My mother was convinced that cooking genes skipped generations. After all, her mother was an excellent baker, she herself didn’t cook at all and I cooked all the time. I wish I had known my grandmother as a baker, but I did not show interest in the trade early enough to learn from her. I have only one memory of her in the kitchen: she is leaning over a small table covered with enamel, she is covered with a fine cloth and she is spreading dough. What I remember most is watching her roll the dough around the pin, lift it high, cover the tea towel with flour, then put the dough back on the table. When she twirled the pin and unrolled the dough it rippled like silk and felt like a magic trick to me – it always does, even when I do it myself.
Looking back, I guess my grandmother must have made a lot of baking, because she came to our house in Brooklyn every weekend with brown paper bags and matching cardboard boxes filled with homemade candy. Infallibly, there would be a loaf of honey cake topped with a row of whole blanched almonds – or at least that was when it arrived. My mom, who didn’t particularly like honey cake but loved almonds, would remove the nuts from the cake as soon as she opened the package. There was an apple cake, which I spent years trying to recreate and tinker with again, knowing I would never get the cake I remember but happy to spend hours trying. And there were cut-out cookies, some topped with cinnamon sugar – my grandmother gave them to my brother – and some topped with poppy seeds, which she made just for me.
It was a sign that she loved me that she was cooking something especially for me, but it was a misunderstanding: I didn’t like poppy seeds. I always wanted my brother’s cookies, but he never shared them, and I was too kind a kid to clear up my grandma. Instead, I tried to scrape off the seeds with my fingers, only to bump into Grandma’s egg frosting – it cemented those seeds in place.
Other than the sugar cookies, it was pretty easy to avoid poppy seeds, and I did that for years, until I was an adult and aspiring home baker living in the Upper West. Side of Manhattan. A friend made me a sour cream cake that wasn’t just sprinkled with poppy seeds – it was almost black with them. She made the cake with a store-bought poppy seed filling and followed the recipe from the bottom of the box, and I did it for years.
That all changed the day I took the bus to Yorkville and discovered Mrs Herbst’s Hungarian pastry shop, where you could buy both salty and sweet strudels, including one filled with poppy seeds, and the shops nearby. Paprikas Weiss and H. Roth & Sons (also known as Lekvar by the Barrel), where the poppy seeds were sold by the shovel, and you could pulp them on the spot. The fresh poppy seeds were a revelation. They were tiny, oval in shape, fat, and a beautiful blue-black color. Their aroma was weak but earthy, their flavor nutty and I loved how they crunch under a light bite. I made my first poppy seed bread cake with Paprikas Weiss seeds and the advice of the people who worked there.
Its texture is always a delicious cross between the tight grain of a poundcake and the bounce of a sponge cake.
I made this recipe with a little less frequency than my grandma baked cookies, then I quit. There wasn’t a specific reason, other than maybe culinary curiosity – I had new recipes I wanted to learn, new cuisines to explore, new ingredients to try. But a few weeks ago I dug up a kugelhopf pan that came from Roth. With the discovery came memories, and before the evening was over, I was baking a poppy seed cake.
My new cake uses fresh poppy seeds, but not from Yorkville – all of those stores are gone. I bought them in a bag at the supermarket. And instead of sour cream, which was in the original recipe, now I use heavy cream. I love the texture I get from it, and I also love that the flavor is more neutral, giving the poppy seeds a chance to shine brighter. There’s lemon juice – a classic in poppy seed cake, but tangerine is another option – and vanilla, a bit more than I used to use. Over the years, I have found myself consuming more and more vanilla in many recipes; it adds its own luxurious flavor and brings all the others together as well.
The dough is mixed by hand, and it’s a pleasure to make. As each ingredient is mixed together it takes on a different look, until with the addition of the melted butter its surface has a velvety sheen. When the seeds are folded through the dough, they sink below the surface, emerge and eventually stain the dough. It’s not as magical as my grandma’s unrolling dough, but it’s fun to watch.
Sometimes the cake forms a crunchy crown, and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s still beautiful. The simple ingredients conspire to make it so. It’s always easy to cut – I like thick slices – and its texture is always a delicious cross between the fine grain of a pound cake and the bounce of a sponge cake. It’s good with coffee or tea, whether iced or not (although the icing looks nice).
My little girl would be surprised how much I love poppy seeds now. I wonder what she would think if she knew that I always have them in the freezer, that I use them to make muffins and breads as well as this cake and that, like my grandma, I sprinkle the seeds on my cookies. with sugar, sticking with an egg frosting and keeping them safe with your fingertips.
Recipe: Poppy seed tea cake
Dorie Greenspan is Eat columnist for the magazine. She has won five James Beard Awards for her cookbooks and her writing. His new cookbook is “Pastry with Dorie.”