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Lucky dip - poppy seed cake

"They say that wheat and poppy seeds are what the first Polish cakes were made from. Though each region and family has its own recipes for celebrations, poppy seeds are ubiquitous, and are always eaten sweet." Zuza Zak - The Guardian

On my cookbook shelf I have an old red leathery bound notebook which I bought soon after leaving university I think. I used it for writing down recipes from here and there. It was a time before glossy cookbooks or display folders into which you can slip recipes torn out of newspapers and magazines. This was the book I pulled out in my lucky dip exercise. And Jenny Truskin's poppy seed cake is the recipe I found - well the first one. There is another recipe on the opposite page that I shall do tomorrow.

Jenny Truskin was one of my fellow teachers at Preshil here in Australia. We used to share the drive to school every day and we became friends outside of school as well. Alas over the years I have lost contact. But I still have her cake. She was a wonderful teacher with a very dry sense of humour, and for birthdays celebrated in the staff room she often brought her poppy seed cake. We all treasured it.

It is a Polish recipe I think. I do not remember properly but I do not think that Jenny herself was of Polish origins but her husband George most definitely was. I have now browsed the net and found that, of course, there are many and various recipes for this cake whose Polish name is, I think, Piegusek. Jenny's recipe was very simple and had absolutely no flour so good for the gluten free brigade. It had a few breadcrumbs in it, but these could be gluten free. It's not vegan though. I gather that it - or it's cousin Makowiec (shown below) are traditionally eaten at Christmas and Easter, although people actually eat the two of them all the time.

"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."

As you can see the Makowiec is more of a strudel kind of roll, and I have to say that there are more references to this than to the cake that I know.

Poppy seeds as you know are the source of opium/morphine/heroin, and apparently you can get a false drug reading from eating these cakes and pastries because of the large number of poppy seeds. Even if you use the poppy seeds that are said not to contain a lot of opiate. And there are indeed a lot of poppy seeds in Jenny's cake - 225g to be precise. So here is the recipe. I couldn't find an exact copy on the net.


6 eggs

225g caster sugar

225g ground poppy seeds

1 grated Granny Smith apple

50g melted butter

2 tablespoons of milk

grated rind of 1 lemon


2 tablespoons bread/biscuit crumbs

Whip the egg whites until firm. Beat sugar and yolks. Add apple, lemon rind and seeds. Melt butter and add to mixture with milk, crumbs, cinnamon. Fold in the egg whites.

Put in a 20cm springform tin which has been buttered and floured.

Bake at 180ºC for approximately 1 hour.

So simple. Anyone could make this, and trust me, although it may not look all that exciting it is delicious.

When I looked on the net for other examples I saw that many, indeed most of them, had flour in them, and some had almond meal. Citrus of various kinds came and went as well as nuts of various kinds, fruits too. And not all of them had egg whites or, alternatively, egg yolks. So if you want to try a different version just search for Polish poppy seed cake. If you put in the actual Polish words you will most likely just get recipes in Polish.

But just to show you an extreme here is Donna Hay's version which she calls Orange and poppy seed syrup cake. And of course it looks beautiful.

In fact there were several versions which had a syrup poured over them, as I guess it could be a bit dry. Jenny's version gets over the dryness by including that grated apple and the beaten egg whites. The apples give it a sharp tang as well.

As to the syrup, well it turns out that along with the Eastern and Central Europeans who all seem to have a version, the Turks do too. Theirs is called Revani and looks very similar but is made with semolina flour and often has a syrup poured over the finished cake. This recipe for Turkish poppy seed cake is an example. I think it's the one on the right. It looks darker than the Polish one.

And it also seems to be a Jewish thing. But not an Afghan one - isn't that where most of the poppies are grown? Well actually I did see somewhere that the best poppy seeds for these cakes are grown in the Netherlands. I am assuming that they are different poppy seeds to the opium ones. These are the poppy seeds that we sprinkle on bread and rolls, not the white Indian ones.

Try it. It's different. Doesn't look that tempting, but is really great. Serve it with some cream or ice it. I used to make it fairly often. I should have another go next time we are allowed to socialise again.

#easternandcentraleuropeanfood #nutsandseeds


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