The moist texture and pronounced flavor of this poppy-seed cake are best achieved by grinding the poppy seeds in a spice mill or coffee grinder and then soaking them in milk. Poppy seeds have a sharp, assertive flavor, and this cake is for the poppy-seed lover. Probably not my first choice for a children’s cake, however, as they do not typically share an attraction to them. The seeds can be expensive if purchased in little spice jars from the supermarket, so try to search out a store that sells them in bulk; the price will be much more reasonable. For the filling and frosting, a nice chunky, bitter marmalade is perfect and harmonizes beautifully with the sweet Italian Meringue Buttercream Frosting.
Images: Peter Muka
Adapted from The Wedding Cake Book (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), by Dédé Wilson.
- ⅔ cups poppy seeds
- 1½ cups whole milk
- 3 cups sifted cake flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- ¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 cups sugar, divided into 1½ cups and ½ cup
- 1 ½ teaspoon vanilla
- 6 large eggs, separated
- ½ teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1 recipe Italian Meringue Buttercream, prepared and ready to use
- 2 cups orange marmalade, divided into 1½ cups and ½ cup
- Position oven rack in center of oven. Preheat oven to 325°F. Coat two 9-inch round cake pans with nonstick spray, line with parchment paper rounds, then coat parchment.
- Grind the poppy seeds in the grinder, pulsing on and off for about 15 seconds. They should be completely ground and slightly sticky. Shake the grinder up and down a few times while you are grinding to help loosen up the poppy seeds; they will grind more evenly. Place the ground seeds and milk in a small pot; bring to a boil and turn off the heat. Let the mixture soak until it cools to room temperature. Milk boils over easily, so watch the pot carefully.
- Meanwhile, sift the cake flour, baking powder and salt and set aside.
- Beat the butter with an electric mixer until creamy and smooth. Add 1½ cups of sugar gradually and continue to beat on a medium-high speed. Scrape down the bowl once or twice and cream until very light and fluffy. Add the vanilla, beating to combine. Add the yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down the bowl once or twice. Set aside.
- In a clean, grease-free bowl, beat the egg whites until frothy. Add the cream of tartar and continue to whip until soft peaks form. Add the ½ cup sugar gradually and whip until stiff, shiny peaks form. Do not over beat.
- In a large bowl, combine the butter/yolk mixture with the sifted dry ingredients alternately with the poppy mixture. Do this by hand, gently folding in the dry and wet until the batter is combined. Fold in about one-quarter of the whipped whites to lighten the batter, then fold the rest in, carefully retaining the volume provided by the meringue. Scrape into the pans, smoothing the tops with an offset spatula.
- Bake for 45 to 55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center shows a few moist crumbs clinging. Cool cakes on rack for 10 minutes, unmold, remove parchment and cool completely. Cake may be filled and frosted right away or wrapped in plastic wrap and stored at room temperature overnight.
- For Assembly: Have buttercream prepared, soft and ready to use. Beat 1½ cups marmalade into the buttercream until thoroughly combined (see Tips). Level the cake layers if necessary. Place one layer on a serving platter and apply a nice ½-inch thick layer of the buttercream to the top, making sure it is as thick along the edges as it is in the middle. Place second cake layer on top, then apply an extra-tick layer of buttercream to the top, making attractive swirls. Take remaining ½ cup marmalade and place in a mesh trainer. Let cold water run over the marmalade and use fingers to stir the marmalade around and help dissolve the jelly, leaving the candied orange pieces. Pat these orange peel pieces dry and use as candied orange peel to decorate the top. Serve immediately or the same day.
- Any orange marmalade will work, but some have a greater proportion of orange peel and some have more jelly. When you are beating the marmalade into the buttercream, go slowly and add only as much as the buttercream will accept. You will be able to tell because the frosting will resist any further incorporation and begin to look slippery, which happens with marmalades that have a greater jelly consistency. Stop immediately at that point, even if you haven’t used the full amount. You will most likely be able to add at least 1 full cup.
- Cakes with exposed sides dry out more easily than cakes that are covered with frosting, hence the recommendation to eat this cake the same day as you assemble it.