poppy seed lemon cake – smitten kitchen

A whopping eight years ago, I joined a friend and her family for an afternoon at the then newly-opened Neue Galerie, which seriously, you should check out some time when you’re in my city. (Look at me, playing tourist guide!) The early 20th century German and Austrian art is fantastic but even more wonderful is the Cafe Sabarsky within which models itself after a turn-of-the-century Viennese cafe. But really, I don’t want to talk about the Kadinskys or the Kavalierspitz today, I want to talk about this cake. That I had there that day. That I have not shut up about since.


I wasn’t even the one who ordered it. Eight years ago, things called “lemon poppy seed cake” were ubiquitous, and largely nothing to write home about. I never understood what the poppy seeds were doing there, all sparse like occasional punctuations, adding… visual interest? It was generally unclear. They were lemon cakes, and not even great ones, with speckles. But this cake. THIS CAKE. (Sorry, it makes me shouty.) First its appearance: Poppy seeds clustered so densely, the cake was nearly black. I’d never seen anything like it — so intriguing, so ominous! And its texture: It managed to be one of the lightest cakes I’d ever eaten, without the blandness that’s all-too-common in angel food, chiffon and other “airy” confections. And the flavor: It tasted like lemon-scented butter, without the acidity typical in lemon cakes. This was about the perfume of the lemon, not the juice. And the poppy seeds! Did you know that poppy seeds actually do have a flavor — a slight nuttiness — should you allow enough of them in that they can actually speak up?

poppy aplentyzest, not juiceegg yolks, whipped ever-so-lightspeckled batter

I have spent nearly a decade yammering about this cake to everyone who had the misfortune to tune in. “It was black!” and “Tiny crunches everywhere!” and “It was like nothing you’d expect!” and more succinctly, “Butter!” ad infinitum. I have told Alex about it a gazillion times (it predates even him!), friends and family, even wee Jacob (he was aghast). I gushed over it, babbled about it, praised it, talked it up so mightily that I began to worry that should this cake and I be reunited that it would not live up to it’s bronzed image in my head. People, I did everything in the world but one tiny thing.

poppy seed lemon cake
poppy seed lemon cake

I did not Google it. And had I Googled it before last week I would have made a downright earth-shattering discovery: That Chef Kurt Gutenbrunner published this lemon poppy seed cake recipe in Food & Wine six whole years ago, almost as long as it has been off the menu at the cafe. Almost as long as it could have been in my repertoire, but was not. I hope that you will never come to know such regret.

poppy seed lemon cake

Too many egg whites to use up? Try one of these recipes: Spingy Fluffy Marshmallows, Mom’s Chocolate Chip Meringues, Mixed Berry Pavlova, 7-Minute Frosting, Chewy Amaretti Cookies, Sugar and Spice Candied Nuts, Hazelnut Brown Butter Cake, Pink Lady Cake, Almond Raspberry Layer Cake and, of course, in droves, Swiss Meringue Buttercream.

One year ago: Squash and Chickpea Moroccan Stew
Two years ago: Lemon Bars
Three years ago: World Peace Cookies

Poppy Seed Lemon Cake
Adapted, barely, from Kurt Gutenbrunner via Food & Wine

As excited as I was about finally finding this recipe as I set about baking it I was consumed with doubt. “Only two-thirds of a cup of sugar? A half cup of flour to eight yolks and one whole egg? How can this work? This will never work. I shouldn’t make this. I hate throwing nearly a dozen eggs out, and the skins of two gorgeous organic lemons…” Fortunately I eventually shut up and can assure you, this is the cake I’d been looking for all along: a zillion tiny cracking poppy seeds, fragrant with lemon and loud with butter.

Yes, I reversed the “lemon” and “poppy seed” in the title as I was convinced that the emphasis was on the wrong sylable, as they say.

2/3 cup sugar
8 large egg yolks
1 large whole egg
1 1/2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest (from 2 lemons)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
Pinch of salt (edited to add this)
2 sticks (1/2 pound) unsalted butter, melted and cooled a bit
1/2 cup poppy seeds (I got this from one 3-ounce spice bottle)

Preheat the oven to 325°F Butter and flour an 8-inch* fluted Bundt or tube pan generously. (This cake very much wants to stick. Don’t let it!) Butter the dull side of a 10-inch piece of foil.

* I only had a 10-inch and it worked fine; the cake was done about 10 minutes sooner.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk, beat the sugar with the egg yolks and whole egg at medium-high speed until the mixture is pale yellow and very fluffy, about 8 minutes. Beat in the lemon zest. Sift the flour and cornstarch over the egg mixture and fold in along with the pinch of salt with a rubber spatula. At medium speed, beat in the butter, then beat in the poppy seeds.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and cover tightly with the buttered foil. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the cake pulls away from the side of the pan and a cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove the foil and let the cake cool in the pan on a rack for 15 minutes. Invert the cake onto the rack and let cool completely before serving, at least 30 minutes.

Do ahead: The cake can be wrapped in plastic and foil and left at room temperature for up to 3 days.

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