The very best lemon poppy seed bread recipe

Instead of shy poppy seeds sprinkled hiding in fluffy lemon cake, this loaf boasts a dramatic swirl

Published October 16, 2022 6:30PM (EDT)

 (Carolina Gelen / Food52)
(Carolina Gelen / Food52)

This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

Instead of a sprinkle of shy poppy seeds hiding in a fluffy lemon loaf, this recipe boasts dramatic layers. It's inspired by a famous poppy seed paste found in many Eastern European desserts I grew up with. This paste, also called mohn, is a mixture of poppy seeds, sugar, and a binder like milk or egg. It's used for kolaches, babkas, hamantaschen, crescent rolls — the options are endless. So why not layer it in a tender lemon quick bread? (On that note: Yes, this is one of those situations where quick bread essentially means cake — but don't let that stop you from enjoying it for breakfast.) 

Make sure to taste the poppy seeds before using them. The ones I used for my first test were rancid, and I didn't realize that until I tasted the baked loaf. Check the production date to make sure the poppy seeds are as fresh as can be. Because this recipe uses a large quantity, see if you can find poppy seeds in a bulk package, like on To achieve the lemoniest flavor, don't skip massaging the lemon zest into the sugar. Lemon peel contains a fragrant, aromatic oil, much more complex than lemon juice, and the abrasive texture of the sugar helps draw out all that flavor. The best way you'll get a bright yellow quick bread without food coloring is organic, pasture-raised eggs — they'll bring a lemony yellow hue. — Carolina Gelen

Watch this recipe:

Striped Lemon Poppy Seed Bread
1 loaf
Prep Time
30 minutes
Cook Time
1 hour


Poppy Seed Layer

  • 76 grams (1/3 cup) whole milk
  • 192 grams (1 1/3 cups) poppy seeds
  • 99 grams (1/2 cup) granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest (from about 1/3 lemon)

Lemon Quick Bread

  • 198 grams (1 cup) granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest (from about 2 lemons)
  • 200 grams (14 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 4 large eggs
  • 57 grams (1/4 cup) freshly squeezed lemon juice (from about 2 lemons)
  • 2 tablespoons whole milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 230 grams (1 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons) all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder


  • 57 grams (1/4 cup) freshly squeezed lemon juice (from about 2 lemons)
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • (Optional) Glaze
  • 227 grams (2 cups) confectioners' sugar
  • 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus more as needed

(Optional) Glaze

  • 227 grams (2 cups) confectioners' sugar
  • 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus more as needed


  1. Heat the oven to 375°F. Grease a 9x5-inch loaf pan and line it with parchment paper. Set the loaf pan on a sheet pan to catch any drips. 
  2. Make the poppy seed layer: Add the milk to a saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Mix in the poppy seeds, sugar, and vanilla. Simmer for 7 to 10 minutes, constantly stirring, until the mixture reaches the consistency of wet sand — somewhat spreadable but still crumbly. Let cool to room temperature (you can transfer the mixture to a wide bowl to speed things up). Once cool, stir in the egg and lemon zest. 
  3. Make the quick bread batter: Combine the sugar and lemon zest in the bowl of a stand mixer (or a bowl where you'll use a hand mixer) and rub together with your fingers until fragrant. Add the butter and beat on medium speed for 3 to 5 minutes, until fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, mixing after each addition. Add the lemon juice, milk, and salt (don't worry if it looks curdled). Add the flour and baking powder and lightly mix the two with your fingers or a fork. Now mix on low to fully incorporate, until there are no more dry streaks. 
  4. In the lined pan, using a spoon or offset spatula, evenly spread a third of the batter (you can eyeball it). Using your fingers or an offset spatula, delicately spread half of the poppy seed mixture on top — try not to swirl the two mixtures in the process. Spread half of the remaining batter on top, followed by the remaining poppy seed mixture, followed by the remaining batter. 
  5. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until bouncy to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with no raw batter (some poppy seeds are OK). If the quick bread starts to brown too much toward the end, you can loosely tent the top with tin foil.
  6. While the loaf is baking, make the soak: Stir together the lemon juice and sugar until the sugar has dissolved.
  7. As soon as it's out of the oven, pour the soak over the hot loaf. Let cool for 20 to 30 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. 
  8. If you're including the glaze, add the confectioners' sugar to a bowl. Whisk or stir in a tablespoon of lemon juice in at a time, until the icing is smooth and reaches the consistency of melted chocolate. Pour the icing on the loaf and allow it to harden, then slice and serve.

By Carolina Gelen

MORE FROM Carolina Gelen

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