Can poppy seeds do more than decorate bagels?

Graphic: Karl Gustafson
FeaturesFeaturesStories from The Takeout about food, drink, and how we live.

About a year ago, veteran political journalist and recurring PBS Washington Week panelist Karen Tumulty started one of my favorite food debates ever to play out on Twitter:

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The tweet set off a wave of vituperation against parsley, disparaging it as a visual plate-filler (innocent bystanders cilantro and bay leaves took some heat, too) and a bitter, pointless garnish. One commenter sought middle ground, defending Italian flat-leaf parsley’s sweetness while disparaging the rough, curly stuff. But plenty of other tweeters stood up for the herb as an essential factor in bright, zingy, and flavorful tabbouleh, chimichurri, crab dip, gremolata, meatloaf, soups, and most anything savory that heavily features lemon.

A reformed parsley skeptic myself, reading off all the dishes in which the ingredient truly is an unsung hero got me thinking: What other ingredients have I carelessly written off without giving them their proper due?

Until recently, the top of my list would have been poppy seeds. I love a nice lemon poppy seed muffin, but not any more or less than a seedless slice of lemon cake. I shudder internally whenever a Chicago-style hot dog is served on a plain bun, but is anyone really missing anything in the absence of poppy seeds other than the pitter-patter sound of bits falling off onto the wrapper? And unlike, say, nigella seeds, which smell heavenly, or black sesame seeds, which have an aroma so oaky and sophisticated I’d wear it as cologne if I could, raw poppy seeds just sort of smell like a pet shop. My friend claims they turn everything bagels into “the baking equivalent of claymore mines, desiccated bits of sand that get stuck in your teeth.”

There was a time when he and I would have been on the same page, but that was before I tasted tebirkes. Or a poppy seed crown. Or sweet and sour poppy seed dressing. That was before I learned how versatile poppy seeds can be.

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Tebirkes at Lost Larson
Photo: Dan Jakes

Pastry chef Bobby Schaffer opened Lost Larson in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood last year, and it’s quickly become my go-to bakery. To my mind, no food is a greater imposter than the pastry case treat that looks so seductive that turns out to be stale and disappointing. But Lost Larson’s cardamom buns and lemon curd tarts and croissants and princess cakes are the rare real deal. What really blows my mind, though, are the tebirkes, laminated, buttery pastries covered in a thick, uniform layer of poppy seeds.

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“You go to a bakery [in Denmark], and they’re everywhere,” says Schaffer, whose menu was inspired by the neighborhood’s Scandinavian roots. The key to bringing the poppy seeds’ nutty flavor forward, he says, is quantity. “I feel like you don’t get that unless you have a lot of it on the product. [On] hot dog buns, you don’t really taste them too much, but with the tebirkes, we put a lot of poppy seeds on there.”

The result is a parchment-thin top crust of seeds with a pronounced flavor similar to burnt meat ends. There are also some floral notes and an aroma Schaffer describes as “damp basement,” which he likens to a fermented tea—though he’s quick to clarify that he means that in a good way.

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When you bite into tebirkes, instead of seeds flying everywhere, the pastry shatters and flakes into hundreds of layers. The woody, nutty, toasted flavor of the seeds hit your tongue and roof of your mouth first, providing a point of contrast for the richness of the butter and the sweetness of the sugar.

Austrian poppy seed bread at Cafe Vienna, Chicago
Photo: Susan Renteria
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Poppy seeds have a long history, traveling from the Middle East across Europe. You can find them in Jewish baked goods such as hamantaschen, in Indian curries that are thickened with ground poppy seeds, and the Hungarian poppy seed noodles known as mákos tészta. Schaffer credits Austrian bakers for bringing poppy seeds to Denmark and introducing them to Scandinavian cuisine. Appropriately enough, about four miles down Clark Street from Lost Larson is another bakery that makes poppy seeds a starring ingredient: Cafe Vienna, where head baker Susan Renteria bakes a fabulous poppy seed bread, comparable to mohnstrudel.

“When people have never had it before it’s hard to explain,” Renteria says. “There’s not a lot it compares to. It’s sweet, but not an overpowering sweet.”

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Not quite a traditional yeast bread, strudel, or cake, Cafe Vienna’s poppy seed bread is so delicate and tender that is has to be cut by hand, and the slices must be at least half an inch thick. Dark ribbons twirl through the top and the center of the loaf that, at first glance, could easily be confused with cinnamon raisin swirl or a praline. But it’s actually much more subtle poppy seed butter that’s been sweetened with honey and sugar.

Unlike the seeds on the tebirkes, which are roasted and take on a dark and intense earthy flavor, the poppy seeds in Cafe Vienna’s bread blend with the honey, giving it a brighter, almost botanical flavor. It’s delicious served toasted with a side of sugar and jelly, and as Renteria notes, the bread’s sweetness is mild enough to pair with savory toppings. “I know as far as Austria or Germany goes, they traditionally have it warmed up with butter,” she says. “Some of them might even [add] a piece of cheese or meat, but not like a sandwich.”

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Photo: Dan Jakes

Just a few blocks from Cafe Vienna is another spot where poppy seeds are more than a cameo player: Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Company. The restaurant is best known for its bulbous, camera-friendly pot-pie-style pizzas, but it also features its own homemade sweet and sour poppy seed dressing. Much deeper in color than a lot of poppy seed dressings, CPOG’s version tastes like incredibly sweet onions; the seeds suspended throughout add texture and depth of flavor. (Helen Corbitt, the Texas chef who is sometimes erroneously credited for inventing poppy seed dressing, claims that it’s also delectable on Texas grapefruit.)

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This wide range of flavors in just three dishes shows the poppy seeds have the potential to be way more than bagel decor. Depending on the situation, it can be an earthy, powerful principal ingredient, or a benevolent, selfless enhancer of the flavors of everything around it. How many other seeds have that kind of versatility?

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