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For her book, Heirloom Kitchen, Anna Gass traveled the country to cook with women who immigrated to America. Her goal was to learn and transcribe their "secret recipes"—you know, the family recipes kept only in your head and not on paper. The book also tells the inspiring stories behind these women and their journey to America. Anna learned how to make this incredible poppy seed cake from a woman who immigrated to the U.S. named Marina Varshisky.  

“Marina likes to soak the poppy seeds overnight because she found it softens them and improves their flavor. Make sure to buy fresh poppy seeds, she warns, or they will be too hard. Her husband requests this cake for special occasions, and once, for her father's birthday, she made two frostings, one sour cream and one chocolate, frosting the cake in two halves so everyone could pick their favorite side!" —Anna 

For another recipe from Heirloom Kitchen, check out this American-style spanakopita


For the Cake:
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup (165 grams) poppy seeds
  • 1 cup (125 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup kefir or buttermilk
  • 3 tablespoons Cognac
For the Frosting (makes 4 cups):
  • 4 cups full-fat sour cream
  • ½ cup (100 grams) sugar
  • 2 tablespoons Cognac
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons poppy seeds


Serves: 8


For the cake, whisk the eggs and poppy seeds in the bowl of a standing mixer until the eggs are light and the poppy seeds are fully incorporated, about 4 minutes. Cover and refrigerate overnight. 

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Thoroughly grease three 8-inch round pans. 

Whisk the flour and baking soda in a medium bowl and set aside. 

Remove the egg mixture from the refrigerator and whisk to re-combine. Whisk in the sugar, then the kefir. Whisk the flour mixture into the egg mixture. 

Divide the batter evenly among the three pans. Bake for 15 minutes, until the edges begin to brown. Remove and cool completely in the pans on a wire rack. 

Once cool, remove the cakes from the pans and trim any brown edges. Using a cake tester, poke holes all over the cakes. Brush 1 tablespoon of the Cognac on each layer. 

For the frosting, using a stand or hand mixer with the whisk attachment, whisk together the sour cream, sugar, Cognac, and vanilla until very firm. 

To assemble, place one cake layer on a serving dish and cover with one quarter of the frosting (about 1 cup) and spread. Place a second cake layer on top and spread with another quarter of the frosting. Place the final cake layer on top. Cover with a generous helping of frosting and use it to cover the top and sides—you may not need all of the frosting. Sprinkle the poppy seeds all over. 

Chill for at least two hours, or up to overnight, before serving.

Excerpted from Heirloom Kitchen by Anna Francese Gass. Copyright © 2019 by Anna Francese Gass. Used with permission by Harper Design. All rights reserved.