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.

A moist slice of Mohntorte.

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

Otto’s Hungarian Import Store & Deli in Burbank, CA

© Veronica Wirth and The Buttery Fig


TARTE ALSACIENNE – Alsatian Apple & Custard Tart

You can be certain the first phase of spring has arrived in New England when the day starts out sunny and pleasant and by the time you’re ready for that afternoon cuppa joe…it’s snowing. Yes, you heard right. I know…you’re jealous. I’ll definitely be needing something sweet to go with that coffee. You’re nodding your head, yes? Glad you agree.

I happen to have some heavy cream I need to use up and a few last lovely Vermont Cortland apples begging to be eaten before they’ve lost their tart crispness…now this is my kind of problem. The perfect answer to my quandary is an old and dear friend, a tarte Alsacienne.  Buttery, flaky crust cradling carmelised and flambéed apples, and just the right amount of creamy custard. To my mind, a perfect combination.

Let’s get started, shall we?

First for the crust:

Pate Briseé – makes enough for two 8 or 9 inch tarts

  • 250 grams/2 cups cake flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 135 grams/10 tbsps cold butter, cubed
  • 65 milliliters/1/4 cup ice water

After measuring, sift your dry ingredients together. Cut in the cold butter until you’ve got lentil-sized bits, then add the ice water and blend in. Don’t overwork the dough. Divide in two, wrap and place one in the freezer for a future something yummy (always prepared!) and the other in the fridge to rest for a half hour. Tip: you can make this ahead, chilling for several days well wrapped or thaw frozen Pate Briseé overnight in the fridge.

Roll out the rested dough, 1/8” thick, into a circle 2 inches larger in diameter than your tart pan.

Transfer the dough to your (un-greased) tart pan and gently work into the corners and sides, taking care not to stretch the dough as you work and thoroughly mending any little cracks or holes. Chill until firm, about 10 -15 minutes (or overnight if you want to do ahead).

Line the chilled shell with parchment paper, fill with pie weights or dry beans and blind bake until lightly browned. Once no raw spots remain, take out of the oven and remove the parchment and the pie weights or beans, setting the shell aside to cool.

While your shell is blind baking, get started on the apples:

  • 3  tart, firm apples (granny smith or golden delicious work well)
  • 25 grams/2 tbsps granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon armagnac (calvados, cognac or brandy are fine substitutes) pre-measured into a small ramekin or cup

Tip: you can substitute a good apple cider for the liquor if you want to do an alcohol-free tart.

Peel, core, and halve the apples and cut each half into five wedges.

Place a large sauté pan over medium heat. Once it’s hot, add the apple wedges moving them around here and there until they begin to brown.

Sprinkle the sugar over the apples, moving things around and adjusting the heat so everything is browning evenly. Allow the sugar to caramelize, but not too dark. You will gain colour quickly in the next step.

Are you ready to flambé? Done it before? No problem? If so, then jump right in and flambé the apples with the armagnac and cook for a minute or two to burn off the alcohol and to reduce the liquid. You’re looking for some nice colour and carmelisation, some dark brown tips and edges, but not burnt. Remove the apples from the pan and set aside to cool.

If you haven’t flambé-d before, please read my tips following before completing the step above. Be safe…I don’t want to hear any horrid stories involving fire and whatnot. Okay???

Tips for Safe Flambé-ing: 1) Let others in the vicinity know that you are about to have flames in the kitchen. “Fire in the hole!” usually works well. I’ve taken to saying it even if no one’s in the kitchen but me. It makes me feel rather invincible and cool. 2) Have a metal lid handy just in case you need to snuff any flames that get out of hand quickly. 3) Always move the pan off the flame to pour in the alcohol, returning to light it (or ignite with a stick lighter). Be ready to pull it back off if you have a low stove hood and high flames. 4) No matter how efficient it seems at the time, do not pour your booze directly from the bottle into the hot pan and resist the urge to start slogging the liquor in the pan. For one, you don’t want to set the whole bloody kitchen on fire now do you? I’m serious – this is FIRE we’re talking about here. Also, and probably the worse sin, you don’t want the liquor to overpower the other flavours of the tart. Restraint is a virtue. I don’t care what you learned in your college years.

Awaiting flambé

Now, get yourself a nice cup of java to celebrate your bravery in the face of raw danger and open flames.

While things are cooling, it’s a good time to mix up the custard:

Tip: custard can be made up to 1 day ahead and held covered in the fridge.

  • 1 egg
  • 25 grams/2 tbsps granulated sugar
  • 50 milliliters/1/2 cup milk
  • 50 milliliters/1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract (use the good stuff)

Whisk together the egg, sugar, milk, cream, and vanilla extract. Strain through a fine strainer.

