Have you ever looked closely at poppy seeds? I mean really closely? They're actually not black, but an unusually appealing shade of grayish blue. And they're not essentially tasteless, as they've often seemed to me in the past. Think about it . . . you're munching a deli sandwich made with a poppy seed roll on your lunch hour; do you even have the time or inclination to truly taste the poppy seeds, much less admire their color, or to pay them any mind at all? I thought not. The only reaction you might have to them is annoyance when one becomes stuck in your teeth, right?
In the U.S. at least, they go mostly unnoticed and get little respect. Based on my now decades-long perusal of baking cookbooks, you're far more likely to see them used in European recipes. But that's too bad, because heaven knows they're no Johnny-come-lately to the pantry. In comparison to most of the things we throw into our everyday American chow, they're an old and distinguished soul. Native to Asia, the tiny dark seeds are rich in history. They've been used medicinally for centuries. In ancient cultures they were valued for metaphysical, as well as practical, properties. Luckily for us, they willingly lend their esoteric magic to baked goods.
Whoever first had the idea to combine the flavor of lemon with poppy seeds was certainly on the right track. The toasted-nutty flavor of poppy seeds--for that is how they taste when we pay attention--is pretty subtle. Diminutive seeds that they are, they simply don't blow their own horn. Combining them with another distinct flavor is almost always a good idea, and they just cohabit so nicely with lemon.
Thus we have today's recipe for lemon poppy seed cookies. Now, if you don't like crunchy cookies, and I mean really crunchy cookies, you probably won't write home about these babies. I'm sure there are more delicate, fragile cookies that could be made beautifully with lemon and poppy seeds, this just doesn't happen to be one of them. This is the kind of cookie you can dunk in a cup of hot tea knowing that it won't immediately fall apart and dissolve, the kind of cookie you can nibble on slowly, savoring the small chewy seeds and the nice citrus aspect. It's like a very firm shortbread. Firm firm.
Not convinced? Are you worried about those opium rumors? Have you been watching the Seinfeld rerun where Elaine eats a lemon poppy seed muffin, and frets because she thinks it caused her to flunk a drug test at work? Well, not to worry. The poppy seeds used in our food (as opposed to whatever it was Elaine may have ingested) are mature seeds, not the unripe seeds that contain the milky stuff from which opium can be extracted. It's the mature seeds we're baking with, and the best ones come from Holland. So while you might very well become a cookie junkie (and there are support groups to help you with that), chances are slim and none that you'll become an opium addict from using poppy seeds in your pastry.
So, are you game?
Okay, good. Grab your car keys and go buy some premium Holland Blue poppy seeds. Then go home and make some cookies!
Crunchy Lemon Poppy Seed Cookies
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a couple of cookie sheets with parchment paper or Silpats.
3 cups All Purpose flour, bleached
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cream of tartar
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 cup butter, unsalted and softened
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. lemon extract
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 and 1/2 tsp. fresh grated lemon zest
2 and 1/2 Tbsp. high quality poppy seeds such as Holland Blue*
In a bowl, measure and whisk together the flour, baking soda, cream of tartar, and salt. Set aside.
In a large mixer bowl fitted with the paddle attachment, mix together on medium speed the butter, shortening, and sugar until fluffy (about two minutes). Add in the vanilla and lemon extracts, the lemon juice, and the lemon zest; mix until combined.
On the lowest speed, or by hand, gradually mix in about one third of the dry ingredients--except for the poppy seeds.
After you've mixed in about one third of the dry ingredients, pour in all the poppy seeds, mix those in, and then continue adding in the rest of the flour gradually. Don't overmix.
Chill the dough in the fridge or freezer for at least 20 minutes. (Good idea to chill your cookie sheets in the freezer or fridge also, if you can manage it.) After the dough is cold, portion them onto the sheets. I used a No. 50 sccop for these; that holds about 1 and 1/4 Tbsp. Place the cookies about two inches apart.
Put a few tablespoons of sugar in a shallow bowl. Find a small drinking glass that's completely smooth on the bottom; dampen the bottom and dip it in the sugar, then use that to press down the cookies, as pictured. For each cookie, dip the glass again in the sugar.
Bake the cookies on an upper rack in your oven for approximately 10 to 12 minutes, just until the bottoms are lightly golden. If you're brave and you want super crunchy cookies, bake them a couple of minutes longer.
Let them cool on a rack . . . and then feel free to start crunching.
(Oh, and before I forget, I wanted to mention that poppy seeds are considered fairly perishable, so take note bakers. Some sources even suggest keeping them in the freezer.)
Recipe Full Disclosure: This recipe derives in part from the recipe for "Tangy Lemon Butter Cookies" in George Geary's The Complete Baking Cookbook. I changed the formula by adding in the poppy seeds, increasing the salt slightly, using butter and shortening instead of butter and oil, adding in lemon juice, increasing the amounts of vanilla and lemon extracts, and halving the amount of baking soda to make the cookies crunchier and more shortbread-like.
*I bought my Holland Blue seeds at a Penzey's spice store.
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