Poppy seed filling is one of the most popular and delicious fillings enjoyed during festive seasons in Eastern Europe.
Poppy seeds are one of the power seeds - rich in magnesium, calcium, fiber and... opiates. On the other hand, poppy seeds are not necessarily an add-on to a low calorie diet with calorie count close to those of chocolate!
Usually blue/grey seeds are used, giving the filling deep and nutty flavour. White seeds can also be used bringing less sweetness to the filling in comparison to blue/grey variety.
The filling complements sweet doughs like traditional poppy seed roll cake, strudels, kolaches, babkas or rugelachs. The filling is also used in cheesecakes (as an extra layer or mixed into the cream cheese) and cakes.
In a good traditional poppy seed filling on top of the seeds you will usually find: walnuts/pecans/almonds, raisins, orange or lemon zests (but usually these flavours complement the dessert in a form of icing or topping, sometimes candied orange is used), nut extract (usually almond extract), rum, biscuits, sugar or honey. The mixture of all these ingredients makes this filling a little gem.
You can also buy canned poppy seed filling - which unfortunately has nothing to do with traditional version. The homemade version requires some effort to prepare but the taste is top notch!
The recipe below is my mum’s traditional poppy seed filling.
First, poppy seeds (use white or blue) are cooked in full-fat milk and then sit overnight to soak and bulge. This transforms poppy seeds from grainy to mellow, releasing their nutty flavour compounds. Some recipes call for water but milk combined with poppy seeds releases completely different flavour dimension (mellow, sweet and nutty).
As a next step, excess milk needs to be removed (sift and give a proper squeeze). Then the mass needs to be ground. This is the tricky part. For this recipe we are using big grinder (using smallest scale). You may also opt to use coffee grinder.
The mass is ground 3 times - it does make a difference as with each grinding the filling becomes thicker and finer. Texture will resemble paste rather than gritty and seedy mass.
For our filling we are using light brown sugar and honey (which makes the mixture more moist). Ground nuts (use pecans, walnuts; some use almonds especially if white poppy seeds are used) and raisins (whole or chopped) are added and the mixture is cooked for some 10-15 minutes. Once the mixture is lukewarm, golden rum is added to bring out the nutty and sweet flavour - it’s optional but we highly (!) recommend it.
At the end, eggs and ground savoiardi are added (or ladyfingers, or homemade sponge - butter-free). Ground savoiardi are used as a last step to thicken the mass and bind it. We have marked this step as optional - use soft biscuits if you plan to bake babka, poppy seeds roll cake, rugelachs (or semi-french pastry), pies. These are not needed if you plan to bake kolaches, cheesecakes, regular cakes with this type of filling.
In some recipes we will also add egg whites to this mass (it will be marked in separate recipes as it’s not needed for all the bakes; usually leftover egg whites from enriched sweet doughs are used in the filling).
You can freeze the mass for up to 1 month (we have marked in the recipe the stage most suitable for freezing - before adding almond extract, rum, eggs, savoiardi). When ready, thaw in the fridge overnight, bring to boil, cool until lukewarm and then add rum, almond extract, eggs and savoiardi.
Poppy seed filling recipe
Yield: makes approx. 2 kg filling
- 500g poppy seeds (blue/grey or white)
- 1L full-fat milk
- 85g salted butter
- 250g good honey
- 250g light brown sugar
- 200g pecans or walnuts, ground
- 150g sultanas, finely chopped or whole
- almond extract, 3-4 drops
- 30ml rum
- 2 large eggs
- 200g savoiardi/ladyfingers, ground (optional, read notes above)
1. Cook poppy seeds with milk: In a medium pot mix poppy seeds with milk. Bring to boil, reduce the heat to low and cook uncovered for 30-40 minutes, stirring every so often not to burn. When ready, cover the pot with a lid, bring to room temperature and then refrigerate overnight.
2. Grind poppy seeds: When ready, remove the excess milk - sift and give the mass a proper squeeze. Grind in a grinder 3 times. The mass should resemble thick paste.
3. Combine: In a medium pot melt butter, add honey, sugar, ground pecans/walnuts, sultanas, ground poppy seeds. Bring the mixture to boil and then cook for 10 minutes on low heat stirring occasionally (watch not to burn!). After that time, take off the heat. Freeze the mass at this stage (bring to room temperature before freezing and freeze for up to 1 month) or proceed. Cool slightly, add almond extract, rum and stir. When the mixture is at room temperature, add eggs and ground savoiardi and mix until combined.