The poppy seed cake was intended to be dessert for Christmas Eve lunch. Our family has a series of family meals on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. intended to accommodate my son and daughter-in-law, who have other commitments. We have lunch on Christmas Eve and read the Christmas story from St. Luke, The Night Before Christmas (during which the reader has to ham it up as much as humanly possible) and Beatrix Potter's A Tailor of Gloucester, when the reader, following the tradition of my father, has to read every piece of print in the book. "Frederick Warne and Company, copyright, 1911, copyright renewed, 1935," the reader solemnly intones.
At 5:00 we go to the family mass at Saint Margaret's Church, finally giving in to the reality that I could not stay awake for midnight mass. On Christmas Day, the yms and our friends come over for Christmas dinner about 4:00.
This year we flew to London for our daughter's graduation from her Master's Program, and arrived back on these shores on Sunday, suffering from a bad cold (my husband, Bob) and jet lag (the rest of us.) Monday was spent running around doing last minute errands, mailing packages that I hadn't managed to mail before we left for Britain and visiting the horse.
On Monday night, I had intended to make the cake, as well as peeling the chestnuts for chestnut soup. The chestnut soup recipe failed to mention that peeling two and a half pounds of chestnuts could take upwards of two hours. After an hour of picking chestnuts out of the shell and stabbing myself at least once, I tottered off to bed.
Tuesday was Christmas Eve. I had to go to the Post Office and did so. I got back about 11:00 am bearing drinks from Starbucks for the assembled multitudes, and started making everything else that would go into Christmas Eve dinner. It was plain that there was no time to make a cake or the soup, no matter how simple it might be to peal chestnuts. Christmas Eve dinner was, by our entertaining standards, spartan. Just main course, two side dishes and that was it. No dessert, no soup, no nothing. Everyone survived with good humor intact. At 4:15 the yms went out the door on their way to church. Bob, my daughter and I stayed home.
So Christmas Eve evening, I made the poppy seed cake and peeled the rest of the chestnuts. The only caveat I have about poppy seed cake is, these are ground poppy seeds. I took two 2.5 ounce jars of unground poppy seeds and tossed them into the Cuisinart. I probably netted upwards of three-quarters of a cup of ground poppy seeds. So I would say, buzz one jar of poppy seeds, measure them and figure how much more you need to get to half a cup. Also, you have to soak the poppy seeds for thirty minutes. As you do that, it's a good time to put the butter on the top of the stove so it softens. (Put it on a saucer. You don't want it to melt.)
This is a great cake. I ended up serving it at Christmas dinner, for those who declined Christmas pudding, or who decided they needed two desserts. The icing is a triumph. It reminded me of the icing on Joanne Bakers'
birthday cakes, sold in the 1950s in Great Barrington, Ma., Joanne's cakes were white with pink, yellow and blue roses on them. There was also a dove that rested near the roses. This icing is smooth, not grainy, fluffy, and altogether icing-like. And just think, home made!
Poppy Seed Cake
1/2 cup ground poppy seeds (grind 1/4 cup of poppy seeds in the Cuisinart. You will probably have enough.)
1 1/2 cups milk
2/3 cup butter
2 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon lemon extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons baking powder
4 egg whites
4 1/2 tablespoons cake flour
1 cup milk
1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. To prepare cake, combine the ground poppy seeds and milk and let stand thirty minutes. Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in the lemon extract and vanilla.
3. Sift together the flour, salt and baking powder and fold alternately with the milk mixture into the batter.
4. Beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry and fold into the mixture. Turn into three greased and floured eight-inch layer pans and bake about twenty minutes or until done. (In my oven it's always longer.)
5. Cool on a rack.
6. Meanswhile prepare frosting by blending the flour and milk together in a small saucepan. Heat, stirring, until thick. Cook two minutes until very thick. (Very thick is like icing in a can.)
7. Cream the butter, in a bowl. Gradually beat in the sugar until mixture is very light and fluffy. Gradually add cooled flour mixture and the vanilla. Beat five minutes longer. Use to fill and frost the layers. Decorate with the walnuts.
Makes one dozen servings.