Poppy Seed Cake

When my sister Diana and I were kids, there was one cake that we, almost without exception, always requested for our birthday cake: poppy seed cake. This was THE cake. The flavor, the texture, were just head-and-shoulders above the rest.

Now, given the fact that Diana’s and my birthdays were only 10 days apart, we had an awful lot of this cake for a very delicious two weeks every October. Which may or may not be part of why I have such a deep affinity and preference for autumn. Autumn=yummy cake. If you think that’s not a good reason to settle upon a favorite season, then, well, you probably haven’t had this cake.

As you know if you read the past posts on this blog, I just recently celebrated my 30th birthday. So, for old-time’s sake, I whipped up this favorite cake from my childhood.

This may seem like an odd favorite cake for young kids to have. There is no frosting. It is not technicolor. It has poppy seeds, an ingredient most commonly used by hippies and bagel-makers. This is a well-grounded, unpretentious cake. It is what it is, and doesn’t go on putting on airs. It’s a nutty, sweet, delicious, neutral-toned delicacy. It’s kinda the butch dyke of the cake world.

And, as cakes go, there aren’t many tips and suggestions that I need to give about this cake.

However, it is important to have all the ingredients at room temperature before you start preparing the batter. But, since this is true for all cake recipes, it’s not terribly surprising. The kitchen-standby The Joy of Cooking tells us why this is important:

“In general, before starting to bake, all ingredients should be at room temperature (68 to 70 degrees F). This is especially important with butter cake recipes, where the butter, liquid and eggs are intended to form an emulsion during the mixing steps. Emulsions can break or curdle (like a sauce) if some ingredients are colder than the others. When this happens, the batter loses its ability to trap air, and the cake will be heavy.

“Butter should still be cool– from 60 to 70 degrees F– but malleable when squeezed, not soft and squishy. Butter that is too soft or melted will not trap air and the batter and collapse with prolonged beating. [Which, truth be told, is true for most of us…]

“Cold eggs do not increase in volume when beaten as much as room-temperature or warm eggs, and when they are too cold, they won’t blend smoothly into batters….”

So now you know.

Also, be an obsessive-compulsive freak when it comes to separating the eggs. I normally do not endorse up-tightness, but in this case, I make an exception. If you get any– and I mean any– of the yolk into the whites, they will not get all fluffy, happy, and joyous, and you will end up with a poppy seed brick.

On that note: it is also very important that you fold the egg whites in gently, or else… you’ve got it… poppy seed brick. Rather than go into a wordy, confusing description, I suggest that you watch this video if you have any doubts about the best way to fold: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vP4vbktd-PM&feature=related. (I apologize for the cheesy music and annoying voice: but, after watching several online videos regarding how to fold egg whites, this really was the best I found, instructionally speaking. Maybe someday I’ll make my own, complete with background music from The Cliks and a few choice vulgarities, but for now, this will have to do.)

The only other suggestion I have to make is to not over-do the cinnamon sprinkle on the top of the cake, or it will get too dark before the cake is fully baked. It will still be delicious, it just won’t be as aesthetically pleasing.

This recipe is an adaptation of a recipe from Sunset magazine that appeared over 20 years ago. Enjoy!

Poppy Seed Cake

  • 1/2 lb. (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
  • 2 1/2 c unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 can (12.5 oz.) poppy seed pie filling
  • 1 c buttermilk
  • 1 T almond extract
  • 4 extra-large eggs, separated
  • 1 1/2 c sugar, divided
  • 1 t baking powder
  • 1 t baking soda
  • 1/2 t salt
  • 1 T cinnamon

1. Butter and flour-dust a 10-inch decorative tube pan or 9-inch springform pan.
2. In a small bowl, mix poppy seed filling, buttermilk, and almond extract.
3. In a deep bowl, beat egg whites with a mixer on high until foamy. Continue beating and gradually add 1/4 cup of the sugar. Beat until whites hold stiff, shiny peaks.
4. In another bowl, using unwashed beaters, beat 1 cup butter and 1 cup of the sugar on high speed until light and fluffy. Add egg yolks and beat until well blended. Stir in poppy seed mixture.
5. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
6. Add dry ingredients to batter; beat slowly to blend. Mix at medium speed.
7. Fold in beaten whites until blended.
8. Mix 1/4 cup of the sugar and the cinnamon. Pour half the batter into pan. Sprinkle with 2/3 of the cinnamon mixture. Add remaining batter and sprinkle with remaining cinnamon mixture. If you are using a tube pan, hold a knife vertically and draw the blade through batter around tube: this is not necessary if you are using a springform pan.
9. Bake in 350° oven just until cake springs back when lightly pressed in center, 1 to 1 1/4 hours.
10. Cool in pan 15 minutes. Invert cake onto a plate (or remove the outer piece of the springform pan). Serve warm or cool.

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