Monday, 19 March 2012

Makowiec - Poppy Seed Cake - A Polish Christmas Cake

I know Christmas is long past, but Makowiec - which is a sort of poppy seed roll  - probably counts as my favourite cake in all the world, and not long ago, somebody asked me if I might be posting any Polish recipes on this site. I will - after all, food looms quite large in the Amber Heart - and here's the first of many. You can make it for Easter, instead of Christmas. But it's a bit of a cheat, really.

Polish cuisine (and Austrian too) uses poppy seeds not just in bread, but in a variety of desserts and cakes. As in Austria, many of their cakes and pancakes and pastries involve yeast as a raising and lightening agent. I once spent Christmas in Warsaw with my Polish relatives. All the food was excellent, but it was the poppy seed cake, aromatic and delicious and strange, which I remembered more than anything else - the poppy seed cake which still seems to me to be the 'taste of Poland.' Sadly, it's hard to find and difficult to bake. Or it was, until very recently.

But now, Polish delis are springing up all over the place - we have one in Ayr called The Polish Cottage, and occasionally you'll find a piece of Makowiec in their chill cabinet. I browse around this shop a lot, listening to people chatting in Polish, reading the labels (they stock some of the best jam I've ever tasted) and sampling the salamis, But it was only on my most recent visit that I spotted the can pictured above and realised that you can now buy the filling for poppy seed cake ready made - a filling which was always tricky to make, involving cooking and grinding something that's impossibly fine anyway! This is a can of 'poppy seed mass' with ground seeds, orange flavouring and a few other things. I know it's a bit of a cop out, but I couldn't resist it.

I haven't made my 'instant' Makowiec yet, but I will. And meanwhile - here's the recipe for the characteristic yeast pastry which you'll need to contain the seeds.

Cream 2 oz fresh yeast with 3 tablespoons of cream, sour cream if you can get it, and a teaspoon or two of sugar. Leave aside in a warm place until it begins to bubble a little.
Rub 6 oz of butter into 1lb of plain flour sifted with a scant half teaspoon of salt.  Add 2 heaped tablespoons of caster sugar, and then work in the yeast, two whole eggs beaten with one or two egg yolks (eggs vary in size) a teaspoon of vanilla essence and (if necessary) a little milk. Work the dough well, by hand. It shouldn't be too stiff or too wet but like a soft pastry. You can add a little grated orange peel if you wish.
Roll it out thinly into a rectangle on a lightly floured board. Spread the poppyseed filling evenly (and quite thickly) over the dough, leaving a margin all round of about an inch or so. Then roll up carefully and seal the edges with a little milk or beaten egg. Transfer this to an oblong buttered pan (you can line it with foil if you wish) and allow to rise for an hour or so. Pierce the dough once or twice with a skewer to prevent it from splitting. Then bake in a medium oven for about 45 minutes. It should be brown and well risen.

This recipe, incidentally, comes from a wonderful old book called Old Polish Traditions in the Kitchen and at the table, by Maria Lemnis and Henryk Vitry, which is crammed not just with excellent recipes, but with lots of fascinating information about Polish history and cuisine.

You can use this pastry for all kinds of other things - especially those wonderful Austrian pastries with plum jam and cream cheese. And you can buy that rich plum jam - more like a plum butter than a jam - in your local Polish deli too.

Monday, 12 March 2012

My Inspirational Polish Dad - Julian Wladyslaw Czerkawski

My late mother used to tell the story of how, as a young woman in postwar Leeds, she went into a local shop where a casual acquaintance said to her, 'Now that the war is over, I think that they ought to send all those Poles back, don't you?'
'Not really,' said my Leeds Irish mum. 'You see, I've just married one.'
The one she had 'just married' was my lovely dad, Julian Czerkawski.

My grandfather, Wladyslaw Czerkawski

Dad was very young when war broke out. That's him, the toddler with the girly hair, at the very top of this post, with his rather aristocratic parents, Lucia and Wladyslaw. I always think my grandfather, whom I never met, looks like Laurence Olivier playing Maxim de Winter in Rebecca. I only have two pictures of him, but I love that wavy hair, those wide-set eyes and high cheekbones, that clear, direct and somewhat daunting gaze. I wish I had known him but - although we didn't know it at the time, because he had simply disappeared in the war  - he was dead long before I was born.
There's my dad again,  just a little later, on the right, in his velvet 'Lord Fauntleroy' suit and wrinkled tights, looking much more boyish.The billy goat was called Goat, plain and simple, and for some reason he loathed women. He would chase and butt any woman who ventured into his paddock. Lucia - plump and pretty - was afraid of him, but he rather liked Julian. Poland was, of course, caught between the rock of the Nazis and the hard place of Joe Stalin. If one of them didn't get you, the other did. My grandfather was imprisoned under Stalin, released when Uncle Joe changed sides, but sent - as so very many Poles were - on the debilitating long march east across Russia, to join the army units on the Persian border. Like so many Polish soldiers, (and so many civilians too) he died of typhus and is buried in Bukhara on the Silk Road.

My father, meanwhile,  had been through a string of deeply harrowing experiences, but eventually he had made his way to England, via Italy, with a Polish tank unit, as part of the British Army. He was initially stationed at Duncombe Park near Helmsley in Yorkshire, and when he was demobbed, he worked for a while as a textile presser at a mill near Leeds. The choice of jobs for refugees was strictly limited at that time: mills or mines, and no arguments.

