According to ancient custom, poppy seeds have been used as a remedy to aid sleeping, promote fertility and increase wealth, and were even believed to impart magical powers of invisibility.
Poppy seeds are largely overlooked in South Africa (apart from the cloyingly commercial lemon and poppy seed muffins) but they have long been a favourite of mine.
My first introduction to these little wonderful little seeds was through Lynn Oberholzer’s famous poppy seed rusks. You can find the recipe for them in Cooking in the Photographer’s House (Jacana, 2015). Her youngest son Jesse loved them so much that when he was going through a picky phase as a young boy, rejecting his bowl of oats at breakfast time, Lynn indulged him by soaking some of her rusks in rooibos tea and making a delicious porridge of sorts. Lynn also made a splendidly dense almond and poppy seed cake in her pop-up Festival restaurant, which I especially relished and devoured with gusto.
Poppy seeds are most often associated with the cuisine of the Czech Republic, which is incidentally the country which produces the most poppy seeds in the world- and consumes an almost equal amount to make up for it! In the darkly strange and endlessly surprising Czech animated stop-motion film Alice (1988) Alice meets a motley crew of once inanimate objects that come to life. One of my favourite moments is when she finds the cake which makes her grow: the one which has “‘Eat Me’ all beautifully marked in currants” in the Lewis Carroll original. But in this film, instead of the ubiquitous cupcake it’s a traditional Czech pastry covered in ground poppy seeds. Eat me… I wish, I have yet to taste this intriguing delicacy.
Traditionally topped with either plum jam, poppy seed or walnut paste, these kolaches require a special mill to grind the poppy seeds into a paste, which brings out their delicious oil. The paste is mixed with sugar, melted butter and lemon juice. A similar, unsweetened version is used in a recipe for bread rolls, where the dough is rolled out and spread with the paste, then rolled into a sausage, resulting in beautiful rolls with a spiral of poppy seeds through them. Don’t they look tempting?
In the Indian dish khus khus halwa, poppy seeds are soaked in water overnight and then sautéed in ghee until golden brown. Milk, sugar and cardamom is added to complete this unusual dessert. I like to add poppy seeds to chia pudding for a healthy breakfast with fruit but my favourite ploy is to include them in my marmalade bread and butter pudding, which I devised when trying to find a way to use up some lovely homemade marmalade which was crystallising in the fridge. As you will discover, the poopy seeds swell and become infused with the flavours of the spiced milk in which they have been steeped.
Marmalade bread and butter pudding
1/2 cup poppy seeds
1 medium ciabatta loaf, sliced into 10 2cm slices or 10 slices plain white bread
300ml full cream milk
Pinch of salt
1/4 tsp nutmeg, freshly grated
100g butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla extract or powder
4 T homemade sliced orange marmalade
100 g butter, softened
4 white cardamom pods, seeds removed and pounded in a mortar and pestle
1 cinnamon stick
Zest of 1 orange, grated
100g golden castor sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
3 large eggs, 2 of which only yolks, beaten
Remove the black seeds from the cardamom pods and gently pound in a mortar and pestle or crush with the blunt edge of a large knife. Gently heat the milk and cream in a saucepan, adding the cardamom seeds, poppy seeds and cinnamon stick. Stir in the sugar, salt and vanilla to dissolve. Do not allow to boil, gently simmer for a few minutes. Grate the nutmeg into it and remove from the heat.
Crack the eggs into a bowl and beat gently. Scoop some of the warm milk mixture into the bowl and whisk vigorously till combined. Add the egg mixture to the rest of the warm milk, whisking all the while. Stir in the orange zest and set aside to cool slightly.
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees on the fan setting. Meanwhile, butter five slices of ciabatta and spread another five slices with marmalade. Sandwich these together with the buttered side facing out. Cut into halves, or if the ciabatta is of a sufficient size, into triangles. In a greased baking dish, lay the sandwiches down so that they lean up at right angles against each other. Glaze with additional marmalade.
Pour the custard evenly over the sandwiches and sprinkle with additional golden castor sugar. Stand the baking dish in a water bath and bake for 30 minutes until all puffed up and golden.