Poppy seeds are wildly popular in Eastern Europe and appear in everything from sweet to savory foods. For many Eastern Europeans, particularly Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Russians, Lithuanians, Slovaks, Czechs and Slovenians, poppy seeds are a symbol of wealth, the tiny seeds representing coins. They figure prominently at Christmastime and New Year's expressing hoped-for prosperity in the coming year.
Eastern Europeans like to sprinkle whole poppy seeds on breads, rolls and cookies, and in... salad dressings, but more often than not, they are ground or crushed to release their flavor in a special grinder or in a ridged bowl with a tool known as a makutra in Poland, and used in pastries or with buttered noodles.
Probably the most popular pastry is poppy seed roll, also known as poppy seed strudel and known variously as makowiec in Poland, mákos bejgli in Hungary, bulochki s makom in Russia, makový závin in the Czech Republic, makovník in Slovakia, aguonų vyniotinis in Lithuania, makovnjača in Croatia, and ruladă cu mac or ruladă cu nuci in Romania. Poppy seed roll is an indispensable dessert for the holidays, especially Christmas and Easter.
Many Eastern Europeans grow the Oriental variety of poppy known as Papaver somniferum in their organic gardens (no pesticides or herbicides) with the specific intention of harvesting the seeds from the dried seed pod or capsule. The test to know if the pod is ready is to shake it. If the seeds can be heard rattling around, they’re ready.
Canned poppy seed filling is available in markets in Eastern Europe, but the best flavor is achieved by grinding one’s own in a grinder specially made for poppy seeds. Try one of these poppy seed recipes.
01 of 07
Eastern Europeans like to sprinkle whole poppy seeds on breads, rolls and cookies, and in salad dressings, but more often than not, they are ground or crushed to release their flavor in a special grinder or mortar and pestle, and used in pastries or with buttered noodles. Probably the most popular use is in pastries known as poppy seed rolls or poppy seed strudels.
Before you get started, make sure you have the right tools for working with poppy seeds. Old-fashioned, hand-cranked poppy seed grinders are the best to use to turn poppy seeds into the paste necessary for so many Eastern European recipes. Most electric seed grinders just don't do the trick of releasing the oils from the poppy seeds the way a manual mill does.
02 of 07
Poppy seed roll or poppy seed strudel is popular in many Slavic and Balkan countries. In Poland, it's known as makowiec, while in Hungary, it's known as mákos beigli. In Croatia, it's called makovnjaca, Slovaks say makovník, and Lithuanians call it pyragas su aguonomis. This dessert, which is popular at Christmastime and for other holidays, is made by rolling a sweet yeast-raised dough around poppy seed paste, which may or may not contain raisins. Some recipes call for a flat icing on top, while others are served plain. And for those who can't digest wheat flour, here is a Gluten-Free Poppy Seed Roll Recipe.
03 of 07
Noodles with poppyseeds is typically one of the traditional dishes served for Slavic Christmas Eve dinner like Polish wigilia. Recipes vary by region and by country. Some add nuts, candied orange peel, or raisins but one thing that seems to remain constant is that homemade noodles are used. This dish is often a substitute for kutia (cooked wheat pudding, see below). In Polish, poppy seeds with noodles is known as kluski z makiem and Slovaks call it rezance s makom.
04 of 07
Yeast bread balls known variously as bobalki, bobalky, babalki and babalky are baked balls of dough. They can be served sweet with ground poppy seeds and honey, or savory with sauerkraut and onion. They are a favorite for Slovak, Carpatho-Rusyn and Ukrainian Christmas Eve supper and during Lent, but these light and airy balls of dough are delicious any time of year.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
05 of 07
Kutia Wigilijna, or Christmas Cooked Wheat Pudding, consisting of whole or cracked wheat (rice for the aristocracy!), honey and nuts (and sometimes raisins, poppyseeds and cream) is typically the first course served at the Polish Christmas Eve dinner known as wigilia.
There are hundreds of variations for kutia and it exists in other cultures including Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Slovakia. In Serbia, it's known as koljivo, in Romania coliva, in Bulgaria kolivo, in Greece kollyva, in the Middle East kahmieh, in Armenia anoushabour, and in Old English ). Not all cooked wheat puddings, however, contain poppy seeds.
06 of 07
07 of 07
But how did this spice, harvested from ripened and dried seed capsules of the plant known as the Oriental or opium poppy, get to Europe? First of all, it should be made clear that this spice is not narcotic because the opium is found in the pod and not the seed itself. And the dried pod has lost any of its opiate properties long before the seeds are harvested.
Poppy seed cultivation dates to 1,400 BC in Crete. Early Egyptians pressed the seed into a cooking oil, and ancient Romans mixed them with wine and honey for Olympic athletes and for home use.
Honey cakes with poppy seed date to the first century AD and, thanks to the Crusades and the Spice Trade, poppy seeds reached Europe and were made into a popular spread during the Middle Ages.
Did you know there are approximately 900,000 poppy seeds in 1 pound? These round, black seeds are actually kidney-shaped and slate blue in color. They have a nutty flavor, especially when toasted. In addition to the blue variety, white poppy seeds exist, but they are generally used in India.