Nana Helen’s Poppy Seed Bread

This recipe comes straight from old time Broadway, via the Gershwin Theatre’s Mark Illo.  A third generation Broadway stagehand, Mark is currently the house prop man for the hit show Wicked.

Nana Helen's makowiec bread

He would never say this, but Mark is one of the most respected stagehands working today. A quiet, hard worker, Mark began his career at the age of 16 shopping props for Saturday Night Live:“I started working for my Dad in December of 1978.  One of his close friends was the prop man at SNL and as a favor to my Dad so I could make some Christmas money, he put me on to do some outside prop shopping.  I remember, I had to go to Gristede’s or something to get white powdered donuts.  There I was, a 16 year old kid walking up the street with about $100 in petty cash to buy props.  And one of the props I bought were Entenmen’s white donuts.  If you do a Google search, you’ll find a skit with John Belushi, and he’s talking and supposed to be high on cocaine, he’s got white all around his nose, and at the end he eats a white donut.  And I was the one who bought those donuts for him.”

Mark’s Broadway legacy stretches back to the early 1900s when his grandfather Frank Illo came to New York City and got his Local 1 card.  Mark’s Gershwin office is covered in old photos and programs.


The program above, from Clifford Fischer’s Folies Bergere offers this delightful bio:  “Born in New York City, Frank has been literally behind the Broadway scenes for more years than he will confess.  He introduced much of the modern stage lighting effects for the late David Belasco and, if you ask him, he will tell you that he was the first man to advise baby spotlights for the late John Drew.  He is the Technical Director for the International Casino and the law backstage.  He built the entire production.”

Frank met Mark’s Nana Helen on 20th Century Maids, a burlesque show that played the now-demolished Columbia Theater on Broadway and 47th Street.  Featuring Ed. Lee Wrothe, a popular musical comedian of the era, it advertised two shows a day at 2:15 and 8:15. According to a review at the time: “The show is elaborately costumed and amply provided with brilliant and scenic effects, and the chorus is sprightly and comely.”

Helen Illo, NYC

Nana Helen was a chorus girl and Frank was the electrician for the show.  They married in 1919 and Helen retired from the stage to raise their two sons, Frank, Jr. and John.

Mark remembers his grandmother’s baking fondly.  The recipe below was one of his favorites.  He calls this simply Poppy Seed Bread, but it’s very similar to a Polish sweet bread called makowiec (pronounced “ma-kov-yets.”)  Nana Helen originally came from Poland, so who knows?

Nana Helen’s Poppy Seed Bread


½ cup milk
¾ cup butter or margarine
¼ cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 envelope active dry yeast
¼ cup very warm water
4 eggs
4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 can poppy seed filling


1.            Scald milk in a small saucepan;  cool to lukewarm

2.            In a large bowl, cream butter or margarine until fluffy.  Beat in sugar and salt.

3.            Sprinkle yeast into very warm water (“Very warm” water should feel comfortably warm when dropped on wrist.)  Stir until yeast dissolves then beat, a little at a time, into butter mixture.  Beat in milk until well-blended.

4.            Beat eggs until cream thick in a small bowl, reserving 2 tablespoons in a cup; cover and chill for brushing loaf in Step 9.  Beat remaining eggs into butter misture until well-blended.

5.            Beat in flour 1 cup at a time, then continue beating for 10 minutes.  (Dough will be heavy and sticky.)  Cover with a clean towel and let rise in a warm place, away from draft, 2 hours or until doubled in bulk.

6.            Stir dough down; cover again; chill overnight.

7.            Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

8.            On a floured board, roll out into a loose rectangle, about 10” x 12”.  Spread poppy seed filling on dough, leaving about 1 ½” border.  Roll up, jelly roll style and place on ungreased cookie sheet with seam side down.  Brush with saved egg mixture and bake for approximately 50 minutes.  Cool completely on a wire rack before slicing.

* Caroline’s note:  The lazy girl’s method – I made this in my bread machine and skipped six of the seven steps above.  Just heat the milk and water in the microwave for about 45 seconds, mix in the yeast and put that in the pan first.  Beat the eggs, then throw them and the rest of the ingredients in the pan and set it to “Dough”.  I even skipped the overnight chilling step.  Pick up the recipe at Step 7 and no one will be the wiser.  Mark says mine tasted just like Nana made!

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6 thoughts on “Nana Helen’s Poppy Seed Bread

  1. Janet February 3, 2013 at 9:09 pm Reply

    Love all the history!! And the bread sounds yummy!!

  2. Camille August 11, 2013 at 10:42 am Reply

    What a surprise to stumble upon this entry and find delicious stories about my cousin Mark and Nana and Grandpa Illo. I’ve recently gotten serious about creating an online family history and was surfing the Net for additional photos when I saw your beautiful picture of Helen.

    I love what you and James are doing here. Thank you for the recipe. I remember Nana’s poppy seed bread well. In fact I can’t type those three words without salivating. Please, may I use the picture you posted of Helen?

    • Jesse October 28, 2013 at 12:22 am Reply

      OK… Now this creepy. Camille I am also a cousin. Please get in contact with me I would love to share information!

  3. Caroline August 15, 2013 at 9:20 pm Reply

    Thanks for your lovely comment, Camille. And of course you can use the photo! (But ask Mark for my email address and I can send you a better version.) Cheers —


  4. Camille October 28, 2013 at 8:11 am Reply

    Hi Jesse! I can’t wait to see how we’re related! You can reach me at bobandcamille at yahoo. Looking forward to getting to know you.

  5. Alice W January 28, 2023 at 11:08 pm Reply

    Thanks for thhis blog post

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