MSV turns two! Thanks a heap for being here for it. Like last year, the format of today's celebratory post is different than normal, in that you'll get a story about the recipe. Plus, an identity. I'm Amanda. Right now, I do all the stuff around MSV, and today's recipe is several years in the making for me.
When my friend Julie fed her version of flodni to me nearly a decade ago, I was a minor mess of a person. Some of that is common to folks who are, as I was, in their early twenties—questionable laundry practices, being stuck in a serious relationship I didn’t know how to take seriously. Some of it was less common, like grappling with what I hadn’t yet recognized as chronic anxiety, including social anxiety, which contributed to my habits of working 60-hour weeks, indulging in very regular drinking binges, and being terrified of most food.
I first thought of Julie as a smartass, a really smart one, but in contrast to my inability to treat anything at all seriously back then, I discovered Julie had (and still has) an enviable intellectual curiosity and a deep capacity for sincerity in between cracking wise. She was older than I, had it together, and one year, invited me over to witness the annual tradition of her and her friend making a giant holiday pastry (you can read her writing about that here). I agreed, but, as ever, had to work late. By the time I showed up, exhausted, more than a little intimated, and probably wearing dirty jeans, Julie met me at the door, saying her friend was under the weather and had taken off as soon as the pan was in the oven.
I was embarrassed about having missed the whole thing, and my instinct was to run back to my unhappy home, but Julie was a peach about it. She asked me in, poured me a glass of wine, kept the conversation going (to this day, not my forte), and when the flodni had cooled sufficiently, cut me a slice. Still just warm, fruity, and earthy, it was a generous thing, and I was grateful. Despite a deep conviction that I didn’t deserve it, in clumsy circumstances, I felt welcomed--maybe even a little fussed over--by someone I thought a lot of, and at a time in my life when I probably hadn’t dared to eat a dessert for some time.
So flodni stuck with me. I asked Julie for the recipe two years after that first taste. She sent it to me, and I still didn’t get around to making it. It involves hand-grinding a pound of poppy seeds, after all. But a couple months ago, I realized it might be the perfect labor of love for MSV’s second anniversary. And still I didn’t get around to it. Not the way I meant to, anyway.
Really, it’s a small miracle this thing got made at all. I wasn’t sure MSV would get an anniversary post. A home project is eating up all my discretionary income, and I’ve been spending the last few months cooking large batches of inexpensive ingredients, and taking fewer chances with the fresh ingredients I do splurge on. It doesn’t make for the most interesting blogging and, for someone neither Hungarian nor Jewish, takes all the urgency out of veganizing Hungarian Jewish egg pastry.
But Julie unwittingly helped me to loosen up again. One of her funny notes from six years ago:
“For God's sake, do NOT buy the prepared stuff [poppy seed filling]. It only counts if you sweated and ground poppyseeds [sic].”
I swore she had a line about grunting being a necessary ingredient, but I wasn’t able to track that down in writing.
When I got in touch to let her know I might want to blog a version of her recipe, she offered encouragement and again provided some tips, including this note about the poppy paste:
“I use the canned shit every time now, grinding just enough of my own seeds to stave off the judgmental glare of my dead grandmother.”
Priorities change all the time. I wanted to do justice to this beast, but I admitted to myself that the labor—a big part of Julie’s story about making this huge dessert every year—didn’t have to be part of mine. In fact, missing out on the labor was my story, and what was important to me about flodni was a memory of warmth in a chaotic, tiring, deeply insecure time. That memory can be celebrated—at long last—without spending tons of money and energy developing relatively niche vegan pastry. Because, hey, baking isn’t even my thing.
There’s another part of Julie’s story, a moral to the dessert: you take the bitter with the sweet. Each filling ingredient—the decidedly un-sweet walnuts, poppy seeds, and tart apple—is mixed with sugar and sprinkled with lemon before being layered between rich pastry. And when she originally sent me the recipe, she started her email with this line:
“OK, I have the wrinkled, discolored note paper before me, withdrawn from its secure place (stuck in the pages of a grease-stained Greek cookbook).”
No way using processed, pre-sweetened poppy paste diminishes any of that.
Make no mistake, history matters, and our stories matter. Knowing where a dish comes from can make us think about the circumstances it came from. It can make us feel like we’re participating in something bigger than our own small lives. But recording history is messy, and I think it’s also important to acknowledge that we’re likely viewing only part of the dish’s story. Choosing any one version to the exclusion of all other considerations shouldn’t be done unquestioningly, at the very least. I don’t believe authenticity should be pursued to the detriment of creatures weaker than I am, who rely on me to define their roles in the world, to decide how and when they live and die.
