I offer you рулеты с маком or the mint chip ice cream…что делать? This is a quandary.

  3. I know; seeing them, you would never think there's semolina in there! The poppy seeds dominate. And I didn't see it before, but, yes, they are like little golden snails. 🙂

  4. Thank you! Yes, I suppose we're all mysteries and constantly evolving beings. Kneading and chopping aside (this also relaxes me), there's something comforting about that. If we stayed the same, life would be boring! I just wonder what changes the next decade will bring….maybe I'll soon be eating raw onions?

  5. an embarrassment of riches! It's the cook's prerogative, but I have to say, from the current perspective, the poppy pillows might just be nudging ahead…. And it is so soon! Needs to be some serious paper-primping before then…. Much looking forward to the trip, though!

  6. Again, your post speaks to me. I'm preparing to go to the 75th Sylvia Plath Symposium in a few weeks, and am finding myself rather “eh” about a writer I used to adore. My tastes have indeed changed. It's not that I no longer admire her work. I do. But I just want to do something else now. You know? “A butcher, a baker, a candlestickmaker?” Who knows.

  7. I will keep this in mind as the OM conference weekend approaches. I have to stock up on some poppy seeds (my freezer is now sadly empty; a family visit calls for an emptying of one's “coffers”), but, beyond that, my feeling is let the kneading begin (infinitely more preferable than grading all these essays!)! 🙂

    P.S. The Greek and my aunt put a kitchen cart together today. When I saw the hidden cams (it's been so long since I've typed this word, it seems kind of unreal), I thought of you and our former building/bonding experiences. x

  8. Thanks for the comment. I do understand–and all too well. I think this is normal, though. We're supposed to change as we grow older, have new experience; I can't help but feel that if we liked _all_ of the same things forever, life would become boring.

    I suppose we're just experiencing growing pains. 🙂

  9. Sorry to hear about the faculty meeting! Hope you managed to find some time to relax and bake, between the sleepover (sounds like quite the night, although your fbook post did have me laughing this morning) and other weekend responsibilities!

  10. Hi, this recipe looks wonderful. Just wondering, in the 2nd para, it say add butter and knead…but I can't find where it says how much butter to use? Thank you!

  11. Of course, I'm so sorry I forgot to type it up in the original recipe! It's 4 tablespoons (2 ounces) of softened butter. I hope you like the buns; they're really great!

  12. Thanks for stopping by! And I'm glad these caught your eye; they're one of my favorites from the archives. Hope you enjoy them and lots of other lemony things! 🙂

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