Mother Earth Living

Make a Poppy Seed Dessert

By The Herb Companion staff
February/March 1998
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These flaky Poppy-Seed Triangles are an elegant sweet surprise.

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• Poppy Seed Vinaigrette and Tropical Fruit Salad 
• Phyllo Triangles with Poppy Seed Filling 
• Poppy Seed Torte with Vanilla Custard Filling
• Lemon Glazed Poppy Seed Muffins 

Its flamboyant petals fall after only a day, but opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) ensures its future with hundreds of tiny seeds packed inside a ribbed, round capsule. Before your poppies have a chance to toss their progeny to the wind, harvest a jarful of seeds for the kitchen cabinet so you can sprinkle them with abandon in a poppy seed dessert.

The same species that produces these nutty, crunchy seeds yields opium from its unripe pods, but the seeds contain no narcotic compounds. Poppy seeds find their way into sweet and savory dishes alike, but they play a stellar role in rolls, pastries, bagels, and breads and baked goods of all kinds, either flecking the dough, as a major ingredient of a moist filling, or simply sprinkled on the crust.

For poppy seed dessert recipes it’s far cheaper (and more satisfying) to harvest poppy seeds from your garden than to buy the little bottles in the grocery store. Planting the equivalent of a 10-foot row of poppies will allow a harvest of 1 cup of seeds. Keep an eye on the capsules as they ripen. As soon as windowlike pores appear near the top, just below the flat, frilly, persistent stigma, cut the stalk just below the capsule (or perhaps longer if you plan to use the capsules in dried arrangements). Place the capsules in a large pan or bowl and put it in a dry place. Check the plants frequently, as the individual blossoms open over several weeks, and the capsules thus don’t ripen all at once.

When you’ve collected a quantity of capsules and dried them for a few days, pour out the seeds into a shallow pan and pick them over to remove debris and undeveloped seeds. A fine strainer and a pair of tweezers are useful here. Finally, pour the cleaned seeds into a jar with a tight-fitting lid and store it in a cool, dark place or in the refrigerator. Proper storage will keep the seed oil, which constitutes 44 to 50 percent of the seeds, from becoming rancid, and so your poppy seeds will last for years—if you can keep from using them.

The popular poppy

Poppies have been cultivated for their seeds for thousands of years. Ancient Greeks and Romans used poppy seeds in both cooking and medicines, and well-to-do Romans enjoyed roasted poppy seeds mixed with honey. Missionaries of the prophet Muhammad introduced the seeds into India in the seventh century. They are used there today to ­flavor many vegetarian dishes, sweets, pancakes, dumplings, and breads, as well as to thicken sauces.

Poppy seeds also have made their way into Middle Eastern and European cuisines. Turks grind poppy seeds to a paste for use in many dishes, including the traditional confection halvah. Poppy seeds fill hamantaschen (“Haman’s pockets”), traditional three-cornered pastries eaten during the Jewish festival of Purim, which commemorates the deliverance of Persian Jews from the massacre plotted by Haman. Poppy-seed filling is also a hallmark of Czech coffee cakes and other sweet yeast breads of central Europe.

The biggest poppy-seed producers today are India, Turkey, China, Can­ada, France, Iran and Holland. Although Americans and many Europeans are most familiar with blue-gray seeds, Indian cooks use white or yellowish ones (available in some Asian markets), and Turks use brown ones. The ones you harvest from your garden will probably be a dull black. No matter what their color, though, they’ll taste just fine. Toasting seeds lightly enhances the nutty flavor; this step may be omitted for toppings that will toast as they bake in the oven. Ready-to-use canned poppyseed filling is available in supermarkets.

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