Buttery, dense with poppy seeds softened in milk, in the comforting Bundt shape - what's more homely than a traditional poppy seed cake?
Poppy is a weird and wonderful plant, attracting all kinds of right and wrong attention. From ordinary wild red flowers growing in the fields of wheat, through the symbol of remembrance, all the way to narcotic substances: opium, morphine and heroin.
The association of poppy with Remembrance Day is somewhat sinister. The only plants that would grow in the raked soil of battlefields were poppies, with their symbolic blood-scarlet petals. So it’s not surprising they became interpreted as memorial for the lives lost in the wars.
After the sombre note, more light-hearted poppy connotations. There are some curious myths associated with the poppy seeds, some urban and some really ancient. Are they all loads of tosh?
Can I get high on poppy seed cake?
NO – you can’t get high on poppy seed cakes. Blue poppy seeds used in baking do not contain the narcotic alkaloids.
It’s the green, unripe pods and poppy straw which are a source of opiates, not the ripe heads that contain seeds.
Do poppy seeds have pain relieving qualities?
YES – poppy seeds do have some pain alleviating and sleep aiding qualities, to quite a significant extent. There are many supplements and herbal remedies with extracts from poppy seeds which claim to help insomnia or anxiety.
But then it may well be ascribed to a placebo effect, considering their traditional connotations.
Can I fail a drug test after eating poppy seeds?
DEBATABLE – whether eating poppy seed bagels or muffins can make you fail a drug test. It depends on the test and the amount you’d eaten.
Interesting to note though that federal prisons in US don’t allow inmates to eat any poppy seed products!
Will poppy seeds make me invisible?
Sadly, it certainly won’t make you invisible. This is the most interesting of the poppy seed myths, a witch recipe claiming that wine that poppy seeds have been soaking in will make you invisible. I suppose having drunk enough of that wine, strange things might happen…
Urban and peasant legends aside, those tiny black seeds deserve a legendary status in baking and pastry making, instead of just being warily sprinkled on a bread loaf or scantily scattered across a lemon drizzle slice.
Eastern Europe and the Middle East are much more intrepid in using poppy seeds and rightly so, as they make exceedingly good pastry filling (see Hamantaschen, Mohnstolen, Strudel).
They also make quite an incredible tasting cake, the old-fashioned one with the recipe below.
How to make the traditional poppy seed cake?
If you use just a sprinkling, you can add them dry to the cake batter; they will soften as the batter bakes. But if they are to be the integral part of the cake, replacing some or most of the flour, they need softening before baking.
In some recipes they get ground before or after cooking; this one is pretty straight-forward as we soak the poppy seeds in hot milk – that’s enough to soften them as the ratio of the seeds to flour is not enormous.
It’s the old-fashioned way of making a cake though as well, with separated eggs, the butter and sugar start-up and the egg whites beaten stiff separately and lightly folded into the yolk batter.
It’s baked it in the Bundt round tin and that works well as it eliminates the squidgy, gummy centre issues as the centre is non-existent in a Bundt tin (see raisin cake for the same solution).
What can I say? One of the best ever (and I’ve baked a few…). Moist and buttery, even the vanilla flavour comes through which is unusual. The recipe is from NY Times Cooking collection and it’s very, very close to the traditional German or Polish poppy seed cake recipes.
More poppy seed recipes
Lemon and poppy seed cake: that’s an easy, non-threatening poppy seed cake (joking). A sprinkle of poppy seeds into the lovely lemon loaf cake makes a fantastic crunchy texture.
Blueberry poppy cake is like an open pie made from a buttery sponge cake – curious, and wonderful, with a fresh blueberry filling in the middle.
We could not forget the poppy-seed filled Christmas classic, Mohnstollen. That is a little more intricate, involving yeast dough, but it’s a must for poppy seed lovers.
And similarly, hamantaschen are traditionally filled with syrupy, raisin-enriched poppy seed filling. Those Jewish biscuits served at Purim are simply gorgeous.