Dissolve yeast in 1/4 cup milk and set aside until frothy. Combine flour, sugar, salt and lemon zest in the bowl of a food processor and pulse a couple of times to combine. Add cubed butter and pulse until the mixture resembles bread crumbs (similar texture to a pastry dough). Add in yeast mixture and then egg yolks and pulse again until just combined. Add remaining milk a few tablespoons at a time until dough just starts to come together. You could also do this process by hand: combine the dry ingredients as above in a large bowl and blend in the butter cubes by rubbing it in with your fingers until it resembles bread crumbs. Make a well in the center and add in the yeast mixture and then the eggs. Mix with a fork and add in more milk as needed until dough just starts to come together. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead for 3-4 minutes until smooth and elastic but not sticky. Divide in half, wrap each in plastic wrap and chill for 30 minutes.
Make the filling:
Warm milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add sugar and raisins (if using) and bring to a boil while stirring constantly. Remove from heat once sugar is completely dissolved. Pour over ground walnuts in a medium bowl. Add vanilla and lemon zest and stir to combine. Let cool to room temperature.
Working with half of the dough at a time (leave the other half in the fridge) , roll out the dough on an unfloured surface into a rectangle about 12"x18" (but it does not need to be exact) and 1/8" thick with one of the long edges toward you. You should not need to flour the work surface for this enriched dough but use a little flour if necessary to keep it from sticking. Spread half of the filling over the dough, leaving a 1-inch border on all sides. Fold the shorter side edges over the filling. Fold the long edge facing you over the filling then carefully roll up the rest of the dough just until the far edge of the filling. Brush beaten egg white over the exposed edge then roll up the rest of the log, sealing the edge. Repeat with the second half of the dough.
Place both rolls on a parchment paper lined baking sheet. Brush all over with yolk then chill for 10 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350F. Brush the rolls with beaten egg white and chill for another 10 minutes. Take a skewer and poke 4-5 vent holes in each roll. Bake at 350 for 30-40 minutes or until golden brown. Cool completely before slicing.
Beigli will keep for 1-2 weeks wrapped tightly in plastic wrap at room temperature. It can also be baked and then frozen for 2-3 months. Just thaw to room temperature before serving.
The first time I can remember having this traditional Hungarian pastry was when my husband’s cousin, Judith, sent us a loaf for our first Christmas as a married couple. I knew right away that I must have had something like this before because it is one of those classic combinations of syrupy walnuts and sweet dough that is ubiquitous in traditional desserts. In fact, it is very similar to the filling used in baklava. I have posted a recipe for beigli previously but have not been completely satisfied with it as I was getting ruptured fillings and cracks in the dough. I am much happier with this recipe and, as you can see, have managed to reproduce the beautiful mosaic pattern that comes from layering an egg yolk then an egg white wash.
I’m still working on perfecting the poppy seed filling so stay tuned…