The summer of 1982, when I was 12, I did not do “quite as many things as I did the last” according to the annual report my parents made me write before school started again. But “I did a lot of fun small things.” One of those fun small things, I noted, was bake a cake with my grandmother. I recall it as the first real cake I ever made — no box of mix or mom measuring the flour while I stirred.
My grandmother lived in Pennsylvania, far across the country from us in California. We rarely saw her, or any extended family for that matter, and I always liked it when she visited. On this occasion, she was babysitting while my parents traveled to Northern Italy, Budapest, and Vienna (according to my handy summer report, which I found recently in a filing cabinet in my parents’ house).
The idea to bake the cake was certainly hers. She’d probably planned to make it herself, as something nice to serve my parents after their long flight home. But, perhaps tiring of me reading romance novels and floating in the swimming pool every day, she gave me the task. Grandma was hard-working and restless, and she couldn’t appreciate reading novels and sunbathing.
I was happy to bake the cake, though. And if I was worried that the grainy poppy seeds would taste weird, I was also intrigued. Poppy seeds were a foreign ingredient in our California kitchen. Every few years my mom would make a traditional Polish sweet roll with poppy seeds — which we kids avoided — but she never used them in anything else. Certainly not in cake.
Grandma probably helped more than I remember. The recipe is pretty straightforward, but it includes separating the eggs and folding the whipped whites into a thick batter, then waiting a full hour to bake (by which time I was probably back in the pool). I didn’t need any help cutting into it, though. I distinctly recall thinking: This tastes so good! My parents got some when they returned, but I think I ate most of it myself.
After grandma went home, I made poppy seed cake once more that fall. But then I didn’t make it again. At age 12, I was starting to grow up and my mom wasn’t encouraging me to make cakes I was likely to consume greedily, slice after slice.
But it lived large in my memory. When my grandmother died earlier this year, I realized that almost all of my memories of her involved food. She functioned in the kitchen with full authority and turned out an endless supply of home-cooked goodness. Eventually, I got to thinking about that poppy seed cake, and I had to make it. So I went to the store, bought poppy seeds, and made the recipe on the inside of the label, just the way I remember doing all those years ago.
The cake was still so good that I couldn’t stop eating it. But really my mom was right: that much cake isn’t good for anyone! That’s okay, because poppy seed cake is perfect for sharing. It’s baked in a Bundt pan and doesn’t have any sticky glaze or frosting, so it’s easy to take to work or school or church wherever you’re spending your time.
Your friends will be glad. This isn’t some super sweet, lemony, muffiny cake with a sprinkling of poppy seeds. It’s dense and swarming with seeds, and just the right amount of sweet. A classic, old-fashioned snack cake. Make it even if you don’t have grandma standing by to help you find the poppy seed filling (look for it on the bottom shelf in the baking aisle) or to gently fold in the egg whites. Poppy seeds are still intriguing, and you can’t mess this cake up.
Poppy Seed Bundt Cake
Generally, I’d steer clear of recipes that call for sweetened, canned filling, but this cake is great just the way that it is, made straight off the recipe on the inside label of Solo Poppy Seed Filling. You can find poppy seed cake recipes that use whole poppy seeds instead, but most don’t use more than a few tablespoons, and what I like about this cake is the generous amount of seeds. They’re nutty and crunchy, and now that they’re back on my radar, I’m looking for other reasons to stock them in my kitchen.
1 cup butter, softened
1½ cups sugar
12½ ounces ground poppy seed filling (1 can)
4 egg yolks
4 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream
2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
Preheat oven to 350°F. Carefully grease and flour a 12-cup Bundt pan or 10-inch tube pan and set aside (make sure you cover it well, or the cake will stick).
Using a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add poppy seed filling and beat until blended. Add egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla and sour cream and beat just until blended.
In a small bowl, blend flour, baking soda and salt. Add flour mixture to poppy seed mixture gradually, beating well after each addition.
In a separate bowl, beat whites until stiff peaks form. Fold whites into batter and then spread the batter in the prepared pan.
Bake for approximately 1 hour, until cake tester inserted in center comes out clean.
Cool in pan on wire rack for 10 minutes. Then remove from pan and cool completely on rack. Dust with confectioners’ sugar.
Serves 14 to 16.
Photos by Joanna Ference