But I’m sure they can make you happy. Poppy seeds taste nutty, or, when ground to the consistency of moist soil, they offer a pleasant fruitiness I find irresistible. They do have a tendency to get stuck in your teeth, but they are also good for you: rich in magnesium, calcium and fiber. On the other hand, they’re not exactly low-calorie, registering numbers in the neighborhood of chocolate’s.
Poppy seeds have a natural affinity for lemon, so I like to combine those ingredients with walnuts, garlic and butter in a delicate pasta dish with Eastern European roots. But there are more ways to pair them. When I mix twice-ground poppy seeds into a cake batter, the result is rich and often keeps people guessing about which flavoring I used. They blend with chocolate beautifully, so I top the cake with bittersweet ganache. I’m surprised I haven’t seen more poppy seed ice cream pop up on the menus of Washington’s more inventive pastry chefs. It has an odd color but quite an interesting flavor that complements apple and almond.
Of course, the Jewish holiday of Purim (March 19 this year) sends bakers running to acquire poppy seeds in large amounts. If cost is an issue, visiting the grocery store spice aisle is not the way to go; see the accompanying list of places to buy in bulk. Using poppy seeds by the cup instead of the teaspoon creates bold flavor, and I’m all for that.
In Israel, where I’m from, poppy seed filling is by far the most popular one for hamantaschen, the small three-cornered pastries that symbolize the ears of Haman, an evil 5th-century B.C. adviser to the king of Persia who sought to kill all Jews.
Unfortunately, the canned stuff you find in stores here has nothing to do with the wonderfully fresh, cooked-with-milk-and-sugar poppy seed filling you can easily make at home. To verify that claim, I agreed to try the store-bought kind. As with any food product that has corn syrup listed as its first ingredient, the filling was very sweet and gooey and left a slightly bitter aftertaste. I immediately devoured real hamantaschen with real homemade filling that I had made that morning, to get rid of the bad taste.