While there, he met, courted and married my mum, Kathleen, (on the right of this picture, holding my hand - her elder sister, my Aunt Vera, is on the left) and soon after that, he went to nightschool and began studying the sciences which he loved. Had the war not intervened, he was destined to be trained as an artist, by his uncle-by-marriage, distinguished Polish watercolourist, Karol Kossak. Julian dabbled in art all his life, and it remained a much loved hobby for him, although he always doubted if he could have made a career of it.
Me and my dad. Note my ringlets. I think I look like something from the 1920s or 30s - but dad was always handsome!

By the time my father retired, many years later, he was a distinguished biochemist with a double doctorate - a DSc as well as a PhD. He always wore his learning lightly, was the perfect gentleman, the best dad a daughter could wish for and in spite of, or perhaps because of, all that he had suffered in the war, he was never bitter.

Perhaps because dad had married an English speaker, and perhaps because of his background, which was rather cosmopolitan, we were only on the fringes of the Polish community in Leeds. I remember wearing a traditional Polish costume, with embroidery and ribbons. I remember eating Polish food - my best friend at school was Polish too. But we seldom went to the Polish club. Because he was studying, dad wanted to learn English as quickly and as well as he could so - to my great regret - I didn't learn to speak anything but the most basic Polish.

All the same, dad had a fund of stories - and he told me all about the Poland of his childhood. He had been the son of a landowner, who had an old estate at a place called Dziedzilow, near the ancient city of Lwow. The family even had a coat of arms (oddly enough, it includes a goat!) It all seemed strange and enticing: nothing like my typically working class Yorkshire childhood. For me, back then, and for many years after, the Poland of my imagination was as exotic and enchanting as a place in a fairy tale - and with the same faint air of unreality. I knew that I wanted to write about it. In fact, I did write a couple of radio plays set in Poland, which were broadcast on BBC Radio 4. But I wanted to tackle something much longer, and I thought even then that it would be a novel. I began to research the background material many years ago, and one of the main sources of inspiration for me was my father. After he retired, I asked him to put down everything he could remember of his early life in Dziedzilow. I have his notebooks and sketches still. By the time he was born, the old manor house, which inspired a somewhat embellished Lisko, in my novel, was long gone, burned down in some previous conflict, although the cellars and ice house were still there. The family lived in what had once been the old Steward's House. The landscape of Lisko, in the novel, is the landscape my father described to me. This may be one reason why writing The Amber Heart was such a pleasure - it was written straight from my heart!

Dad, in his father's car - the only car in the district

Monday, 5 March 2012

The Amber Heart - an epic tale of love and loss in 19th century Poland.

Painting by Juliusz Kossak

A beautiful, butter-yellow mansion.
A spirited heroine.
A troubled hero.

When Maryanna Diduska first meets Piotro Bandura, they are both children, but their situations could not be more different. Maryanna is the pampered daughter of Polish aristocrats, while Piotro is the child of a poverty-stricken Ukrainian widow.

Stefan took a pouch from his jacket and, with a laugh, scattered coins, as though scattering grain, watching them spread out and dive, hunting among grasses, squabbling volubly, fighting for what they could find like so many starlings. But one of them didn’t move. He was the tallest and the oldest, a boy of perhaps eleven, his hair black and matted, his face sallow under the grime, his eyes an unexpectedly bright cornflower blue. He stood still, hands hanging by his sides, fists clenched, and he stared up at Maryanna, unsmiling, unmoving. She shifted uneasily. For perhaps the first time in her life, she saw a gaze of pure resentment directed straight at herself. She turned her head into her father’s jacket.
‘Daddy, tell the boy not to look at me,’ she whispered.

But this is also the tale of the beautiful house of Lisko, Maryanna’s beloved childhood home, and the way in which the lives of its inhabitants will be disrupted by the turmoil of the times.

Out on Kindle, before the end of March 2012, The Amber Heart is a vivid, dramatic and unashamedly romantic story of love and loyalty, of personal tragedy and triumph, set against an intriguing backdrop: the turbulent Eastern Borderlands of 19th century Poland.

The first draft of this novel was written many years ago, while my Polish father was still alive. He was the best dad anyone could ever wish for and the book is dedicated to him. The novel was praised by my agent at the time, the late Pat Kavanagh, and then by countless editors. 'I couldn't put it down. I stayed up all night reading it. I wept buckets!' wrote one of them, before adding that she would have to turn it down. You see, The Amber Heart always fell at the sales and marketing hurdle. 'Nobody knows about Poland!' they would say.

Over the years, I've gone back to it from time to time and - rereading it - have realised that it has stood the test of time. Now, a few other people have read it and said the same thing. I've worked on it, of course, honed it, polished it, responded to some useful editorial suggestions and brought the benefit of my own greater maturity to the story. The advent of eBook publishing has finally allowed me publish this novel which, of all the things I have ever written, has been closest to my heart. So many of the elderly Polish people who generously helped me with research for this novel are dead and gone. But they have left me with a great mass of interesting material in the shape of documents, photographs, postcards, diaries and first hand accounts, not least the notebooks my late father filled with stories and sketches of the Poland he remembered.

My dad.

And so, I thought it might be a good idea to write a blog as a companion to the novel. If you read the Amber Heart, and are intrigued by the background to the book, you'll find more to entertain you here. There will be pieces about the development of the novel and the inspiration behind the characters. But I'll also be mining all that fascinating background information to write pieces about pre-war Polish history, customs and traditions, costume, arts and crafts, and food. Whatever takes my fancy, really. I'll even post a few recipes.
I hope you find it entertaining, and that you might  like to join in with your own comments.