A Purim babka that would make your Jewish grandmother proud
Vered Guttman leaps into the Eastern European kitchen for a delicious poppy seed babka recipe and reveals the soothing power of those little black seeds.
Purim for me is a good reminder of just how much I love poppy seeds. And I’m not talking about the lightly sprinkled poppy seed bagels. What I have in mind is the Eastern European use of poppy seeds - in fabulous strudels, rolls and cakes, in which as much as half pound of poppy seeds can be incorporated into one recipe.
These tiny black seeds come from the Opium poppy, the same flower that produces morphine and codeine. And indeed, after having as little as a poppy seed bagel, one's drug test could turn out positive, as you can probably remember from the case of Elaine from Seinfeld who tested positive after eating a poppy seed muffin and lost her chance to travel to Africa and see the Bushmen.
The soothing qualities of poppy seeds have been known for generations of Europeans. Parents used to calm their crying babies and help them fall asleep by soaking cups of poppy seeds in milk and feeding them the soporific. More than once, this method ended in terrible tragedies and from a warning issued by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in Germany in 2005, we can learn this method was still in practice even more recently.
Hopefully this didn’t scare you from trying some wonderful poppy seed pastries.
Poppy seeds are perfect for baking. When ground twice and then cooked with sugar and milk they become creamy and get a texture which stays moist after baking and is perfect for filling pastries like the Hungarian Biegli and Flódni, the Austrian Mohnkranzerl Aus Hefeteig, the Czech Koache and, of course, the hamantaschen. The poppy seed filling stays moist thanks to the seeds’ high oil content.
There are many traditional additions to the classic poppy seed filling, so feel free to add any of them to the following recipe of poppy seed babka: sliced or grated apples, raisins, chocolate, candied orange peel, ground walnuts (instead of the almonds).
Buying poppy seeds in the U.S. can be a bit tricky, since they are not commonly used in large quantities in the American kitchen. You can always get some at your local supermarket, but that might end up being a very costly choice, since you’ll need almost half a pound of poppy seeds for the babka recipe. Follow the heavy users and try to find poppy seeds in European grocery stores. Kosher stores will sometimes hold them around Purim and they’re available at specialty stores such as Penzeys as well.
Make sure that the poppy seeds are not old, as they can become stale even before grinding, so store them in the freezer. As for the grinding, use a clean coffee grinder and try to do it just before cooking. If you grind more, mix one tablespoon of sugar into the ground poppy seeds and store in the freezer.
Vered Guttman is a caterer and a food writer based in Washington DC. Growing up in Israel she took her first lessons in Jewish cooking sitting at the tables of her two grandmothers, one from Poland, the other from Iraq. In Modern Manna, Vered will share a mix of new Israeli trends and old Jewish traditions, sprinkled with a distinct Sephardic flavor. Follow Vered on Twitter @veredguttman