Seeing Memories & Migration in Ukrainian Poppy Seed Cake - No. 94
In Mollie Katzen’s lemony poppy seed cake from The Moosewood Cookbook, the seeds are a reminder of baking with a grandmother and the homeland left behind
The people of Ukraine have inspired the world with their courage and resilience. To support aid efforts for them, I am donating March subscription monies to the World Central Kitchen, a humanitarian nonprofit, led by chef Jose Andres, feeding people in the Ukraine region right now. If you’ve been on the fence about becoming a paid subscriber to Between the Layers, March is a good time to join us. Today, I’m baking a long-forgotten lemon poppy seed cake and exploring how something as small as poppy seeds helps you remember a place.
WHEN MOLLIE KATZEN SHARED a Ukrainian Poppyseed Cake in The Moosewood Cookbook in 1974, it was to honor her grandmother’s love of baking with poppy seeds.
Born on a covered wagon en route to Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1893, Mollie’s grandmother and her family were guests of a philanthropist, Maurice (Baron) de Hirsch, who was setting up Jewish colonies to escape growing antisemitism in Eastern Europe. The family wouldn’t last long in rural Canada and circled back to Montreal to put down its roots.
Mollie’s grandmother called poppy seeds “mohn,” by their Yiddish name. When she and Mollie would bake together they would soak the seeds in milk before baking, Mollie said, most likely to soften them and infuse the milk with the seeds’ earthy, distinctive flavor.
Today, watching the throngs of Ukrainians leaving their country to survive in the midst of war, I thought back to this Ukrainian cake and put one in the oven.
Poppy seeds are small but powerful
Benne seeds carried by enslaved people from their West African homelands were planted as a border around cotton fields and considered good luck. Pungent anise seeds in St. Joseph’s Day cookies in New Orleans added crunch but also reminded one of Sicily and family back home. Colonial pound cake batters, too, were studded with caraway, anise, cumin, or coriander seeds and made their way from England to America where they were known as “seed cakes” and baked each spring to symbolize growth and renewal.
And poppy seeds, grown around the world, have had a special connection to Eastern European breads, cakes, savories, and sweets. Without them, Mollie Katzen‘s cake is just cake. With them, it’s cake that speaks of a place or a home.
As Europe is seeing the largest migration since World War II, it seems to me that the Ukrainians are the poppy seeds being tragically scattered in the wind. According to the United Nations, 1.7 million Ukrainians have fled their country to Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia, Romania, Russia, Belarus, and other places.
Anne Byrn: Between the Layers is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Poppy seed salad dressing, poppy seed chicken casserole, dressing up recipes with poppy seeds
While you will find poppy seeds in countless coffee cakes and salad dressings, and down South a potluck isn’t complete without a poppy seed chicken casserole enriched with the convenience of canned soup, poppy seeds can be more than that.
Yes, they crown the top of a bagel, but added intentionally, they add meaning to a recipe.
And Leah Koenig of the Substack newsletter The Jewish Table didn’t always love them.
“In fact, for most of my life I actively didn't like them,” she said. “I found them odd and old-fashioned, and would always choose chocolate or jam-based sweets over poppy seeds.
“Part of the problem is that I had mostly encountered them in pastries that relied on canned poppy seed fillings that contained more corn syrup, sugar, and modified corn starch than actual poppy seeds.”
Over the years Leah was exposed to better quality poppy seeds, and their “uniquely nutty-floral flavor” grew on her. Now she uses them to fill cookies and pastries, add depth and flavor to baked noodle kugels, and even to spice up the crust on chicken schnitzel.
Poppy seeds come from the seed head of vibrantly hued poppy flowers grown around the world, according to Burlap & Barrel spice company co-founder Ethan Frisch. His “blue” poppy seeds are harvested in the “Poppyseed Castle” (Afyonkarahisar) area of Turkey, so-called because of the ancient tradition of growing poppies there.
And they come from the same type of poppies from which opium is derived.
“To make opium, you'd need to extract the latex as a paste from the seed head while it's still fresh,” Ethan said. “While to produce culinary poppyseeds, you allow the seed head to mature and then dry on the stalk, and then break it open to extract the seeds.
“If the paste has been harvested to make opiates, you can't also harvest seeds since the sap is just the immature seeds before they've fully formed and dried out.”
