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She most certainly did make the trek on a wretchedly rainy Saturday to the dangerously-nearer-than-before Penzey’s boutique, wherein she proceeded to plunk down more than $80 on spices.

What? I just moved! I needed to restock! Not to mention, the holiday season is coming up! Don’t judge.

By the way, was I exaggerating when I said I clean out their chile section whenever I go there?

No I was not.

No I was not.

Yes, I do like it hot.  QED.

So anyway, you might be wondering what I did with this embarrassment of spices when I got home.  Well, the first thing I did was make a curried egg salad sandwich for lunch.  The second thing I did was to make these fantastic cupcakes for afternoon tea, because spotting the poppy seeds on the Penzey’s shelves reminded me that I’d been craving them for weeks.  The cupcakes also gave me an opportunity to crack open the little jar of dried orange peel and intoxicating Mexican vanilla extract, both of which are absolute necessities for my holiday baking.

While these were cooling, we took the Monster out for her walk, and of course the heavens chose that precise moment to crank up the rainfall to 11. Normally that would put me in a vile temper, but I came home to ferociously strong and milky tea, snappy little cakes, a pantry full of future deliciousness, and an excuse to trot out the totally awesome poppy pin I got at the Museum of Opium in Thailand. I have absolutely nothing to complain about.

Except perhaps the project this shopping spree spun off, namely finding a storage solution for my spicy bounty. On our way out of the store, His Lordship declared the current arrangement — a big covered bin into which all the zip bags and little jars are unceremoniously tossed — unacceptable. If anyone has any suggestions that do not involve me wasting hours transferring spices into little jars I don’t even have the shelf space for, I’m all ears.

Poppy Seed Cupcakes
(Adapted from Brown Sugar Lightning Cake in Sally Schneider’s The Improvisational Cook)
Makes 10 jumbo cupcakes, or 12-16 normal ones

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons poppy seeds
2 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons dried orange peel, rehydrated in 2 teaspoons boiling water
Zest of one lemon
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350, and line the appropriate number of jumbo or regular muffin tins with foil or paper liners.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and poppy seeds.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs with the sugar and zests until pale and light. Whisk in the liquid mixture, then fold in the dry ingredients until just incorporated.

Scoop the batter into the muffin cups, filling no more than halfway. Bake 20-25 minutes for regular cupcakes or 25-30 for jumbo cupcakes, until golden and springy and the proverbial skewer comes out clean when inserted in the middle of a cupcake. Cool the cupcakes in their tins on a wire rack.


If the cake recipe has a vaguely familiar ring, it’s because the endoskeleton is the same basic one that supports the olive oil cake I wrote up last month. Like Alton, I adore a multitasker, and this recipe is as adaptable, quick and foolproof as any you’ll ever find.

I favor cupcakes not because I have a weakness for cute food, but because they cook faster than full-sized cakes, and leftover individual cakes are easier to share with coworkers or friends than a partially-eaten cake. If you have neither concern, bake the batter in a buttered and floured 9-inch round pan for 35-40 minutes.