While it seems that people can’t live without poppy seed bagels, they shun the perky seeds in pastries once so prevalent in the Ashkenazi world, especially at Purim. You have to be of a certain age to have tasted poppy seed strudels, coffeecakes, babkas, cookies, and candy.
And why would children crave poppy seed hamantaschen when they can get the “Haman’s pockets” oozing with melted chocolate and sweet, fruity preserves?
When I was a girl in the middle of the last century, hamantaschen came filled only with poppy seeds (well, occasionally lekvar, prune butter, as well). I waited all year for Purim so I could dress up as Queen Esther and eat the poppy seed-filled hamantaschen my father brought home from the Jewish bakeries. It was traditional to bake poppy seeds into Purim confections because Queen Esther is said to have subsisted for three days on poppy seeds and chickpeas while she found the courage to tell her husband, the king of Persia, that his vizier Haman was plotting to annihilate the Jews.
Another derivation of the word “hamantaschen” is tied at the root to these tiny seeds. “Mohn” means “poppy” in Yiddish and German; “tasche” is German for pocket or purse. Together the two words form “mohntaschen,” the pastry’s original name in the Middle Ages. Mohntaschen evolved into hamantaschen, referring to the coat pockets in which Haman carried the purim, or lots, designating potential days for the Jews to be hanged. (In Israel, they’re called “oznei Haman,” “Haman’s ears.”)
During the 1980s, when my daughter was a child, we baked the holiday treats together, spooning apricot, blackberry, and strawberry preserves into the dough. We bypassed poppy seeds; she didn’t like them, and I didn’t realize they once were the heart of Purim.
I have an affinity for nostalgic causes, so I recently sought to reconnect with our poppy seed past.
Perusing cookbooks, I encountered suggestions on how to tame the seeds’ pebbly texture: by torturing them steaming in milk, drowning in juice, crushing in grinders to release their slightly sweet, starchy centers.
I concluded that the expending of such effort for such a limited yield is responsible for the demise of poppy seed pastries. After thorough grinding, they shed their savory quality, tasting a bit like dates. Yet in their natural state, poppy seeds shine.
“In our Poppy Seed Cookie recipe, we don’t crush the seeds,” says Rise Routenberg, who, with her business partner, Barbara Wasser, is coauthor of Divine Kosher Cuisine: Catering to Family and Friends, published in 2006 by Congregation Agudat Achim in Schenectady, NY. They are also co-owners of As You Like It Kosher Catering. “There’s a lovely crunch in these cookies,” Routenberg says.
Many of Routenberg’s recipes came from her mother, a pastry caterer, who at age 83 is still baking. Routenberg’s grandmother also baked. “She made a poppy seed kichel that was not light and airy like typical kichel,” Routenberg says. “She filled a pie shell with lightly sweetened dough, sprinkling it with poppy seeds. It became a crust that we children enjoyed breaking into jagged pieces and eating.”
For Purim, Routenberg and Wasser bake hundreds of hamantaschen. While apricot, cherry, prune, and raspberry are popular fillings, they sell many poppy seed hamantaschen as well to traditionalists, I presume.
“We mix the poppy seeds with various wet ingredients to soften them,” Routenberg says. She recommends storing poppy seeds in the refrigerator, so they don’t become rancid.
I’m intrigued by the days when poppy seeds as fine as black pearls but as durable as diamonds played a starring role at Purim, nearly upstaging Queen Esther.
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