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.
Probably the most popular pastry is poppy seed roll, also known as poppy seed strudel and known variously as:
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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.
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Poppy seed roll or poppy seed strudel is popular in many Slavic and Balkan countries. 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. For those who can't digest wheat flour, gluten-free poppy seed rolls are good alternatives.
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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 are known as kluski z makiem and Slovaks call them rezance s makom.
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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 6 below.
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Kutia Wigilijna, or Christmas Cooked Wheat Pudding, consisting of whole or cracked wheat (rice for the aristocracy!), honey and nuts (and sometimes raisins, poppy seeds, 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.
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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.