Mohnkuchen (German Poppy Seed Cake)

The cooling cake
The cake, cooling after being removed from the oven (Photo mine, January 2017)

Ah, German and Austrian pastry. I claim that the main reasons I am learning German are its usefulness in researching Jewish history (and delicious food), my own heritage, an interest in trains, and the stunning beauty of the language. But I cannot deny that the wonderful pastry traditions of the German-speaking world – anthologized beautifully in Luisa Weiss’ Classic German Baking is a very key draw for me to the stringent cases, bizarre genders, and complex plurals of die deutsche Sprache. The German-speaking world is particularly famous for its elegant cakes, buttery-creamy pastry, and the oh-so-wonderful delights of nutty and tart flavors combined with the sweet, heady rush of sugar. By this world of pastry and cake I am well and truly smitten – or, perhaps to be more appropriate for the topic of this post, ich bin sehr vernarrt! A man who can make me a perfect Pflaumenkuchen or Lüneberger Buchweizentorte will not only receive an instant marriage proposal from me, he will also have proven himself instantly adept at Jewish food. What more could I ask for?

The cake, on a plate, with other dishes in the background
A Mohnkuchen, waiting to be served at my friend’s birthday potluck. The dough is deceptive – it’s not as thick as it looks! (Photo mine, January 2017)

German pastry, despite its exterior appearance, is also a deeply Jewish tradition. Many of the earliest Jewish cookbooks from the late 19th century were published by and for German Jewish communities in der Heimat and abroad: Milwaukee to London to Cape Town. The recipes within them include the cakes and pastries that differed by region but not ethnicity or religion in their homelands. One could learn to make an apple cake, a buckwheat cake, a Streuselkuchen or  Dampfnudeln from these cookbooks. Some were Jewish specialties – such as the doughy potato-based Berches bread – and some were not. Many of these recipes were shared with other Ashkenazi communities – among them the Austrian and Bavarian strudel and recipes filled with poppy seed or almonds. In the United States and Canada, the popularity of German pastries became so ingrained in Ashkenazi Jewish communities that their origins as German and/or Austrian – and not necessarily specifically Jewish – were forgotten. (Many of my New Yorker friends are surprised to learn that non-Jews eat strudel!) In Israel, meanwhile, German bakers who arrived before the establishment of the State began a proud baking tradition that continues to this day. The recipes still do not differ that much from their butter-laden German counterparts, other than the occasional substitution of dairy ingredients.

Slices of Mohnkuchen, showing the thick poppy seed layer.
Slices of Mohnkuchen, showing the thick poppy seed layer. (Photo mine, January 2017)

The pastries are also delicious – like this poppy seed cake, filled with a variant of my beloved mohn. The nuttiness and timbre of the poppy seeds balances with a dense, doughy pastry and the sugar throughout to bring your taste buds on a very pleasant journey. Now, this poppy seed cake is not technically “Jewish,” but it is so very Jewish. Poppy seed pastries are deeply traditional – just think of hamantaschen! – in the Ashkenazi world, and I have seen similar recipes to this one in several Jewish cookbooks. In addition, poppy seed is a popular filling for the cake known as babka – which, though differently shaped and yeasted, is not dissimilar in final product to this cake. Not to mention that many babkas are also covered in streusel! In any case, this cake would be readily recognized as an Ashkenazi one at many a synagogue potluck.

Mohnkuchen mit Streuseln (Poppy Seed Cake with Crumble Topping)

Based on the recipe by Felice Forby

Streusel

½ cup white sifted flour

2½ tbsp. brown sugar

2/3 tsp ground cinnamon

2½  tbsp salted butter, chilled

Poppy Seed Filling (Mohn)

¾ cup milk

2½ tbsp. butter (salted or unsalted)

