Eating Jewish: Poppy-Seed Cookies
Growing up, most foods that contained poppy-seeds simply didn’t appeal to me. I was wary about those tiny black seeds that dotted pastries, muffins or cookies and wished that they simply weren’t there. Due to this aversion to poppy-seeds, I usually stayed away from desserts that contained any. Yet in the last few years that has changed, mainly because of a poppy-seed strudel that opened my eyes (or rather my taste buds) to the nutty sweetness that poppy-seeds could bring to a dish. When thinking about what to make for my next post, I knew I wanted to make some kind of dessert because baking is one of my absolute favorite things to do. I remembered that my friend had once told me how much she liked mohn cookies and I knew I had to finally try making these classic Ashkenazi cookies myself.
Poppy-seeds are a traditional ingredient in the cooking of Ashkenazi Jews, along with other ingredients such as dark or rye bread, sour cream, dill, caraway, onions and potatoes. There are a variety of uses for poppy-seeds and they can be found sprinkled on bread, in noodle, vegetable and fish dishes, as well as in many desserts.
Yet despite being present in these various dishes, it seems that poppy-seeds are most closely associated with deserts in the cooking of the Ashkenazi Jewish community. This seems to come from the fact that baking and making cakes for the Sabbath and festivals is particularly important, as mentioned by Claudia Roden in her intro to her desserts and pastries section in The Book of Jewish Food. Having cookies or cake to offer to a visitor along with tea, whether during the week or on a Saturday afternoon, was another reason that women in Europe always made sure to have some kind of dessert on hand. This was a tradition that women of prior generations also practiced when they moved to North America. Do you have memories of your grandmother or another woman in your family having a constant supply of desserts or cookies on hand? If so, what was your favorite dessert or cookie that she made? Do you still make these recipes?
When looking for a recipe for these poppy-seed cookies, I was struck by the fact that neither Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food nor Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America, two of the cookbooks I most regularly use because they are so comprehensive, had recipes for these cookies. Upon mentioning this fact to my advisor at school she offered the explanation that they are such ordinary cookies, which is why, they may not have been included in these recipe collections. Yet I think this seemingly ordinary cookie deserves more attention because they are wonderfully delicious. These cookies, dotted with black poppy seeds, are light and crisp, making them easy to eat. The dough is similar to shortbread, whose buttery flavor is perfectly complemented by the nuttiness of the poppy-seeds. The lemon provides a hint of tartness that brightens the whole cookie. Although the ingredients of this cookie are all basic, I did have some trouble finding the poppy-seeds and I ended up buying some from my local bagel shop and I think that this is something to keep in mind if you run into the same problem.
So go ahead and make these cookies, which have been under-appreciated of late but are the perfect reason to invite some friends over for tea and cookies.
Adapted from Faye Levy’s International Jewish Cookbook
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
3 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) plus 5 tablespoons unsalted butter or margarine, cut in small pieces
1-2 tablespoons grated lemon rind
2 tablespoons lemon juice
4 tablespoons poppy-seeds
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Beat the egg with yolk to blend and set aside.
In a large bowl combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Mix these ingredients to blend them together. Scatter butter pieces over this mixture and cut the pieces into the dry ingredients using two knives until the mixture resembles a coarse meal.
Add the grated rind, the lemon juice, the poppy-seeds, and the egg mixture to the bowl and mix until the dough begins to come together in a ball. This is a dry dough that may be crumbly when first mixing it together. If this is the case when you make it, add 2-6 tablespoons of lukewarm water to the dough, mixing after incorporating each tablespoon. Knead the dough lightly to bend.
Transfer the ball of dough to a sheet of plastic wrap. Wrap the dough and push it together while doing so. Shape the dough into a flat disc and refrigerate it for 2-3 hours. It can also be refrigerated for up to three days.
Using one-fourth of the dough at a time, roll it out on a lightly floured surface until about ¼ inch thick. Using a cookie cutter (or a glass that is about 2 inches wide if you don’t have a cookie cutter, as in my case) cut the cookies into circles.
Place the cookies on a greased cookie sheet, spacing them about 1 inch apart. Bake cookies for 8-9 minutes or until they are light brown along the edges.
Yield: about 50 cookies