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Tiny Poppy Seeds,
Ground Tinier for Big Flavor

by Kay Rentschler

Something of a dark Gypsy exoticism surrounds blue poppy seeds, whose richness brings savory depth to confections. Their flavor flirts at the edges of animal, vegetable and mineral without making a firm commitment to any of them. Ultimately, it is as a finely granular, dusky backdrop that poppy seeds make their point best, a point well articulated in the presence of lemon or orange peel, the smoke of sweet spices or the fragrant notes of honey or orange flower water.

But that does not describe poppy seeds as most of us know them. These curious little granules seem to have a secret life - one known better by cultures that have used them for centuries.

For most Americans, poppy seeds and bagels go hand in hand. They offer the teeth a tiny crunch, and a toothpick hours of gainful employment. But they don't register much of a taste. Get a group of them together, though, and they register - not always pleasantly. Poppy seed fillings are anything but weightless, tending to go dense and dry. Yet there is a reason poppy seeds have been cultivated since the second century, and it is not just the magical and medicinal properties associated with the poppy itself.

The more familiar blue poppy seeds, prized in dishes from Eastern Europe - cakes and pastries, dumplings and noodles, and more - are produced mainly in the Netherlands. But they, like all poppy seeds, originated in Asia. Not all poppy seeds are blue - cream, yellow, dark red and white are among the other colors - and not all of them make their way into doughs and desserts. White seeds, for example, produced in India, Turkey and Southeast Asia, are ground or toasted to enhance savory fare. White seeds have a neutral creamy nuttiness that makes sauces lush. They tolerate sauces with a lot going on in them - spice and fire in particular.

Poppy seeds are upward of 40 percent oil. Their fine oils turn quickly, making the seeds' naturally sweet and nutty flavor a thing of the past. They grow rancid without missing a beat, and so must be purchased fresh from a reliable merchant. (Keep them frozen or refrigerated at home.)

Poppy seeds also benefit from group interaction - sprinkling them around is mere child's play - and must be crushed to work their magic. Then their emulsive properties are similar to those of ground nuts, and they can be used in cakes, fillings and sauces. Fillings and cakes go dry and moccasinlike if overbaked, however, and are notably dowdy without proper enhancements - cream and fragrance, for instance, are crucial to their appeal.

The nubby weave that results when crushed poppy seeds, cream, sugar and eggs are baked is satisfying in small amounts and explains why such sweets are treated more like confections than a slab of poppy seed poundcake is likely to be. A dark, bitter demitasse is a poppy seed confection's perfect soul mate.

Poppy seed fillings like a sheath of dough around them, the thinner and buttery the better. Phyllo, strudel or flaky pie dough are more appealing than the thick heavy bread doughs some recipes suggest.

I hoped my food processor would be up to the task of grinding poppy seeds, but it was not. The seeds swirled around like dust on a street corner and came back to settle unscathed. A mortar and pestle was equally ineffective. I was left brushing stale grounds out of my coffee grinder and sacrificing a handful of white rice to its blades for cleaning before I could grind the seeds.

The trick to grinding poppy seeds for desserts is to do so just enough to break them open, releasing their oils, while letting them hang on to traces of their crisp contours. Though a number of recipes call for soaking the seeds overnight in water before grinding them, the fillings I made with soaked poppy seeds were spongy and sodden.

Among their many virtues, poppy seeds were once thought capable of divining true love. Medieval legend suggests tossing a piece of poppy seed cake out the door and asking a dog to fetch it. The direction the dog takes on its return will be the direction from which true love arrives. A charming idea, but I didn't try it.

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