Ah, the humble poppy seed. For many, the mention of them in relation to baking may bring to mind merely a flat-line of emotion; the innocuous bagel garnish or scant afterthought in the ubiquitous lemon-poppy seed muffin (and frankly, if I never set eyes one of those again, I will be none the less for it). But poppy seeds have a whole world of flavor to divulge when used as the main ingredient.
From Czech, Jewish, Indian, and Turkish, and as far back as the Sumerians and Egyptians, we can credit a number of cuisines for elevating this inky little seed to noble status. My poppy seed radar, however, always makes a bee-line toward central Europe. Delve into traditional Austro-Hungarian pastries and you will find poppy seeds cast in the starring role as dark, moist fillings for strudel and mohnstriezel, rich paste swirled through kugelhopf – or as in this cake – unabashedly standing in place of flour as the main ingredient. In the following recipe for mohntorte, they are ground finely, combined with butter, sugar, lemon zest, and spices, to reveal an earthy, intoxicating personality.
I rediscovered this classic recipe while leafing through The Art of Viennese Pastry (1969) by the lovely Marcia Colman Morton. I have taken a few small liberties; adding two teaspoons of espresso powder and omitting the fondant icing as I find it a bit overly sweet. I topped the cake instead with apricot preserves and a sprinkling of confectioner’s sugar. Please trust me when I tell you (against the irresistible desire to eat a slice still warm from the oven) that this cake is immeasurably better once it has rested overnight and the flavors given time to marry. The tang of the lemon zest plays off the rich chocolate, smoky notes of the poppy seeds…cinnamon, nutmeg and espresso adding warmth and depth…all combining to create complex layers of flavor. The wait will be torture, I know, but worth it. I promise.
This cake is utter heaven with a cup of espresso. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Come, dear reader, into the sultry world of the unassuming poppy seed…
Poppy Seed Torte – Mohntorte
- 1/4 c (2 ounces) butter
- 3/4 c (6 ounces) granulated sugar
- 5 eggs, separated
- 1-3/4 c poppy seeds (6 ounces), finely ground
- grated zest of 1/2 lemon
- 2 tsp. Instant espresso powder
- 1 tsp. Cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
- roughly 2 T apricot jam/preserves, strained to remove large pieces
- sifted confectioner’s sugar to cover cake top
Preheat oven to 375 F. Butter and flour an 8” springform pan (or a cake pan at least 3” deep, bottom lined with parchment). Grind poppy seeds in a good metal-blade grinder, I find a coffee grinder works well. Break up any lumps and whisk together with lemon zest, espresso powder and spices. Set aside. Have egg whites in a separate squeaky-clean bowl, whisk, and granulated sugar (3 ounces) in a small bowl, at the ready.
Cream butter and half the sugar (3 ounces) until very fluffy and light in color. Beat in egg yolks one at a time, keeping mixture fluffy. Beat in poppy seeds, lemon zest, espresso powder and spices. Whip egg whites until foamy, drizzle in remaining sugar, whipping until stiff peaks form. Fold in 1/3 of beaten whites to the poppy seed mixture to lighten it. Gently but thoroughly fold in the remainder. Pour batter into buttered and floured pan.
Bake for 1 hour or until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Once cake is cool enough to handle (about 20 – 30 minutes) run a knife around the sides to release the cake and remove springform frame (if using a regular cake pan, loosen and turn over onto a parchment lined plate or cardboard, then flip back on a serving plate to rest).
Once cake is at room temperature, let it rest overnight, covered.
The next day with the cake at room temperature, spread a thin layer of apricot preserve over the top and sprinkle generously with confectioner’s sugar. Pour some coffee and enjoy!
Store covered in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature to serve, sprinkling with additional confectioner’s sugar if needed.
Because of the oil content in poppy seeds, they can go rancid easily. To prevent them from losing their fresh flavor, store them in the freezer in an airtight container (doubled freezer bags work also)
To buy fresh, quality poppy seeds in bulk, try these suppliers:
Kalustyan’s in New York City http://www.kalustyans.com/searchcatalog.asp
Otto’s Hungarian Import Store & Deli in Burbank, CA http://www.hungariandeli.com/Mak.htm
© Veronica Wirth and The Buttery Fig, 2011.