By Pam Mandel
April 27, 2015
Pakistan is the world’s largest producer of poppy seeds, but the Austrians are no slouches, they produce about 1,000 metric tons, annually. The technical term for that is a whole lotta poppy seeds. Poppy seeds show up all over Austria baking – dusting the top of your bread rolls, sprinkled over butter smothered dumplings, and inside your cake.
Recently, the EU passed new menu labeling guidelines, allowing diners to understand if their choices contain dairy, nuts, wheat – most of the foods that set off the allergic and intolerant. The labeling guideline includes the current villain of choice, gluten.
This hasn’t been as bad as you’d think for the Austria cake landscape. Lots of cakes are made with a nut flour base. (If that’s your allergy, there’s always cheesecake.) And a good mohntorte – poppy seed cake – is made with ground poppy seeds. The basic mohntorte has no flour in it (except what the baker uses to dust the pan, and that’s optional) so it’s a friendly choice for those who have genuine gluten allergies. The cake has a surprisingly chocolaty flavor for something with no chocolate in it – maybe it’s all the eggs. Some classic recipes have as many as nine eggs in them, and some use just the yolk. Gluten may be out, but cholesterol is way in.
Mohntorte originates in the Waldviertel, which is also where much of Austria’s poppy seed crops are grown. It’s up at the top of Austria and borders the Czech Republic, a place where they’re also fond of using generous amounts of poppy seeds in their desserts.
Poppy seed get used as a filling in a number of other cakes and pastries, too. The seeds are ground with honey and boiled in milk, they make a sticky sweet paste used in rolled up coffee cakes and in Hamentaschen, a treat made for the Jewish holiday of Purim.
Poppy seed paste is also used in fachertorte, an over the top three layer folly of a cake. The lower layer is yellow cake boiled in honey and milk, the middle layer is poppy seed paste, the top layer is apples sautéed in butter and apple schnapps. The whole thing is wrapped in a brioche like crust. It’s the kind of cake you want to eat alone, in quiet place so you can lie down and have a smoke afterwards, but it’s also so nice to eat it in the over the top rotunda of Vienna’s Art History Museum. The setting is only outdone by what’s on your plate.
It’s probably best to visit the art galleries before you indulge, because after you have licked the very last crumbs of the back of your fork, the baroque paintings of ladies with dimpled thighs or fat cherubs or giant, heroic shield waving men will seem a bit pale compared to excess of your recently consumed cake.
It’s all about the order, art first, cake after, and aren’t they really the same thing?