As it turned out, the Ukrainian poppyseed cake in Mollie’s book didn’t belong to her grandmother. Mollie’s grandmother died before Moosewood was written and published. Instead, Mollie got the recipe from a Ukrainian friend.
It had been nearly 40 years since I had baked this cake. I had forgotten how the lemon plays so nicely with poppy seeds. But I hadn’t forgotten where I was standing when I last baked this recipe… in my narrow kitchen in a rambling old house that had been divided into four apartments in Atlanta’s Ansley Park neighborhood. I was in a ground apartment on the right side, and I could hear my neighbors above walking their creaky floors day and night.
It was a world away from where we are now and the heart-wrenching images on the television. And it is all the more reason I turn to baking as a source of comfort and a way to revisit the past.
Mollie Katzen’s Ukrainian Poppy Seed Cake
Mollie’s recipe makes a lovely cake, perfect for tea or a light dessert. And like any rich cake, if you wrap it and let it rest for a day, it improves in texture and flavor. My recipe is a little different than the original Moosewood recipe. I use 1/2 cup poppy seeds because that’s how many I had—and it was plenty. I ran out of brown sugar, so I used a mixture of white and brown. And I reduced the baking powder to 2 teaspoons and increased the lemon zest to a rounded teaspoon. It could even hold more. Plus, in haste, I didn’t let the milk and poppy seeds soak overnight as Mollie had instructed, and the recipe worked just fine. I baked the cake in my two loaf pans that are about 7 1/2 inches in length, as Mollie advised medium pans. But I think you could use two 8–inch square pans or even a 13 -by 9-inch pan and cut the cake into squares.
Makes 2 loaves, about 12 to 16 servings
1 cup whole milk
1/2 to 3/4 cup poppy seeds
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/3 cups sugar (light brown or white or a mixture of both)
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups unbleached flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 full teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon salt
An hour before you plan to bake the cake, place the milk in a small saucepan and stir in the poppy seeds. Bring to nearly a boil over medium heat, and then remove the pan from the heat. Let the milk and poppy seeds come to room temperature.
When ready to bake, place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 7 1/2-inch loaf pans with butter and dust with flour. Set aside.
Place the butter in a large mixing bowl, and beat on medium speed until creamy. Add the sugar and beat until creamy in texture, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Fold in the vanilla.
Meanwhile, place the flour, baking powder, lemon zest, and salt, in a small bowl, and sift to combine. Add 1/2 cup of the dry ingredients to the butter-sugar mixture, and blend on low until just combined. Add about 1/4 cup of the milk and poppy seed mixture. Blend until combined. Continue adding the dry and wet ingredients on low speed until combined, ending with the dry ingredients. Divide the batter between the two pans, smooth the top with a spatula, and place in the oven. Bake until the cake tests done and is lightly browned, about 45 to 50 minutes. Remove the loaves from the oven, let cool on a rack 15 minutes, then run a knife around the edges and turn out to cool right-side up for 30 minutes before slicing.
For further reading on poppy seeds and the Ukrainian migration:
Burlap & Barrel was founded in 2016 to connect the world’s specialty spice farmers with a market to appreciate them. Co-founder Ethan Frisch was a restaurant line cook and ice cream chef before he left the industry to go to grad school and become an aid worker. While living in Afghanistan he came across wild cumin growing in the northeastern mountains of Badakhshan. Today the company has about 100 spices sourced from farmers and sold to home cooks and professional chefs. I asked Ethan if you eat poppy seed cake and take a drug test, would you fail? It’s possible, he said, but “you'd need to eat a whole lot of poppyseed cake!”
If you are interested in the poppy plant, read what Michael Pollan has written here.
Check out The Jewish Table, a lemon poppy seed kugel, and other great recipes, by Leah Koenig, on Substack.
Read Letters from an American, by Heather Cox Richardson, on Substack, to learn more about the Ukrainian migration into other countries.
This Thursday for Subscribers
Inspired by the sunflower yellow of Ukraine, I share the story of the daffodils that surround my house, plus a pale yellow lemon sauce found in my grandmother’s recipe box, perfect for spring. And, I have a special offer for paid subscribers from the spice company, Burlap & Barrel.
Have a good week!