“Can poppy seeds get you high?”, is a question that pops up a lot when you search for poppy seeds on the Internet. In fact, consuming only three poppy seed bagels can lead to false positives in over-the-counter drug tests, as demonstrated in a 2003 episode of Discovery Channel’s MythBusters.
Walk into any well-assorted pastry shop in Germany and you will likely find sheet cake, streusel cake, or poppy seed roll with a generous poppy seed filling. These goodies contain many times over the skimpy amount of poppy seeds that are sprinkled onto a bagel. Does this mean that Germany has it own legalized version of Alice B. Toklas brownies, available at any bakery down the street?
Certainly not. Poppy seeds are the dried seeds of the opium poppy (Papaper somniferum). Opium, on the other hand, is the milky sap that is extracted from the seed pods when they are still green. This substance contains 12% morphine, an opiate found in opium. It is dried and used for the legal manufacture of painkillers, or, illegally, to produce heroin. Poppy seeds themselves do not contain opium but they may be contaminated with it during the harvest and thus contain a certain amount of morphine. The German Narcotics Law (Betäubungsmittelgesetz) has prohibited the cultivation of opium poppies since the end of World War II.
Trying to make sense of all this seemingly conflicting information, I found the most convincing explanation in an article by Wissensforum Backwaren e.V., a German association dedicated to the information about the ingredients and methods used by the baking trades. It says that the type and origin of the poppy seeds is crucial. Poppy seeds from Australia are especially high in morphine content with 100 mg/kg and higher, whereas poppy seeds from Turkey, Hungary and the Czech Republic contain only minimal amounts of less than 1 mg/kg up to 40 mg/kg. Most of the poppy seeds used in Germany are blue poppy seeds imported from those three countries. Also, the lengthy processing of the poppy seeds used in baked goods – grinding, and heating at high temperatures – further reduces the morphine content.
One region in particular is famous for its poppy seed specialties: Silesia. A province of Prussia since the mid-18th century, it was reverted to Poland in 1945 when the German population was expelled or fled to the West. With them they brought their recipes for Poppy Seed Roll (the recipe is in my book), and Poppy Seed Bread Pudding, which was traditionally eaten between Christmas and the New Year.
In Silesia poppies for poppy seed were not only grown commercially but also in home gardens. My grandmother, who in the late 1930s moved to Silesia where my grandfather worked in a mill, told me a story that stuck in my mind. Mothers gave their infants pouches with poppy seeds to suck on to keep them quiet so the women could go about their work on the fields. After what I recently learned about poppy seeds, I can see how a load of unprocessed poppy seeds fresh from the seed pods can have this effect, especially on small children.
Yet reassured that not all poppy seed is alike, I set out to make Poppy Seed Bread Pudding for New Year’s Eve. Although it was a cloudy day and starting to snow, I nagged my husband to take a couple of pictures because I absolutely wanted to dig into the pudding today.
After he ate the pudding from the photo shoot, he sent me an email, “Are you sure it’s legal? Yummy.”
Poppy Seed Bread Pudding (Mohnkließla)
Unless you can find freshly ground poppy seeds, it is best to buy the whole seeds, store them in the freezer and grind them right before using. Because of their high oil content, the seeds easily turn rancid.
There are special poppy seed mills but I find that an electric coffee grinder (provided it is solely used for grinding spices, as you do not want to impart any coffee flavor to the seeds) works very well. Alternatively, you can also process soaked seeds in a food processor. The result is not quite as fine but decent.
Mohnkließla should stand for at least a day, and the pudding tastes even better after a few days. The traditional accompaniment is whipped cream or vanilla sauce but it is also good plain or with lemon sorbet, which nicely underlines the nutty flavor of the poppy seed.
18 slices fine white sandwich bread, dried and crust removed
⅓ cup (60 g) raisins
½ cup (70 g) raw peeled whole almonds
1¾ cups (9 ounces/250 g) poppy seed, freshly ground
1 quart (950 ml) milk
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon golden rum
½ cup (100 g) sugar
¼ + ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1. If the bread is soft, put the slices on a baking sheet in a single layer and dry them in the preheated oven at 350 degrees F (180 degrees C), turning them over once or twice and making sure they do not brown.
2. Rinse the raisins under hot water and drain well. Chop and set aside. Coarsely chop the almonds and toast them in an ungreased pan until lightly browned and fragrant, turning them often. Set aside to cool.
3. Put the poppy seed in a heatproof bowl. Bring 2 cups of the milk to a boil in a saucepan and pour it over the poppy seed. Add the raisins, almonds, almond extract, rum, half of the sugar, and ¼ teaspoon cinnamon, and combine well.
4. Heat the remaining milk in the saucepan with the remaining sugar and ¼ teaspoon cinnamon. Dip the bread slices into the milk like you would do with ladyfingers for tiramisu, letting them absorbing as much liquid as possible but not so much that the slices will fall apart.
5. Spread a layer of soaked bread in a large glass dish with a flat bottom. Tailor the slices to fit as needed. Add a layer of the poppy seed mix, a second layer of bread, etc., ending with a layer of poppy seed mix. Cover with plastic film and chill for at least 24 hours.
Makes 8 to 12 servings