Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Poppy seed and almond cake

There are cakes, and there are cakes.  What is this hardly enlightening statement trying to convey?  Well, there are cakes that are pleasantly decent: tasty, good or even delicious (after all - who doesn't like a solid cake, right?).  But there are also cakes, though very few, that are simply irresistible: so heavenly, exquisite and unforgettable that they are a class of their own, and often remain a family treasure for generations.  Indeed, they can even revolutionize lives! 

This poppy seed almond cake has been in my family for three generations: my grandma made it, then my mum, and now I'm making it every Christmas period.  Rumor has it, that when my parents started dating my dad gave a piece of this cake to my mum, and by doing so won her heart.  If that's not revolutionary, I don't know what is!

So why is this cake so extraordinary?  Well, imagine the most delicate, buttery shortcrust pastry bottom, topped off with a 6 cm thick layer of smooth, rich and fluffy poppy seed mixture, flavored with the best honey and almonds, packed with raisins and walnuts -- and finished off with a layer of golden baked almonds.  Need I say more?

Nonetheless, some of you may be a bit surprised and thinking "who in the right mind puts this much poppy seeds in a cake?!  Aren't poppy seeds supposed to be sprinkled scarcely on bread and eaten in small amounts?"  Mind you, when I was growing up in the Netherlands and told my friends of the various Polish poppy seed cakes, they all thought I was some kind of opium addict (I'm not kidding).  But please be assured -- you will not become a drug addict by eating this cake (though you will most definitely get addicted to it).  When properly prepared and ground, poppy seeds are soft and fluffy - not at all like those whole seeds sprinkled on bread.

But no pain, no gain: such an exquisite treat comes with a price.  Not only do you have to prepare the shortcrust pastry bottom, whisk eight egg whites, and prepare the poppy seed layer.  Before you do all this, you also need to cook and grind the poppy seeds.  Twice!  This has to to be done in order for the poppy seeds to become soft and flavorful -- as opposed to hard and grainy, like sand.  

Since making the cake requires so much work, it's good to make a family event out of preparing it: the men can grind the poppy seeds and/or mix the butter, sugar and eggs for the top layer (traditionally with a wooden spoon, which requires a great deal of strength -- though nowadays this can of course be done in a food processor).  The women can prepare the shortcrust pastry, decorate the cake, and do what women do best: supervise and give orders ;-)

Below is a brief picture summary of the process (specific directions below). 


  • 300 g of flour
  • 200 g of good quality butter
  • 100 g of sugar
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 package of vanilla sugar (or vanilla essence or scraped out vanilla seeds from 1 bean)
  • Natural almond aroma (optional)
  • Preheat the oven to 180ºC.
  • Roughly chop the butter (makes it easier to kneed the dough) and put in a bowl with the rest of the ingredients.  Kneed the dough until it forms a uniform ball (I did it by hand, but you can of course use a food processor).
  • Line a big square baking tin with parchment paper (also on the sides and sticking out of the tin - it will help lift the cake out of the tin once baked).
  • Distribute the dough evenly in the tin, forming 2-3 cm high edges (the base will better hold the poppy seed layer).  Punch holes with a fork on the bottom of the cake.
  • Put the tin in the fridge for an hour or two, or in the freezer for around 30 minutes.
  • Take out of the fridge/freezer and bake around 20 minutes until golden.


  • 500 g of good quality poppy seeds
  • 300 g of good quality butter
  • 150 g of (brown) sugar
  • 4 large tbsp of honey
  • 5 eggs
  • 3 egg whites
  • 2 tbsp of breadcrumbs
  • 200 g of whole peeled almonds
  • 70 g of raisins
  • 70 g of walnuts, roughly chopped
  • Natural almond aroma
  • A splash of milk (optional)
  • 1 tsp of sugar (optional)
  • Preheat the oven to 180ºC (or just leave it on after baking the base).
  • Rinse the poppy seeds (not easy!), put in a big pan with filled with cold water, bring to a boil and let simmer for 5 minutes.  Turn the heat off and let the seeds cool down a bit.  Strain the poppy seeds thoroughly (again - not easy!).  Try to get all the water out of there - you might need to strain twice or three times.  Once you got rid of the water, grind the poppy seeds twice with a grinder.  
  • Wash the raisins and put them in a small pan, adding a splash of milk and some sugar to taste (1 tsp).  Bring to a boil, let simmer for a couple of minutes.  Strain.
  • Mix the butter, sugar and honey in a big bowl until the mixture starts getting white and fluffy.  One by one, add 5 egg yolks (keep the whites in a separate bowl for later), mixing after each yolk. 
  • In a separate bowl whisk 8 egg whites (5 from the yolks + 3 additional ones) until completely stiff.
  • Add the ground poppy seeds to the butter/sugar mixture and stir thoroughly.  Add the bread crumbs, strained raisins, chopped walnuts and almond aroma.  Mix thoroughly.  
  • Fold in the egg whites to the poppy seed mixture - one spoon at a time, mixing very gently to retain the lightness of the egg whites.
  • Spread evenly over pre-baked shortcrust bottom.  Decorate with almonds.
  • Bake for around 30 minutes.  Let cool down completely before taking out of the tin.
  • Sit down and have a drink, because you've really deserved it!!!

Bon appetit!

1 comment:

  1. Superb! When can I count on a live demo ?