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Home with the Lost Italian: Lemon poppy seed bread bakes up beautifully for spring

Lemon poppy seed bread is basted with lemon syrup shortly after baking. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor1 / 2
Lemon poppy seed bread is basted with lemon syrup shortly after baking. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor2 / 2

By some lucky chance, I had a surfeit of lemons on hand last week and decided to try a recipe for lemon pound cake from a lovely baking cookbook I received several years ago from Tony. It was a good thing I had so many lemons on hand, because my two attempts at this butter-rich, uber-sifted pound cake were utter failures. My results were ugly, broken and depressing.

After removing all evidence of my pound cake battlefield (pictures of which are currently featured on our AreaVoices blog), I realized that I should have done what I often do when life hands me lemons: make Lemon Poppy Seed Breakfast Bread.

Lemon is a classic spring flavor, reflecting the brightness of the season with its lovely yellow color, zingy tartness and sharp fragrance. Since this recipe calls for lemon zest, I like to wash the outer peel with soap and warm water, using a clean scouring scrub or brush to remove any dirt and chemicals, even if the lemons are organic.

This quick bread recipe has been a go-to of mine for several years, and I love the way it showcases the lemon's flavor, not only through the use of lemon zest in the batter, but also by the addition of a lovely warm lemon syrup that gets drizzled on top of the bread as soon as it is pulled from the oven.

Poppy seeds bring their pleasing aromatics and nutty flavor, as well as a contrast in color and texture to the tender bread. Because some people have trouble digesting them, I soak the seeds in the milk for about 20 minutes to soften them before adding to the batter.

When making any quick bread, I find that taking a few extra minutes to properly cream the butter and sugar produces a superior crumb texture, so don't skip this step. Starting with room-temperature butter will also aid the process.

I've often wondered what the difference is between a quick bread and a cake, and after a bit of research, it seems that there is no definitive answer. Some people assert that quick breads are made in a loaf pan, whereas cakes are round or square. However, I've successfully made loaf-shaped cakes, and even my pound cake disaster was intended to be loaf-shaped.

Lemon poppy seed bread is basted with lemon syrup shortly after baking. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Some declare that it's the ratio of liquid to solid ingredients that defines cake from quick bread, while others state that all quick breads contain fruit, whereas cakes don't. But what about almond poppy seed bread or pineapple upside down cake?

Still others suggest that quick bread vs. cake is similar to muffin vs. cupcake, as if that arbitrary comparison explains it all ... although I do somewhat understand the reference. Cake and cupcake texture tends to be lighter, whereas quick breads and muffins often have a denser quality to them. Again, this assertion is only an opinion, one among many, and I wouldn't be surprised if you have your own opinion, too.

So, if there isn't a hard and fast rule about what makes something a cake and something else a quick bread, I'm going to jump into the game and proclaim that a quick bread is easy to make and nearly always guaranteed to turn out well, whereas a cake—in this case, a pound cake—is not. Simple as that. And I call this recipe a breakfast bread only because that makes it perfectly acceptable to eat cake, er, bread, for breakfast.

To view photos of my pound cake disaster and share your own baking horror story, please visit our blog at www.thelostitalian.areavoices.com.

Lemon Poppy Seed Breakfast Bread

Makes 1 loaf (8 by 4 by 2½ inch)

¼ cup milk 2½ tablespoons poppy seeds 1½ cups all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking powder ¼ teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest ¾ cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature ¾ cup white sugar 3 extra large eggs 1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract Lemon Syrup 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice ¼ cup white sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inch loaf pan with butter or cooking spray, then lightly dust with flour. For easy removal, line the bottom with a piece of parchment paper, greasing the top.

In a small bowl, combine the milk and poppy seeds; let soak for 20 to 30 minutes.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt and lemon zest; set aside.

In a large bowl, use the paddle attachment of a stand mixer (or a handheld mixer) to beat the butter on high speed until softened, about 1 minute for room temperature butter. Add the sugar and continue to beat on high until light and fluffy, about 5 to 6 minutes. (This process is called "creaming" and creates a superior crumb texture.)

Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down the sides before adding the next. Add the vanilla extract and beat on high until combined.

Next, add the flour mixture, in three additions, and the milk mixture, in two additions, alternately, starting and ending with the flour. Mix on the lowest speed after each addition, until just combined, scraping down the sides as needed.

Use a rubber spatula to spread the batter into the prepared baking pan, smoothing the top. Bake at 350 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes, until the bread is a rich, golden brown and a toothpick or skewer inserted in the center comes out crumb-free.

For the Lemon Syrup: As the bread is baking, heat the fresh lemon juice and sugar over medium heat until boiling, stirring constantly until the sugar is dissolved; reduce heat to low and stir for one more minute.

Once the bread is done baking, remove from oven and place pan on a wire cooling rack. Using a pastry brush, immediately brush the hot syrup all over the top of the bread, coating generously.

Cool loaf in pan for about 30 minutes, then remove from pan and keep on wire rack until completely cooled. Serve immediately, or, for even better results, wrap in plastic wrap and store overnight before serving, which helps the bread better absorb the syrup.

To store: Wrap loaf in plastic and store at room temperature for up to 3 days, or freeze for up to 2 months.

Sarah's Tips:

• Some people have trouble digesting poppy seeds, and soaking them in milk for 20 to 30 minutes before using helps to soften them while baking.

• Always use pure vanilla extract when possible.

• For extra boost of lemon flavor, serve with lemon curd or lemony whipped cream.

• Use juice squeezed fresh from a lemon vs. bottled for superior flavor.

"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 11-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at dine@sarellos.com and their blog at www.thelostitalian.areavoices.com.

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