Poppy Seed Roll – A Tribute to Grandma Zella






My grandmother, Gizella Bodnar Kozusko, passed away this week. She was 89 years old. I honor her today with poppy seed rolls, one of my favorite treats she used to bake.

Zella was born on New Year’s Day in 1923 in Budapest. At the urging of his enterprising brother, my great-grandfather Michael Bodnar brought his family to Duquesne, the mill town in Pittsburgh’s Monongahela Valley that was home to the world’s largest blast furnace. They used to dust the house twice a day, Zella told me, to clean away the soot. After high school Zella worked as a secretary at the steel mill; she met my grandpap, Andy Kozusko, at a dance at Kennywood Park. Andy, a handsome sailor in the US Navy, was so enamored with Zella that he paid his friends so they wouldn’t ask her to dance. Andy and Zella married in 1945 and borrowed ration coupons from neighbors to cater their reception. Her wedding dress and his Naval uniform are carefully wrapped in tissue paper in the cedar chest in my bedroom.

In my grandparents’ tidy home, I learned to make chicken soup with homemade noodles. I sat at the kitchen table with my grandpap, eating freshly-picked blackberries sprinkled with sugar. In the cellar on warm summer nights, I helped my grandma make fried zucchini. I listened to the strange language of the radio announcer during the Slovak music program on Sunday afternoons, twirling around in my grandpap’s arms to the polka. I set the table with my grandma’s good dishes, turned up my nose at pickled pigs’ feet, and ate cold ham on Easter and Christmas.

In my grandparents’ house, I learned to say “I love you” in Hungarian and Slovak.

Szeretlek, Grandma. I will miss you.

Poppy Seed Roll


  • 6-7 cups flour
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 packs active dry yeast (1/4 ounce each)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 8 ounces sour cream
  • 1 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 1/2 jars poppy seed filling (about 15 ounces)
  • 1 beaten egg and 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash


Lightly grease a large bowl and set aside.

In a mixing bowl fitted with the paddle attachment, combine two cups flour with the sugar, yeast, and salt.

In a medium saucepan, combine sour cream, butter, and water. Heat to 120-130 degrees, then combine with flour mixture and beat for two minutes.

Add 1/2 cup flour and eggs and beat for two minutes.

Using a wooden spoon, stir in enough additional flour to make a soft dough, about two and a half to three cups.

Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 9-10 minutes, until smooth and elastic.

Place in the greased bowl; turn once to coat, and let rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Punch dough down and divide into four portions; roll portions into balls, then roll out into 10×10 rectangles.

Using a tablespoon from your flatware, scoop about two to two and a half heaping spoonfuls of filling onto the center of the dough.

Using a small offset spatula or butter knife, spread a thin layer of filling to within one inch of the edges.

Roll up into a log, carefully pinching the seams and edges closed.

Place into greased loaf pans and/or baking pans; I use two standard loaf pans and one 9×13 baking pan in which I bake two rolls.

Cover and let rise until doubled in size, about one hour; I preheat my oven during this time to help speed the process.

Brush each roll with egg wash, then prick with a fork to let steam escape during baking.

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until lightly browned.

Cool before cutting and serving.