My husband heard this story many times as a child: When my father-in-law was about 12 years old, he and his family were sent by the Nazis from Hungary to a forced-labor camp in Vienna. On the way back from a work site one day, the hungry boy arrived at a field filled with poppies.
He started eating them. A belly full of the flowers lulled him to sleep right on the ground — a sleep so deep he didn’t notice when the Allies began bombing the area. He awoke hours later, in the middle of the night, to find himself almost buried in upturned soil.
Such is the power of Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, source of the blue-black seeds used in sweet and savory dishes and also a source of morphine and codeine.
These days, competitive athletes and people who must take drug tests for their jobs know that ingesting even a lightly sprinkled bagel can yield a positive result for opiates, although foods laden with the seeds cannot get you high.
But I’m sure they can make you happy. Poppy seeds taste nutty, or, when ground to the consistency of moist soil, they offer a pleasant fruitiness I find irresistible. They do have a tendency to get stuck in your teeth, but they are also good for you: rich in magnesium, calcium and fiber. On the other hand, they’re not exactly low-calorie, registering numbers in the neighborhood of chocolate’s.
Poppy seeds have a natural affinity for lemon, so I like to combine those ingredients with walnuts, garlic and butter in a delicate pasta dish with Eastern European roots. But there are more ways to pair them. When I mix twice-ground poppy seeds into a cake batter, the result is rich and often keeps people guessing about which flavoring I used. They blend with chocolate beautifully, so I top the cake with bittersweet ganache. I’m surprised I haven’t seen more poppy seed ice cream pop up on the menus of Washington’s more inventive pastry chefs. It has an odd color but quite an interesting flavor that complements apple and almond.
Of course, the Jewish holiday of Purim (March 19 this year) sends bakers running to acquire poppy seeds in large amounts. If cost is an issue, visiting the grocery store spice aisle is not the way to go; see the accompanying list of places to buy in bulk. Using poppy seeds by the cup instead of the teaspoon creates bold flavor, and I’m all for that.
In Israel, where I’m from, poppy seed filling is by far the most popular one for hamantaschen, the small three-cornered pastries that symbolize the ears of Haman, an evil 5th-century B.C. adviser to the king of Persia who sought to kill all Jews.
Unfortunately, the canned stuff you find in stores here has nothing to do with the wonderfully fresh, cooked-with-milk-and-sugar poppy seed filling you can easily make at home. To verify that claim, I agreed to try the store-bought kind. As with any food product that has corn syrup listed as its first ingredient, the filling was very sweet and gooey and left a slightly bitter aftertaste. I immediately devoured real hamantaschen with real homemade filling that I had made that morning, to get rid of the bad taste.
Bitterness in poppy seeds is a known problem, especially with the ground ones, due to their high oil content. Store them in the freezer, like nuts, to keep them from going rancid.
You will have to grind the poppy seeds for most traditional poppy seed cakes and pastries. A coffee or spice grinder will do the trick; it’s best to process them just before you use them. If you end up with leftover ground poppy seeds, mix in a tablespoon of sugar and freeze them.
My father-in-law, Zvi Guttman, and his family survived the Holocaust and moved from Hungary to Israel, taking with them the traditions of Eastern European cooking. In addition to a variety of poppy seed strudels and cakes, his mother used to serve an everyday dish of cooked noodles with sugar, a little oil and poppy seeds. A lot of poppy seeds.
If you go that route, just remember: Check the mirror afterward, and brush your teeth.
How do you use poppy seeds? Share recipes with Vered Guttman, who will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: washingtonpost.com/