When I was growing up, I loved poppy seed cake. It was a family thing: I recall that my aunt Gretchen had a poppy seed wedding cake, and Rob and I did, too. Taylor’s Bakery in Indianapolis made a delicious poppy seed cake with white icing. And I remember my grandmother Dorothy making it cake on occasion, too, though she was more of a pie baker than a cake maker.
I was delighted to find her recipe for poppy seed cake in her recipe file, which my mom recently shared with me after Dorothy passed away in April at age 95. She had clipped this recipe from the Indianapolis Star at one point — the original recipe is undated. But this cake recipe is pretty much perfect: It’s fancier than a basic pound cake but not as fussy or time-consuming as a frosted layer cake. Assuming you have poppy seeds on hand, you can make it any time, and it’s really easy to mix up.
As with many old recipes, I found the instructions to be a little wonky, so I rewrote them to be more logical. I don’t have a huge sweet tooth, so I reduced the amount of sugar called for from 1 1/2 cups to 1 cup. (You could use the full amount as noted below.) Since I love lemon, I increased the amount of lemon zest and juice.
Thanks to everyone who shared my enthusiasm for cooking with my grandmother Dorothy’s recipe file. This is the first recipe in what I’m calling The Dorothy Project. (For scoop on another collection of vintage recipe cards that inspired my cooking in similar ways, check out The Clara Project.)
In the coming weeks, I’ll be telling you a little bit more about my grandma and sharing more of her old-fashioned recipes.
Grandma's Poppy Seed Cake Recipe
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup poppy seeds
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pinch of ground nutmeg
1 cup granulated sugar (use 1 1/2 cups if you like a sweeter cake)
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
1 cup butter
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Powdered sugar for dusting
Preheat oven to 350°. Spray a standard tube or bundt pan with cooking spray, then dust with flour, shaking out excess. In a bowl, whisk together the flour, poppy seeds, baking powder, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg. In another bowl, combine granulated sugar and lemon zest and use your fingers to work them together until the sugar resembles moist sand and the mixture is fragrant. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl using a hand mixer), cream butter until smooth; add lemon-sugar and beat together until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, blending well; stir in vanilla. In a measuring cup, combine milk and lemon juice (the milk will curdle). With the mixer running on low speed, add 1/3 of the flour mixture and stir to combine. Add 1/2 the milk. Repeat with another 1/3 of flour mixture, then remaining milk, and finishing with the flour—mixing well after each addition. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, leveling the top and tapping the pan on the counter to settle the batter. Bake until the cake is lightly golden and a toothpick inserted into several spots comes out clean, about 50 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool for 15 minutes, then invert cake onto a plate. Let cool. Dust with powdered sugar before serving.