Category Archives: Holiday

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.

IMG_7890

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

Ingredients:

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

Method:

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!

Hoska, a Latus Family Recipe

So, what to do with all those egg yolks you were left with after making the meringues from our last post?  Well, one thing James likes to do is make a traditional eastern European Christmas/Easter bread called hoska.  A fancy-looking braided bread, James learned to make this with his mother in their Milwaukee kitchen.   He first shared it backstage with his colleagues at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC at an Easter potluck during a run of The Beggar’s Opera.  “We also did an Easter Egg hunt on the Derek McClain-designed set.  There were lots of piles of rubble and debris which gave us perfect places to hides the eggs.”  I have to wonder if one or two weren’t found until sometime during the show that night!

For all you theater folks out there, you know how the holidays go – generally we have MORE shows.  And especially in regional and Off-Broadway shows with limited runs, you often find yourself eating a potluck holiday meal backstage between shows.  James recalls this Easter potluck being one of many held during the run.  “I usually brought dessert, which is how the cheesecake bake-off began (more on that in a later post.)  But for Easter, of course I brought hoska.”

I give you James’ family recipe with all its charming, old country instructions (to make the dough rise, it recommends putting a piece of buttered waxed paper over the bowl, placing a tea towel over the waxed paper and then placing the covered bowl under a feather pillow.  Really James?  Really??)  But I’ll also tell you that I’ve halved the recipe and made this dough very successfully in my bread machine.

Hoska (Braid) Bread

Makes two braided loaves

Ingredients:

2 cups milk
½ cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar
1 cake yeast
1 cup butter
2 teaspoons salt
8 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
5 egg yolks
1 whole egg
¼ teaspoon mace
¼ teaspoon lemon rind

Method:

1.  Place 1/2 cup lukewarm milk in a small bowl and mix in yeast cake with 1 teaspoon sugar.  Let bubble for about 30 minutes.
2.  Heat  1 1/2 cups of milk and add 1 cup butter, 2 teaspoons salt, and ½ cup sugar to hot milk.  Mix thoroughly with a spoon until butter is completely melted.
3.  In a large mixing bowl put in 4 cups sifted flour.  Make a well in the center of the flour in bowl,  add 4 egg yolks, plus 1 whole egg, 1/4 tsp. mace and 1/4 tsp. lemon rind. Add yeast mixture and milk mixture to flour & eggs. Mix well with mixer. Then add 4 more cups flour. Knead by hand until flour is well blended or use your Mixmaster hooks to knead the dough. Let the dough rise for about 1-2 hours until doubled in size. (Tip for making the dough rise. Put a piece of buttered waxed paper over the bowl and place a tea towel over the waxed paper. Place the covered bowl under a feather pillow.)
4.  After dough rises, divide dough into two portions.  Each portion will make one loaf  (FYI, each hoska consists of two braids.)  Working with one portion of dough, divide it into two parts, one part a little bigger than the other. Cut the bigger portion into 3 pieces. Roll each piece about 10 to 12″ long then form into a braid. With the smaller piece of dough, also divide that into 3 pieces but take a walnut size ball off first and reserve than. This time roll each piece only about 8″ long before making into a braid. Place the smaller braid on top of the larger. Take the walnut sized ball and roll that out into a long piece a few inches longer than the hoska. Lay this rope-like piece of dough on top of the other two and tuck the ends under the ends of the bread. You now have one hoska made. Do the same with the other portion of dough.  Remember, this makes two braided loaves.
5. Let rise about 1/2 hour. Brush the hoska with 1 egg yolk and 2 tablespoons of cold water for a golden brown finish just before baking.
6. Bake at 350 degree oven for 30 minutes.

**Caroline’s note:  I’ve halved this recipe, warmed the milk and melted the butter separately, then put all the ingredients in my bread machine at once.  Then, I set it on the ‘Dough’ setting for about two hours and proceed with step #4 above.