Poppy Seeds

Appears in

Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafes of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague


By Rick Rodgers

Published 2002

One of the most distinctive flavors of the central European kitchen, poppy seeds have a mildly nutty flavor. When central European cooks talk about a poppy seed cake, they donโ€™t just mean one with a couple of tablespoons: Their cakes are black from the amount of seeds used. And there are almost a million poppy seeds to a pound!

The tiny, gray-black, ripe seeds of Papaver somniferum are used in baking. Unripe poppy seeds have narcotic qualities, and opium is extracted from the unripe seed capsules. Not surprisingly, the cultivation of these poppies is prohibited in the United States, so any poppy seeds you buy here will be imported. Poppy seeds have a high oil content that makes them susceptible to rancidity, and when you add this factor to the shipping time, freshness can be a problem.

Buy poppy seeds in bulk from a purveyor with a steady turnover, such as a central European delicatessen or Middle East or Indian grocer (poppy seeds are used in the cuisines of the East, too). Poppy seeds in tiny jars from the supermarket are likely to be prohibitively expensive and rancid. Store poppy seeds in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freeze them for up to 6 months. Always give poppy seeds a good sniff before using to check for any hint of rancidity. Ottoโ€™s European Import Store is a great place to buy reasonably priced poppy seeds by mail order (see Sources).

Poppy seeds are usually ground before use to crack their tough hulls, which releases their flavor and moisture. In Europe, bakers use a special crank-operated poppy seed grinder. However, buy from a trustworthy source. The ones that are imported to this country are unreliable, and are often missing an irreplaceable washer or bolt, rendering them useless. Never mind; an electric coffee grinder or blender does a fine job. Grind the seeds in W-cup batches until they look smaller than whole seeds and begin to clump together. A blender takes longer than a grinder, about 1 minute, and be sure to stop the blender occasionally to loosen the ground seeds that collect around the blade.

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