My mother was convinced that baking genes skipped generations. After all, her mother was an excellent baker, she herself baked not at all and I baked all the time. I wish I’d known my grandmother as a baker, but I didn’t show interest in the craft early enough to learn at her elbow. I’ve got only one memory of her in the kitchen: She’s leaning over a small enamel-topped table, it’s covered with a thin cloth and she’s rolling out dough. What I remember most is watching her roll the dough up and around the pin, lift it high, shower the cloth with flour and then return the dough to the table. When she spun the pin and unfurled the dough, it rippled like silk and seemed like a magic trick to me — it still does, even when I do it myself.
Looking back, I’m guessing that my grandmother must have baked a lot, because she came to our house in Brooklyn every weekend carrying brown paper bags and assorted cardboard boxes filled with homemade sweets. Unfailingly, there would be a loaf of honey cake topped with a row of whole blanched almonds — or at least it was when it arrived. My mother, who didn’t particularly like honey cake but adored almonds, would pick the nuts out of the cake as soon as she opened the wrapping. There was an apple cake, which I have spent years trying to recreate and still tinker with, knowing I’ll never get the cake I remember but happy to spend the hours trying. And there were cutout cookies, some topped with cinnamon sugar — my grandmother gave those to my brother — and some topped with poppy seeds, which she made only for me.
It was a sign that she loved me that she baked something especially for me, but it was a misunderstanding: I didn’t like poppy seeds. I always wanted my brother’s cookies, but he never shared them, and I was too nice a kid to set my grandmother straight. Instead, I would try scraping the seeds off with my fingers, only to come up against grandma’s egg glaze — it cemented those seeds in place.
Apart from the sugar cookies, it was easy enough to avoid poppy seeds, and I did for years, until I was a grown-up and an aspiring home baker living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. A friend made me a sour-cream loaf cake that wasn’t just sprinkled with poppy seeds — it was almost black with them. She’d made the cake with store-bought poppy-seed filling and followed the recipe from the back of the can, and I mimicked her for years.
All that changed the day I took the crosstown bus to Yorkville and discovered Mrs. Herbst’s Hungarian pastry shop, where you could buy strudels both savory and sweet, including one filled with poppy seeds, and the nearby stores Paprikas Weiss and H. Roth & Sons (also known as Lekvar by the Barrel), where poppy seeds were sold by the scoopful, and you could have them ground to a paste on the spot. The fresh poppy seeds were a revelation. They were teensy, oval-shaped, oily and a gorgeous blue-black color. Their aroma was faint but earthy, their flavor was nutty, and I loved how they cracked under a light bite. I baked my first poppy-seed-studded loaf cake with seeds from Paprikas Weiss and guidance from the people who worked there.
I made that recipe with only slightly less frequency than my grandmother made cookies, and then I stopped. There wasn’t a specific reason, except maybe culinary curiosity — I had new recipes I wanted to learn, new cuisines to explore, new ingredients to try. But a few weeks ago, I unearthed a kugelhopf pan that had come from Roth. With the find came memories, and before the evening was over, I was making a poppy-seed cake.
My new cake uses fresh poppy seeds, but not from Yorkville — all of those shops are gone. I bought them in a sack at the supermarket. And instead of sour cream, which was in the original recipe, I now use heavy cream. I like the texture I get from it, and I also like that the flavor is more neutral, giving the poppy seeds a chance to shine brighter. There’s lemon juice — a classic in a poppy-seed cake, but tangerine is another option — and vanilla, a little more than I used to use. Over the years, I’ve found myself going heavier on vanilla in many recipes; it adds its own luxurious flavor and pulls together all the others too.
The batter is mixed by hand, and it’s a pleasure to make. As each ingredient is stirred in, it takes on a different look, until with the addition of the melted butter, its surface has a velvety sheen. When the seeds are folded through the batter, they dip below the surface, emerge and then finally speckle the batter. It’s not quite as magical as my grandmother’s unfurling dough, but it’s fun to watch.
Sometimes the cake forms a crown that cracks, and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s always beautiful. The simple ingredients conspire to make it so. It always cuts easily — I like thickish slices — and its texture is always a delightful cross between the close grain of a poundcake and a spongecake’s bit of bounce. It’s good with either coffee or tea regardless of whether it’s iced (though the icing is pretty).
My little-girl self would be surprised at how much I now love poppy seeds. I wonder what she’d think if she knew that I always have them in the freezer, that I use them to make muffins and breads as well as this cake and that, like my grandmother, I sprinkle the seeds on my sugar cookies, sticking them on with an egg glaze and keeping them safe from small fingertips.
Recipe: Poppy-Seed Tea Cake
Dorie Greenspan is an Eat columnist for the magazine. She has won five James Beard Awards for her cookbooks and writing. Her new cookbook is “Baking With Dorie.”