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Why Purim poppy seeds are more than a topping

    There's more to poppy seeds than a bagel topping
    There's more to poppy seeds than a bagel topping

    No ingredient says Purim quite so much as poppy seeds.

    They are the most traditional Ashkenazi hamantaschen filling.

    The tiny blue black or grey seeds were also said to be favoured by Queen Esther while she lived in King Ahasuerus’ palace; her vegan diet allowing her to remain kosher as inconspicuously as possible.

    Some believe the word hamantaschen was not in fact a version of Haman’s ears, his pockets or even his hat, but actually either “ha-man” - Hebrew for “the manna” - or “ha-Mon” - Mohn being the German and mon or man the Yiddish words for poppy seed.

    For most of us in England, poppy seeds are sadly underused - relegated to a crunchy, if messy, challah or bagel
    topping.

    But in eastern and central Europe they are big news, eaten as a sweet filling - sometimes mixed with nuts - for cakes, strudels and buns. They are also ground and mixed with icing sugar for sprinkling on desserts such as Austrian and Czech steamed dumplings that are filled with plums or the plum butter called powidl or powidla - available from continental delicatessens.

    Hungarians enjoy tagliatelle noodles covered in ground nuts and poppy seeds as a breakfast dish.

    For savoury recipes, the seeds tend to be left whole and sprinkled over breads or added to salad dressings.
    Poppy seed is also a popular European strudel filling; a traditional Christmas Eve treat in Poland is the makovie, a poppy seed roll or strudel, which is also eaten as a shabbat cake in Israel and by Ashkenazim throughout the world.

    Poppy seeds are also added to sponge cake mixtures in the same way that caraway seeds were added in Victorian times to the seed cakes that were once so popular but have fallen out of fashion. For these cakes, the poppy seeds do not need to be ground, merely softened in milk.

    As a symbol of plenty, poppy seed was a popular ingredient in the traditional wedding cakes of classical Greece. Romans were also fond of them and combined them with honey and garum - fish sauce - that they used to flavour meat.

    To use them as a sweet filling or topping – as I have for the cheesecake, above, poppy seeds should be ground.

    Grinding brings out their flavour and oils and softens them. So ubiquitously are they used this way in Vienna and Prague, that many supermarkets offer two grinders for customers’ use: one for grinding their own coffee beans and the other specifically for grinding poppy seed.

    To grind your own, use a spice-grinder, coffee grinder or even a food processor with a metal blade, although the latter can give varying results. If you have a mini bowl with your food processor or a stick blender with a cup attachment this tends to work best. Special poppy seed grinders can be purchased online for about £30.00.

    Like most nuts and spices, they can become dry and lose their flavour with age. In the UK they are also not sold in large quantities so it can be hard to find sizeable bags. Companies like as Steenberg’s and Barts, sell them in small quantities and Steenbergs will supply larger quantities on request. They can also be bought in larger quantities from some kosher grocers, and online.

    When you do source them, poppy seeds keep for two or three months if stored in a plastic bag in a cool, dry place - not in the refrigerator.

    And despite their infamous reputation as a narcotic, they will not turn you into a drug addict. Opium is found only in the seed capsule and dried sap of the poppy and is virtually absent in the dried seeds.

    Josphine Bacon's Poppy Seed Cheesecake

    Photo: Ryan Bartley
    Photo: Ryan Bartley

    This is a Roman and Greek wedding cake — the poppy seeds symbolising fertility. The cake can be cooled and refrigerated without the topping, which can be added later or the next day.

    Cheesecake base
    100g bulghur wheat
    1 tbsp runny honey
    25g butter
    Filling
    4 tbsp double cream
    1 tsp ground cinnamon
    100g black poppyseeds, ground
    250g thick honey
    1 tbsp brandy (optional)
    5 eggs, separated
    2 tbsp fine matzo meal
    750g Quark or curd cheese

    Topping
    100g black poppyseeds, ground
    2 tbsp soft brown sugar
    50g butter
    1 tbsp brandy (optional)
    1 tbsp potato flour or cornflour (optional)

    Method

    For the base: line the bottom of a 23cm springform tin with baking parchment, and butter the sides.

    To make the base, rinse the bulghur in water, then cook in accordance to the packet instructions. Drain if necessary and stir in the butter and honey. Spread the mixture evenly over the base of the tin and leave to cool while you make the filling.

    Heat your oven to 180°C.

    For the filling: put the cream, cinnamon, poppyseeds and honey into a saucepan. Bring to the boil, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens. Add the brandy and allow to cool.

    When completely cool, beat in the egg yolks, matzo meal and curd cheese.

    Whisk the egg whites into stiff peaks then fold them into the mixture. Turn the mixture into the tin and bake for 45 minutes. If it is browning too much lightly cover it with foil.

    Increase the oven to hot - 220°C - and bake for another 10 minutes or until the cake is firm in the centre.Turn the oven down to 180°C.

    Remove the cake from the oven and cool to almost cold. Make the topping by combining the poppy seeds, sugar, butter and brandy if using. Stir them over a low heat until the butter melts. If very liquid add the cornflour and stir over the heat until the mixture thickens. Spread this over the cake.

    Return it to the oven and bake for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, cool and chill. Serve chilled.

    This is good with canned cherries, orange slices or slices of fresh pineapple.

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