So here I present an entirely unfaithful reproduction of flodni. Changes abound, one from Julie, most from me. First, I’m cutting this recipe down to a quarter of what Julie makes. Second, Julie’s version strays from the common construction. I found most recipes include three thick layers of filling, whereas hers, which I’m using, breaks it up into six. And as the title of the recipe announces, I skipped making my own pastry altogether and enlisted convenient frozen phyllo.
Then there are the poppy seeds. There’s a specialty grinder for just this thing, but I didn’t want to insist on an appliance of that sort here. I ultimately took a cue from modern Indian cooking, grinding poppy seeds well in a coffee grinder and mixing the powder with apple juice to make a paste before finishing them off in the food processor. Julie’s grandmother gets no deference this way, and it can’t be as smooth as the canned shit, but it gets it done.
Finally, I found online a version from a bakery that included a layer of plum jam, which I found knee-bucklingly enticing, so I swapped pureed prunes for the second apple layer. I consider this the most transgressive, since it disrupts the concept of the cake, but prunes are good. For a more traditional pastry, feel free to double the apple layer to replace the plum puree. Next time, I’ll likely do just that, because apples are good, too. It’s an earthy, fruity, generous dish either way, tasting thoroughly of winter celebration.
And for what it’s worth, I managed to splash lemon juice and oil on my copy of the recipe.
serves 6, adapted from my pal Julie's grandmother
1/2 cup (about 10) pitted prunes
1/2 cup apple juice, divided, plus another 3 TBSP
1 large lemon, cut into 8 wedges
4 oz poppy seeds
8 oz shelled, unsalted walnuts
4 TBSP natural cane sugar (evaporated cane juice), divided
1 Granny Smith apple
8 oz frozen phyllo sheets, thawed
1/4 cup melted nondairy butter or olive oil
Add the prunes and 1/4 cup apple juice to a small pot. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, reduce heat to medium-low, and keep at a steady simmer for 10 minutes, or until the prunes are very soft and the juice has reduced to a thin syrup. Carefully transfer pot contents to a quart jar, add 3 TBSP apple juice and the juice of 2 of the lemon wedges. Puree with an immersion blender. Set aside.
Grind the poppy seeds thoroughly in a coffee grinder (it's easiest to do it in two batches). Grind well, making sure you get a little clumping action to be sure you're releasing the oils. Transfer to a mixing bowl, stir in 1/4 cup apple juice, transfer to a food processor with 1 TBSP sugar and process for a total of 5 minutes, scraping the bowl as needed (every minute or so). Transfer back to the mixing bowl and set aside.
Wipe out processor bowl and grind the walnuts and 2 TBSP sugar finely. Set aside.
Peel and grate the apple into a bowl. Stir in 1 TBSP sugar.
Grease a 6-inch cake pan and preheat the oven to 350. Wet and wring out a clean kitchen towel to place over the phyllo to keep it from drying while it's not in use (i.e. while you're adding the filling layers to the pan).
Open the phyllo and use a pizza cutter to cut it into 6x6-inch squares (the rectangular stack is long enough so that you can cut two stacks of 6x6 squares--you should have no problem just cutting through the whole stack with the pizza cutter.) Have your liquid fat in a small bowl along with a brush.
Place one square in the bottom of the cake pan, brush it well with oil, and, working quickly, add another square. Repeat until you have laid five squares in the bottom (don't oil the top square), and cover your unused phyllo with the damp towel. Add half the walnut mixture to the pan, pressing it in evenly with your hands, squeeze the juice of a lemon wedge over the top, and add 3 squares of phyllo, brushing oil in between each layer. Press in half of the poppy mixture, squeeze a lemon wedge over it, repeat 3 phyllo squares, spread on all of the grated apple, squeeze on the lemon juice, and again with the 3 phyllo squares.
Repeat with the remaining nut and poppy layers, end with the pureed prunes, and top with 4 sheets of phyllo. Brush the top sheet thoroughly with oil.
Bake until golden and fragrant, 55-60 minutes. Allow to cool completely before cutting to allow the structure to solidify.
Traditional variation: omit the prune puree and double the apple mixture to use in its place.
Thank you all so much for reading. For those of you who prefer MSV's usual brevity and anonymity, next week will be back to normal style, with a feature to give me more time in the kitchen this fall with less stress.