Sweet Nostalgia, Serbian-American Style

by Rebecca Cohen
Antoinette Bruno
February 2015

When it comes to dessert, everyone’s got their guilty pleasures. Chances are they’re tied to regional culinary traditions experienced in childhood: banana pudding with Nilla wafers for East Coasters. Dakotans crave apple kuchen. Pennsylvanians embrace gooey shoofly pie. In Georgia, they favor Coca Cola cake, and south Floridians love Key lime pie. It’s not just Americans who are prone to these fixations. At Gramercy Tavern, Pastry Chef Miro Uskokovic indulges his Serbian roots with a lemon-poppy dessert that employs his favorite cake recipe from his mother. (No, lemon-poppy is not an American original.)

Uskokovic’s culinary foundation formed as a child living in former Yugoslavia, a country with surprisingly fertile pastry traditions. “Where I grew up, the north of Serbia, used to belong to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while the south used to be part of the Turkish Empire. The country is a clash of Central Europe and the Middle East, and it’s most evident in our food.” It was through this meeting of cultures that Europeans were introduced to poppy seeds, which had long been prized in Turkey, the Middle East, and Asia for both culinary and “recreational” uses. For the Europeans, who incorporated the new ingredient into rich yeast doughs and delicate cakes, it was the start of an abiding love affair with poppy seed breads and pastries, from strudels and noodles to cookies, kolaches, buns, and bagels (Nope, not American either!).

Torta sa makom means cake with poppy seeds. “My mother would make this when I was growing up,” says Uskokovic. “It was always served with a simple lemon glaze. We ate poppy seeds in sweets, not savory preparations.” Sounds familiar enough, but here’s where similarities to American lemon-poppy loaves end. “The recipe uses a huge amount of poppy seeds. The cake is almost black.” Following tradition, Uskokovic toasts or fries poppy seeds to release oils and flavor, then grinds them to a rich paste. The gluten-free cake relies on the creaming method to bring together butter, sugar, lemon zest, and yolks with poppy paste and almond flour for a luscious batter, which is lightened with a French meringue. A slow bake in a low oven sets the moist, crumbly texture.

But Uskokovic didn’t just want to recreate his childhood, he wanted to make it relevant to diners at Gramercy. “We wanted to play off the American love affair of poppy seeds and lemons, but make it different.” Meyer lemons from Cee Bee’s Farm in Florida contribute a floral sunniness, though as the season progresses they’re replaced by baboon lemons, which boast a flavor between lemon and grapefruit. Before pairing the cake with bright citrus curd and sherbet, Uskokovic prepares it just like his mother—save one detail: The chilled cake is cubed and tossed in powdered sugar, then fried in butter. Clearly America is rubbing off on this European. “I think my mother would have a heart attack!”

The dessert—a composed sundae of black poppy cubes, lemon curd and sherbet, candied pistachios, micro thyme, and whipped cream—comes in a tall glass and looks like nothing from either Eastern European or American pastry traditions. But one bite is equally capable of sending a Serb or an American down memory lane.