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.

Hamantaschen with Poppy Seed Filling

We never celebrated Purim much when I was a child. On years when there is only one month of Adar – the month that Purim is in, which is repeated in leap years – it was the yahrzeit, or death anniversary, of my maternal grandmother. That said, even without the somber occasion, Purim was a bit too…gaudy for my understated parents. The holiday celebrates the redemption of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire from the machinations of the evil Haman, as narrated in the biblical Book of Esther – named after the heroine of the tale. Historically, this has been a day of much celebration and much drinking. Yet this has somehow morphed in the modern era to a day of mandatory fun masked as chaos, complete with costumes and a lot of yellow. My father hated chaos, my mother hated yellow. Purim was not really a thing in our house.

One memory does stand out from Purim though: poppy seed hamantaschen. Fluffy, triangular cookies, sweet – but filled with the nuttiest, most beguiling poppy seed filling on the inside. I was hooked. Even as my peers went for chocolate chip, apricot, or sprinkle-flavored hamantaschen, I stayed loyal to the poppy seeds. Which, in some ways, is in keeping with history.

hamantash
Two poppy seed hamantaschen and a quince one. Photo mine (March 2016).

Hamantaschen  come from the intersection of Jewish folklore and European pastry. On the one hand, filled cookies – and especially those with poppy seeds – were common in the medieval Europe where Ashkenazi cuisine developed. On the other hand, there is the command to simultaneously obliterate the name of the evil Haman (and, metaphorically, Amaleq) while remembering what he did! At some point, the cookies, which may have been called Mohntaschen in German (poppy-pockets) became Haman-tashen, Yiddish for Haman’s pockets. And thus the humble hamantasch was born.

I have attached two recipes here: one for my poppy seed filling (the mohn), and one for the hamantaschen more generally. You can, of course, also fill your hamantaschen with other things: apricot, prune, and berry jams are traditional fillings, and I have been known to make Nutella ones. (This year, I’m making quince hamantaschen with the jam I made this past November.) The poppy seed filling goes very well in a cake. Do note that this poppy seed filling is especially strong.

 

Poppy Seed Filling (Mohn)

Makes about two cups (I usually make a double batch)

 

3 tbsp butter

1 cup milk

One egg, beaten

2 tbsp shlivovitz or other brandy

5/8 cup white sugar

¼ tsp cinnamon

1 ½ tsp cornstarch dissolved in 1 tbsp water

¾ cup poppy seeds*

 

  1. In a small or medium saucepan, melt the butter.
  2. When the butter is melted, add the milk and bring to a boil.
  3. When the milk is boiling, reduce the flame. Take a bit of hot milk out of the pan and mix into the beaten egg to temper it. Then, add the egg, shlivovitz, sugar, and cinnamon to the pan and mix in thoroughly.
  4. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring continuously to prevent the mixture from burning.
  5. Once the mixture is boiling, add the cornstarch and water and mix in thoroughly. Boil until the mixture is thick.
  6. Add the poppy seeds and mix in thoroughly, or until the mixture is dark. Remove from heat and allow to cool and set, preferably refrigerated.

 

*Author’s note: though it is traditional to grind the poppy seeds, I actually prefer to leave them whole – it adds a wonderful nutty flavor to the filling.

 

Hamantaschen

 

Dough

 

5 1/2 cups white flour (sifted)

1 tbsp baking powder

1 1/4 cups sugar

1 tsp salt

2/3 cup vegetable oil

2/3 cup water

 

Filling

Have some filling on hand – look above for a mohn recipe. I also recommend a good, thick jam. Such as my quince jam!

 

  1. Mix the dry ingredients together until thoroughly mixed.
  2. Cut the water and oil into the dry ingredients and mix together – with your hands, a big fork, or a pastry cutter – until you get a dense dough. Cover and set aside for a while – I recommend refrigerating the dough overnight.
  3. Preheat the oven to 350 F/175 C.
  4. When you are ready to make your hamantaschen, roll out your dough to between 1/8” and ¼” of an inch thick (about 4-7mm thick) – I recommend a slightly thicker hamantasch. Cut the hamantaschen into circles of about 3 inches/7cm in diameter.
  5. Place no more than a teaspoon of filling into the center of each Then fold the edges of the circle over the center of the filling to make and seal the triangle. I recommend this order:
    1. Lift the left-hand flap of the cookie and fold over the filling.
    2. Then, fold the right hand flap over the filling, and push down a bit over where the right hand flap overlaps the left-hand one.
    3. Now, fold over the bottom flap. Have it fold over the right hand flap, but under the left hand one, and push down on the overlaps. This seals the cookie.
    4. (For a demonstration of excellent hamantaschen technique, visit Tori Avey’s blog.)
  6. Place, evenly spaced, on a greased cookie sheet. Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until the cookies are golden.