Arrange the cooled apples in the bottom of the cooled tart shell. Put your pan in the oven first, then pour the custard over the apples. Bake the tart at 250°F for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the custard is set.

Serve slightly warm or at room temperature. Will keep for 1 day wrapped in the fridge.

It’s great for breakfast too!

© Veronica Wirth and The Buttery Fig, 2011.

OYSTERS IN PARIS – Brasserie Wepler

OYSTERS IN PARIS – Brasserie Wepler

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LEMON CURD TART – lip-puckering zingy buttery lemony goodness!

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DELICIOUS STILL LIFE – The Work of Paulette Tavormina

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PORK PORK DUCK – My Quest for Authentic Mexican Carnitas

Juicy porky goodness

I’m not really sure what sets off a craving. For whatever reason an idea infiltrates your senses like aromas in those old cartoons. For me it settles in and sets up camp until it has been satisfied and could end up sticking around for any amount of time, from a few hours to months. Basically, however long it takes. I once craved a mint chip ice cream cone for 5 months one winter until it was finally warm enough in spring to properly enjoy the icy snack. Cravings have no sense of time in my gastronomic psyche, nor pity. I’m in a village in Indonesia and suddenly I simply must have a chocolate cream doughnut, or I find myself desperate for authentic Thai noodles while somewhere in Europe where there is nothing but sausage and sauerkraut to be found, a plump ripe tomato in the middle of winter, or pining for a good ol’ American burger in the south of Mexico surrounded by fish tacos and margaritas. Not that I don’t enjoy the tacos, and all the other local or seasonal foods – I most certainly do – but when you’re itching for something and you can’t have it…well, that just makes you want it more right? Chock it up to human nature I guess. Honestly, these yens can be cruel sometimes.

So if you were to ask me from whence the sudden need for some good, juicy and authentic carnitas arose, I honestly couldn’t tell you, but arise it did and I was at my local grocer’s quicker than Sarah Palin to a gun show poking around the pork section and carousing for fresh chilis. Tortillas? Check. Orange? (what? Yes, trust me) check. Cilantro, limes and onion? Check, check and check. Mexican beer? Checkity check.

Now, I had become captivated a while ago with trying my hand at making authentic Mexican carnitas. I remember feasting on the Best Carnitas Known To Man years ago in some remote town in western Mexico. Nothing has come close since. No restaurant nor taqueria. They haunt me, those blasted succulent nuggets of porky goodness nestled into homemade tortillas with fresh salsas and a squeeze of lime, savoured with cool Coca-Cola in a glass bottle under a huge palapa with pigs, chickens and stray dogs running around loose over yonder.

I realise it may be hard to fully recapture the taste of that time, but I’d like to at least try, so here I go. This may take a couple tries, but I’m willing to do the work. There is no doubt lard must figure into this dish which I am totally game for because, as we all know, lard makes stuff even yummier than you ever thought possible. Oh lovely lard…which, I was sure I had a container of in the back of the fridge but alas I find this day I do not have after all. Snif. But I do find – wait for it – duck fat, which also makes stuff even yummier than you ever thought possible. An apt substitute, n’est pas? Quandary quickly solved. I reward myself with a beer for being so resourceful!

I decided to base my recipe on a method from but added some additional flavours and aromatics as well. The orange gives a nice roundness of flavour and gentle acidity to the dish and balances the herbs and garlic without being overpowering. I’ve done the whole thing on the stove top in a cast iron braising pot so it’s super easy.

Give it a try! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Snow white duck fat

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 1.5 # pork butt, cut in roughly 1.5” cubes
  • generous 1/2 c duck fat (lard or oil are fine too)
  • 1 small orange, sliced thinly
  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 1/2 t dried oregano
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • lime juice from 1/2 lime
  • corn or flour tortillas
  • good fresh salsa

Here’s what you do:

  • Melt the duck fat in a Dutch oven or heavy braising pot then add the (patted dry) cubed pork
  • Fill with water just to the top of the meat
  • Add the garlic, orange, oregano, bay leaf and salt and pepper to taste
  • Bring to a boil uncovered
  • Give it a stir, reduce to a simmer and cover. Let simmer until pork is just starting to become tender, about 30 – 40 minutes.
  • Uncover, turn up the heat to a brisk simmer reducing the liquid until just the fat remains.
  • Stay close now, scrape the fond from the bottom, adjust the heat so it doesn’t burn. Move the meat around to brown on all sides. This takes just a few minutes, take care not to over cook or the meat will become dry.

Serve with warmed tortillas (corn or flour) fresh salsa verde or pico de gallo and a squeeze of lime and a cold beer. Que bueno!

Tip: Strain and reserve the left over duck fat drippings to use for sauteing whatever – potatoes, veggies, mushrooms – wonderful!!