Week Three: Breakfast Breads
I remember when I was little, and my mom used to bake this recipe into gift-sized loaves. My dad would dutifully troop into the permanently-sweltering attic, no matter what time of year (it was New Orleans, after all), and come backing down the rickety stairs with a certain box. Full of cleaned and de-labeled tin cans, once full of god-knows-what and opened on one end only, they would all have to be washed and dried. I have no idea how many there were (and probably still are), but it seemed like a hundred to me. That job fell to such little hands as mine and my sister’s that could reach down into the bottoms of the cans. The mixing of the batter was always taken care of only by Mom, whose practiced hands knew how to stir the ingredients so that they were mixed, but also so the loaves would not turn out tough.
The procedure was always the same: grease and fill the cans, bake directly on the oven racks, set on the stove until you could handle them enough to wedge a knife down the side and pull out the soft bread inside, to set on the tiny cooling racks until room temperature. Wrapped in plastic wrap and tied with a huge bow, they were always a hit with the giftee; but we retained something wonderful in the loaves’ absence: the smell! It would float tauntingly in the air, drifting through the house for a day or so, like the Ghost of Bread Past.
Our freezer usually held five or ten of these loaves, or alternatively date nut bread made by the same method, to be brought out for houseguests, special Saturday mornings, or as emergency gifts. I’m sure I remember guest appearances on the Christmas Eve cookie platter that accompanied egg nog and gift-opening. Branded with the same ribbing as the cylinder of cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving (it was probably the same can), a three-band-slice was perfect to toast in the oven, or even just to warm in the microwave. With a pat of butter, it made a perfect and indulgent little breakfast cookie.
Due to the lack of storage space in my current home, I’ve had to relinquish my collection of various tin cans. So, until I move to somewhere far roomier, those charming little round loaves will have to stay relegated to my memories, and to infrequent trips home to New Orleans, where there always seems to be some far more thrilling culinary exploit to be had. Fortunately, this recipe works just as well baked in a standard loaf pan or two, depending on how big they are. If you like the crispy crust, they are ideal as muffins, but only if you have metal muffin tins (silicone just won’t crisp the edges as well).
I hadn’t made this recipe in years. In fact, I don’t know that I’d ever made it by myself. But as I mixed the ingredients together with my trained hand, it all seemed so familiar. The viscous batter, the glut of poppy seeds that always looked like far too many, but never were, the smell of the toasted nuts a harbinger of things to come… I could almost hear the hollow clunk of tin cans. Baked in a large loaf pan, it domed happily in the middle, making that characteristic split down the middle, revealing a pale interior. And when I pulled that bread from the oven, there it was: that smell, that wonderful, nutty, baked-good, smells-like-my-childhood smell. I knew it was right. After letting it cool for some minutes, I cut a few slices. They almost didn’t hold together, threatening to buckle under the weight of gravity. And then, just one taste took me back. It was a bright Saturday morning in New Orleans, and I was standing at the kitchen counter, surrounded by tin cans. Wonderful! But I think my boyfriend said it best, gazing at the slice in his hand with a wide-eyed, somehow almost concerned look on his face, “It’s SO good!”
My Mom’s Poppy Seed Bread
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups salad oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3 cups flour
1 cup evaporated milk
2 1/2 ounces poppy seeds (1 bottle)
1 cup chopped nuts
1. Cream sugar and oil until smooth. Add eggs and vanilla; beat slightly.
2. Alternate adding milk and flour (to which salt and baking powder have been added and sifted). Add seeds and nuts.
3. Bake in well-greased pan at 325 degrees F, for 1 hour. Bake bread pans for 40-45 minutes, muffins for approximately 25 minutes.
Makes two 4×8 pans, four 3×7 pans, and 36 muffins.
1. I wrote this recipe exactly as I have it. Salad oil, if you’re not Southern, is just plain vegetable oil. I actually used olive oil, since I keep it around, and I thought it would go well with the flavor of poppy seeds. I was absolutely right! And you know, a little orange zest wouldn’t be out of place either….
2. This recipe can be halved and doubled beautifully. In fact, I halved it when I made it this time, since I only had half a bottle of poppy seeds, and couldn’t find any at my little corner grocery store. The batter fit in a 9×5 loaf pan with room to spare, but I think I like mine a little smaller than that (the slices hold together more easily for toasting). I’m certain my mom has doubled this recipe many times.
3. You can use any nut you like, but I used walnuts. Pecans would also be lovely, or a mix of the two. Just be sure to toast and cool the nuts before adding them in.
4. After the ingredients are all incorporated, the mixture will be a thick batter. As with all quick breads, be sure not to overmix when adding the flour, since stirring creates gluten, which is the enemy here. Developing gluten makes the bread tough, and we’re going for tender.