Liz Waters Poppy Seed Cake and Filling

As I have mentioned before, when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, university administrators still believed that students deserved good cooks as well as good teachers. Talented chefs worked with dietitians to design menus that were nutritious and interesting, and teams of skilled cooks turned the plans into gourmet dinners.

But teachers and cooks are human beings, so some were better than others and occasionally even the finest chef stumbles. As an English major, I was taught very early that “Even Homer nods.” However, the chef at Elizabeth Waters, where Jerri was Assistant Head Resident, didn’t nod very often. He created a lot of wonderful dishes that I was privileged to enjoy as Jerri’s guest.

liz-specials-cover-1This is one of them, a dessert that the residents chose for their Liz Specials cookbook in 1965. As you can see from the picture, our copy has been well used, but it still has an honored place on the bookshelf.

The cake is dense but not chewy, and the poppy seeds give it a lot of flavor. The pudding provides a nice contrast.

You have to remember to soak the poppy seed overnight before making the cake, but otherwise, it is simplicity itself to make.

For the cake:
1 cup poppy seeds
1 1/4 cups milk, divided
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup cake flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup milk
1 tsp. vanilla
3 egg whites

For the filling:
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 tsp. salt
2 1/2 T cornstarch
1 T flour
2 cups milk
3 egg yolks
1 tsp. vanilla
1 T butter
1/2 cup chopped nuts
1 T powdered sugar


For the cake:

Soak the poppy seeds in three-quarters of a cup of milk overnight in a cool room or the refrigerator.

The next day preheat the oven to 390º and cream the butter and sugar thoroughly. Grease two eight-inch round layer cake pans.

Sift the flour, salt and baking powder gradually into the creamed sugar. Using a wooden spoon, blend the flour into the sugar. The dry ingredients will resemble biscuit mix. Stir in the milk,vanilla and poppy seeds and beat until smooth. The batter will be very stiff.

Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form, then fold the egg whites into the batter. Spread the batter evenly into the cake pans and bake for twenty-five to thirty minutes. Test for doneness at twenty-five minutes by inserting a toothpick near the center of a cake. If it comes out clean, the cakes are done.

Take the cakes from the oven and allow them to cool for an hour. Remove the cakes from the pans, set one upside down on a cake plate and the other right side up on waxed paper.

For the filling:
It is easiest to make the filling in a double boiler. Put water in the bottom of the double boiler, put the milk into the upper pan and warm the milk until it is lukewarm. Mix together the sugar, flour, cornstarch and salt and whisk it into the warm milk. Continue heating the milk, stirring often, until it begins to thicken. Cover and cook another three minutes.

Beat the egg yolks in a small bowl until they are lemon yellow, then whisk a half cup of the hot mixture very gradually into the beaten yolks and whisk the yolks back into the pudding. Cover, return the double boiler to the heat and cook for three minutes.

Remove the pudding from the heat and stir in the butter, vanilla and chopped nuts.

Let the pudding cool completely, then spread a layer of the pudding on the cake you had put on a plate. Top the pudding with the second cake and sprinkle it with powdered sugar. Slice and serve.

NOTES: You can omit the nuts from the pudding, but the crunchiness is pleasant. If the pudding is too warm or you put too thick a layer of it on the cake, pudding will run down the sides. The cake will still be delicious and look like a work of freeform art.

You may have some pudding left over after you put a nice layer on the cake. As Jerri says, “It must be hard cutting a recipe down to something for a family from enough to serve three hundred people.” The leftover pudding is delicious. Take it from one who knows.

Incidentally, if you don’t have any cake flour, the standard substitute is one cup less two tablespoons of all-purpose flour. Works every time.

This is the third recipe from Liz Specials that I have shared on Courage in the Kitchen. You might want to try the Thousand Island Dressing and the Manhattan Meat Rolls too.

Didi found that the Liz Specials cookbook has been digitized and is available here
Have fun with some more great recipes!

2 thoughts on “Liz Waters Poppy Seed Cake and Filling”

  1. I went on line and the University has Liz’s full cook book on their site! How fun to look at those old recipes. You were fed well!!


    1. Thanks for discovering that the Liz Waters cookbook is on line! It is really neat that someone thought to digitize it.

      I will put a link to the book in the notes at the bottom of the post.


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