“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
January 1, 2014 at 5:39 pm
Nadia, thanks for this great little report on poppy seeds. For me, poppy seeds for culinary use have always been hard to find without a trip to a metropolitan area. But it’s easy to produce your own seeds, and although this is illegal in the USA nobody bothers home gardeners about it, at least if you don’t slit the green pods. (The last time I needed poppy seeds for planting, in fact, I took them a patch of poppies planted in the center of the Oregon State University campus, right by the sidewalk.) But I’m wondering: Do some varieties have better seeds than others for grinding? I’ve found I can grind only about 2 tablespoons poppy seeds at a time in the coffee grinder that I reserve for spices, and even at that the motor threatens to give out. I have better luck with a big stone mortar.
January 6, 2014 at 10:12 am
Not every supermarket in our rural area carries poppy seed but some do, I suppose because of the many East European immigrants here. – Interesting what you write about producing your own seeds, I do not think I ever set eyes on an opium poppy! – Re different varieties having better grinding properties than others, I could not find any information on this. I think the fresher, i.e. softer the seeds, the easier the grinding. I can grind max. 1/4 cup at once in the coffee grinder, which is brand new so the blade is still very sharp, that might help.
January 5, 2014 at 8:44 pm
My late wife was from Donauworth. We visited her family there a few times and always had a wonderful time. I got to love German food. Laberkasse and all the schnitzels. No where around here to get any. I try to cook some of them, but not as good as the real thing.
January 6, 2014 at 10:32 am
Richard, I am not a big meat eater but on every visit to Germany I must buy a bun with Leberkäse from a butcher and eat it on the run. I have never made Leberkäse from scratch but you are giving me the idea to try it! However making food that matches the taste of your memories is difficult to impossible, even if you have the recipe and follow it exactly.
January 8, 2014 at 9:11 am
I have to say I’m not a huge fan of poppy seeds – they always get stuck in my teeth! – but this looks very, very tempting. I just found your blog via The Local – it’s great!
January 27, 2014 at 4:45 pm
For the reason you describe poppy seeds would not be my first choice for a dinner when I want to impress someone looking graceful 🙂 Glad you are enjoying my blog.
March 21, 2014 at 10:05 am
Loved your article and Thank you for your research. I personally love poppy seeds but for the past few years I shy away from it as no matter where I buy, it taste bitter, leaving my mouth “high”. I came across with an upcoming company who is planning to import similar poppy seed your referenced in your article. What do you think of them? Do you think they speak the truth. Very interested to read your opinion. http://www.SmartPoppySeed.com.
March 21, 2014 at 5:27 pm
Thanks, Russ, for pointing out that website to me. I like that it clarifies that “not all poppy seeds are created equal” and the ample information, however, I find it unlikely that medical-grade poppy seeds are sold as food-grade, this is the first time I hear about that claim, The company may just offer a higher and purer quality than others. – As for the bitter taste of poppy seeds you are experiencing, could this be because the seeds were not fresh? Poppy seeds turn rancid quickly because of their high oil content, especially after grinding. That is why they are usually sold whole and ground right before using. I even keep my whole poppy seeds in the freezer. Hope that answers your question.
December 28, 2015 at 7:54 am
For me, this is traditional for Christmas Eve. The recipe was passed down from my mom to me, and I have since passed it down to my daughter. The way we make it differs slightly, for example using honey instead of sugar as well as a couple of other differences. Over the years, rather than buying poppy seeds and grinding, we’ve been using Solo Poppy Seed Filling which works wonderfully! It’s available in my local grocery stores in the baking aisle alongside the canned pie fillings. 🙂
December 28, 2015 at 9:08 am
Susan, Wonderful that you have a handed-down recipe from your mother. And yes, there are many different variations of the pudding. I am a purist and prefer to make things from scratch whenver possible so I don’t used canned pie filling but helpful to know that you are happy with it. I just checked the ingredients of that brand you mentioned, it contains corn syrup but not high-fructose corn syrup, so that’s good.