“I’ll have it with the chocolate sauce, please.”
Believe it or not, there is one circumstance under which it is absolutely not acceptable to utter this phrase. Just one, mind. But it exists.
Should you ever find yourself at the wonderful eastern European restaurant Moya in central Oxford, having chosen the apricot dumpling for dessert and faced with the choice between its two possible accompaniments, you simply cannot plump for the chocolate sauce. You cannot retain any modicum of respectability by making this, quite frankly, borderline criminal decision. You may as well sign the rest of your life away right there and then, knowing that thereafter it will be filled with nothing but the bitter tang of regret. Is it worth carrying that albatross around your neck, sporting that white feather of shame in your cap?
Chocolate sauce has its place. Puddling down the sides of a sponge pudding. Voluptuously clinging to the glassy contours of a poached pear. Spattered over the bath in the shower scene from Psycho. In no sense-making world, though, should it be found enveloping the squat, steaming dumpling that conceals a glorious golden surprise at its core: a warm, sweet heart of jammy apricot.
You’ll understand, when you try the alternative. When your dumpling first arrives, looking like something spherical excavated from Pompeii, you might be a little sceptical. Peppered with what look like puddles of gold flecked with ash, your plate will probably have your brain frantically scrabbling around for a frame of reference. Ignore your brain and open your mouth (not, I hasten to point out, valid life advice outside this scenario). Let your tastebuds wrap themselves around the sensation of salty butter, soft dumpling, sharp apricot and the blanketing nuttiness of ground poppy seeds, and abandon all thought of chocolate sauce forever.
Of all the taste sensations I’ve experienced in my life, that dumpling has proved one of the most haunting. I no longer live in Oxford, but on my rare visits back to my alma mater I make it a matter of urgency to return to Moya. My main course is of little importance, as long as it leaves stomach room for the apricot dumpling with the poppy seed butter sauce. It’s impossible to explain why it works, or how it works, or to accurately capture the sensation of startlingly sharp, sweet, collapsing fruit cosseted in a cocoon of fluffy dough, slicked with butter punctuated with the nutty rasp of poppy seeds. It's astounding.
Ever since, I’ve found myself unable to resist poppy seeds in their sweet manifestations. Beyond the coffee-shop lemon and poppy seed muffin lie a glorious array of Eastern European desserts incorporating these tiny dark nuggets, with their nonchalant whisperings of danger, of glamour, of opium dens, morphine dreams and papery scarlet petals. I eat them baked into a tart in my local Polish restaurant, black and glistening between a pastry crust like a seam of coal. On a recent trip to Austria I saw them peppering the interior of a flaky strudel, and ate them coiled between the folds of a sweet pretzel, imbuing the soft dough with a nutty vanilla scent that saw me finish the entire thing in one sitting.
My favourite, though, was a beautiful slice of poppy seed cake from a grand coffee house in Salzburg. Starkly grey, the mottled colour of weathered slate, it came topped with a glistening slick of dark red compote, studded with tiny berries. Preiselbeer, they called them, and I bought a jar of the compote to bring home, meaning to recreate this cake in my own kitchen. They’re lingonberries, resembling small redcurrants and with a similar sweet-sharp taste. I’ve heard of them in Scandinavian cooking, but didn’t know they were also popular in Austria. I had only been home for a couple of days before I raided my cupboard for its stash of much-neglected poppy seeds and got to work making this dark, delicious cake.
To make this, you have to grind poppy seeds to a coarse powder. There’s something deeply satisfying about pulverizing this already tiny seed, watching it collapse into a damp rubble that resembles wet sand, offering up a heady, nutty aroma, almost fecund, whispering darkly of compost and new rain. The seeds become blacker, more dense, glistening like tar and rich with nourishing oils and their own unique fragrance. You combine them with butter, egg yolks, brown sugar, vanilla and yoghurt, lifting the mix with whipped egg whites. The batter looks like liquid ermine, spotted with dark flecks as you spoon it into the tin, but emerges a burnished gold-grey, like granite.
There is something, for me, hugely addictive about the slightly tangy, nutty flavour of poppy seeds. Here, they’re brought to the forefront, giving an incredibly complex taste to the cake; it’s sweet, sometimes almost bitter, gloriously moreish, with a luscious crunchy texture (just remember to keep some dental floss handy). It actually improves after a couple of days, becoming even more moist. It’s an intriguing dessert, stunningly understated on the plate, and gorgeous accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a generous dollop of lingonberry compote (you can substitute this with fresh raspberries or redcurrant, or a compote of either). It’s also naturally gluten-free, which is always a bonus if you have a range of ‘free-from’ friends like I do.
Forget overpowering it with lemon: close your eyes and appreciate the subtle complexities of the poppy seed, its nourishing nuttiness and dark, bitter undertones. This cake is an unusual beauty and an excellent way to explore the potential of an overlooked ingredient.
Don't even think about serving it with chocolate sauce.
Austrian poppy seed cake (serves 8):
- 250g poppy seeds
- 140g butter, at room temperature
- 5 eggs, separated
- 180g light brown sugar
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 120ml plain yoghurt
- Pinch of salt
- Lingonberry compote, to serve (or fresh raspberries/redcurrants)
First, prepare the poppy seeds. Using a spice grinder or powerful blender, grind the seeds briefly until they start to break up, turn darker and resemble wet sand. Set aside.
Pre-heat the oven to 175C. Grease and line an 8-inch cake tin.
In an electric mixer or with a hand whisk, beat the butter for a minute until soft and fluffy. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, whisking after each addition, then whisk for a couple of minutes more until everything is light and fluffy. Whisk in the sugar, vanilla, yoghurt and salt. Fold in the poppy seeds.
In a separate, clean bowl, whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks. Fold a third of the whites into the butter and seed mixture to loosen it, then fold the rest in carefully, trying to keep as much air in the mixture as possible. Pour gently into the prepared tin, and bake for 40 minutes, or until the cake springs back when pressed in the centre. Leave to cool in the tin for 5 minutes before turning out onto a wire rack. Serve warm with ice cream or whipped cream, and a dollop of lingonberry compote, if you can get it – if not, serve fresh raspberries or redcurrants alongside.
[Barely adapted from Bowen Appetit, here]