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A blast from the past - poppy seed cake

"However unpredictable the weather, however disastrous the outing, however much fun has not really been had on the family-day out, there's something wonderfully reassuring about the predictability of the cake you'll have in the café, along with a cup of tea. It's one of life's great certainties. " Yotam Ottolenghi

The blast from the past aspect of this post is somewhat sad really. Out of the blue I had an email from someone who was helping another Jenny in my life with whom I used to teach - with her memories whilst in care. She asked what I could remember of her and that time in the hope that it might stimulate Jenny's own memories of that period in her life. I fear it was not much that I could offer but I did remember her poppy seed cake which she used to make for us all when we were celebrating a birthday in the staff room. I have the recipe still although I have not made it for some time. And yes it does look as unprepossessing as the one above, but it was moist and tasty and very moreish. So I decided to look into it. Hoping that I have not done this before - my memory is sadly fading too.

It's yet another example, in fact, of how a particular dish can take us back to a period or an event in our life. In this case it was the two years or so during which I taught at a progressive private primary school here in Melbourne. I used to drive Jenny to school as I passed her home on my way from my outer suburb home to the inner leafy suburb school. I can't quite remember now whether she was of Polish origin or whether it was her husband. But I do remember there being some sort of Polish connection - hence the poppy seed cake. And because it is so closely associated with that time, it brought back a whole lot of other memories of that time - new to Australia, yet to embark on motherhood, in fact it was really the time of my becoming more Australian than English and perhaps of at last growing up. The future was an open door and life was an adventure - in spite of the feeling that I was not really a very good teacher - well not as good as the astoundingly excellent teachers with whom I worked. And Jenny was one of them. So it is sad to hear that today she is in care.

But poppy seed cake. First I will give you her recipe because so far I have been unable to find one quite like it. And it was so good.

The picture by the way is from a website called Passion and Cooking, where this version is called: Torta ai semi di papavero e mele. (poppy seed and apple cake)

The weights are of the old Imperial kind - apologies I'm feeling too lazy to convert.


6 eggs; 8oz caster sugar; 1/4 lb ground poppy seeds; 1 grated Granny Smith; 2 oz melted butter; 2 tablespoons milk; grated rind of 1 lemon; cinnamon; 2 tablespoons bread or biscuit crumbs.

Whip the egg whites.

Beat the sugar and yolks together.

Add apple, lemon rind and seeds.

Melt butter and add to the mixture with the milk, crumbs, cinnamon.

Fold in the egg whites.

Put in an 8" sprinform tin, buttered and floured.

Bake at 350ºF for 1 hour approximately.

Simple. Delicious. Do it.

Poppy seeds have been cultivated for a very long time.

"Poppy seed cultivation dates to 1,400 BC in Crete. Early Egyptians pressed the seed into a cooking oil, and ancient Romans mixed them with wine and honey for Olympic athletes and for home use." The Spruce Eats

But Eastern and Central Europe really loves them. As I said, I think Jenny's version is Polish, but you will find different versions of poppy seed cakes throughout those areas - particularly in Poland and Silesia it seems, although I have seen versions from Northern Italy - like the one in the above Jenny's recipe, and Croatia. Why here?

"For many Eastern Europeans, particularly Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Russians, Lithuanians, Slovaks, Czechs and Slovenians, poppy seeds are a symbol of wealth, the tiny seeds representing coins. They figure prominently at Christmastime and New Year's expressing hoped-for prosperity in the coming year." The Spruce Eats

And to expand on the Christmas thing another website called Culture PL had other reasons for this association:

"a must during Easter and Christmas. This custom may be linked to apocryphal Christian legends which claim poppies sprouted from where the blood of Jesus fell during his crucifixion. But poppies were symbolically linked to beliefs regarding the afterlife in pre-Christian times too – the Slavs considered them plants that enabled you to cross the boundary between life and death. They even used poppy seeds to make dishes meant for the dead who, as ancient faith had it, would come back every now and then to visit the living." Culture PL

The other thing about poppy seeds is that, of course, they contain morphine. Well the ones you eat are not supposed to, but sometimes they do, which is sometimes a problem in Poland where they make this particular version of a poppy seed cake - a sort of Swiss roll filled with poppy seeds. Sometimes there are many more poppy seeds than cake. Drivers who have been breath tested have occasionally shown so much morphine in their blood that they have been accused of drug taking.

But you do have to grind your poppy seeds - even Jenny said that. I probably did it in a spice grinder or a food processor. I can't quite remember now, although I don't think I possessed a food processor back then. The Spruce Eats says you need this wonderful looking grinder - but I don't think many of us are going to do that. I mean where would you get one? Online I suppose.

"Before you get started, make sure you have the right tools for working with poppy seeds. An old-fashioned, hand-cranked poppy seed grinder is the best to use to turn poppy seeds into the paste necessary for so many Eastern European recipes. Most electric seed grinders just don't do the trick of releasing the oils from the poppy seeds the way a manual mill does." The Spruce Eats

All a bit precious I think. And impossible.

So I searched for variants and here is what I found. The apple was a rare addition - mostly it would be lemon or orange, and sometimes they were iced, or with a crumble topping, or a drizzle of syrup. They are: German poppy seed cake /Mohnkuchen mit eierdecker - The Spruce Eats - which has a baked sour cream topping; Mohnkuchen - Flavours of Diaspora - with a crumble topping; Mohnkuchen - My Dinner; Lemon poppyseed cake - Michael James/delicious.; Vanilla poppy seed cake - Annie's Noms (the one on the far right); Lemon and poppy seed cake - Helen Goh (in the middle) and two from Nigel Slater - Orange and poppy seed cake and Orange and poppy seed cakes - most probably the same basic recipe in two different forms.

There are lots more. So if you have some poppy seeds lurking in your pantry give one of them a go.


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