¼ tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 tbsp white sugar

3 tbsp semolina flour

¾ cup ground poppy seeds

1 egg

Cake

1¼ cups white sifted flour + more for rolling

1 tsp baking powder

4 tbsp sour cream

3 tbsp milk

3 tbsp salted butter, softened

3 tbsp white sugar

  1. Begin by making the streusel. Mix together the flour, sugar, and cinnamon, then blend in the butter with your hands or a fork. You should get small crumbles. Set aside in the refrigerator or a cool place.
  2. In a saucepan, melt the butter into the milk.
  3. Add the cinnamon, vanilla, sugar, and semolina and bring to a simmer. Turn off the heat and let sit for five minutes.
  4. Add the poppy seeds to the semolina mixture and stir to combine. Set aside to cool.
  5. Preheat your oven to 350F/180C.
  6. Mix together the flour and baking powder. In a separate bowl, mix together the sour cream, milk, butter, and sugar until smooth.
  7. Add the flour to the butter-cream mixture and blend together with a pastry knife or two forks until you get a smooth dough. If you want the dough to be more pliable, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for fifteen minutes.
  8. Line the bottom of a 9-inch pan (square or round) with parchment paper.
  9. Roll out the dough on a floured surface to be ½ inch/1.5cm thick, and lay on the floor of your pan. It is perfectly fine if a little rolls over the edges.
  10. Evenly spread the poppy seed mixture on top of the cake dough. You can fold over the far edges of the dough on top of your filling.
  11. Evenly distribute the streusel on top.
  12. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the crust of the cake is brown. When the streusel starts to brown, you can cover the top of the cake with tinfoil.
  13. Leave to cool for at least 45 minutes before serving.

Thank you to Yael Shafritz, Aaron Marans, Alex Roesch, and Yonit Friedman  for participating in User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Reader Contribution: German Potato Salad

We have a reader contribution! My friends Dalya and Adele Moss in Oxford sent their delicious recipe for a German Jewish potato salad with many fun photographs. (It was sent in early November; I apologize for tardiness.) I was fortunate enough to eat this recipe at a Passover seder at their house in 2015, and can vouch for its deliciousness. It is a family recipe with a long history – and perhaps I better leave it to Dalya:

My Grandma Marlie’s (z’ l’) talents were many, including solidly beating me in Scrabble with her mastery of English, her second language. I also used to look forward with great relish to Shabbat at hers. This potato salad is my favorite, and has got passed down our family with a few tweaks along the way. It is great for Shabbat, or even we have it at Pesach (don’t worry, still ages away!) with cooked salmon.

A few pieces of advice before you embark. Firstly, I know it looks like a lot of onion in the dressing, but trust me, don’t skimp on it. It melts in beautifully and gives the essential gentle, piquant flavor. Secondly, leaving the potatoes to marinade for an hour makes all the difference. Lastly, don’t plan on doing anything after eating this potato salad. You will just want to “shluf” [sleep] in a satiated bliss!

I’ve rewritten the recipe for our American readers – mayonnaise is slightly sweeter in the United States. Enjoy!

The recipe in production by Dalya Moss. (Photos Dalya and Adele Moss, October 2016)

Potato Salad (Kartoffelsalat)

A recipe by Adele and Dalya Moss

2 lbs/1 kg new potatoes

¼ cup vegetable oil

½ medium white onion

1 tbsp white sugar

1 tbsp + ½ tsp apple cider vinegar

2 large or several small pickles, chopped

A handful of fresh cilantro (Adele’s innovation!)

A heaped tablespoon of mayonnaise

Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Boil potatoes till soft, but not falling apart. Drain and leave to cool a bit.
  2. Meanwhile, make marinade: grate onion as finely as possible. It should become a pulp. If you don’t want cathartic tears, I find wearing swimming googles works wonders!
  3. To complete the marinade: in a cup, put oil, the onion pulp, the sugar, vinegar, and a good bit of salt, and stir.
  4. Now chop up the potatoes, while still warm, into hearty chunks. I don’t bother taking the peel off. More flavor and goodness!
  5. Stir marinade gently into the warm potatoes and leave for an hour or so. It is fine to leave them to marinade overnight.
  6. Finally, just before you eat it, put it all together. Add your dollop of mayonnaise, ground pepper to taste and stir. Remember, you don’t need much of it, as the salad already has its marinade. Chop up the pickled cucumber, roughly chop or tear the coriander and then add. Stir again and it’s ready to eat!
Potato salad on a colored plate
The finished potato salad. (Photo mine, January 2017)

Beteyavon, Guten Apetit, Dalya.