Why Are Poppy Seeds a Classic Purim Treat?

This traditional filling is tasty in more than just hamantaschen: Try these recipes for poppy seed-apple cake, or poppy seed-chocolate rugelach.

Vered Guttman
Vered Guttman
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Poppy seed rugelach.
Poppy seed rugelach. Credit: Vered Guttman
Vered Guttman
Vered Guttman

Poppy seeds are popular in many cuisines around the world, but play a central role in Eastern and Central European baked goods. The similarity between the Yiddish word for poppy seeds, mohn, and the name Haman from Megilat Esther, made the seed even more popular during the holiday of Purim.

Until only a few decades ago, parents around Europe would give their babies milk that had been used to soak poppy seeds to help them fall asleep. And yes, the little bit of opium in the seeds is what made the milk so helpful. This practice is forbidden now, and tighter food regulations also ensure the poppy you buy at the store is free of any narcotics. In any case, it is better to avoid the poppy seed recipes if you’re about to take a drug test in the next few days.

Poppy seed and apple flodni (Hungarian layered cake)

Poppy seed and apple flodni (Hungarian layered cake). Credit: Vered Guttman

The Hungarian-Jewish flodni is a multi-layered cake of poppy seed, apples and walnuts. Gil Marks noted in the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” that the origin of the Hungarian flodni was the Ashkenazi fluden that fist appeared in writing in the 11th century and was usually made with two layers of dough, with cheese filling between them.

The Hungarian version was popular in Israel until the 1980’s, when Hungarian bakeries ruled the scene, and it is still available in some of the more traditional bakeries around the country.

Flodni is such a delicious cake, I’m surprised it is not better known in the United States. And don’t be alarmed by the cake’s many layers. It is actually very simple and quick to prepare.

Poppy seeds need to be ground for these types of desserts. Use a coffee grinder or a blender such as a Vitamix and grind until the seeds double in volume and become dark black.

Poppy seeds in large quantities are available at Middle Eastern, Eastern European and some kosher supermarkets.

Yields two 11”x4” loaves or one 9”x9” pan.

For the crust:
3 cups flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 sticks cold butter
4 tablespoons heavy cream

For the poppy seed filling:
4 oz. (110 grams) ground poppy seeds (see note above)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the apple filling:
5 large Granny Smith apples
2/3 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons lemon juice

1. To make the crust, put the flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Cut butter into 1 tablespoon cubes and add to flour mixture along with the heavy cream, and mix to get crumbles. Remove bowl from food processor, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for half and hour and up to a day while you prepare the fillings.

2. Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit (160 degrees Celsius). Spray pans with oil and cover with a double layer of parchment paper.

3. To make the poppy seed filling, put all ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat while stirring, then reduce heat to low and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occa-sionally. Remove from heat.

4. To prepare the apple filling, peel apples and grate them on a large grater. Mix in a bowl with sugar, cornstarch and lemon juice. Set aside.

5. Using your hands, press a third of the dough into the bottom of the pan. Spread poppy seed filling on top. Top with another third of the dough, sprinkling the dough crumbs evenly over the poppy seed. Mix apple mixture again and use a slotted spoon to spread it over the dough, discarding any extra liquid. Top with the rest of the dough, sprinkling it evenly on top of the apples.

6. Bake loaves for 45 minutes or square pan for 55 minutes, until center is almost firm. Cool on a rack. Keep in fridge overnight before slicing. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Poppy seed and chocolate rugelach

Poppy seed rugelach. Credit: Vered Guttman

Poppy seeds need to be ground for these types of desserts. Use a coffee grinder or a blender such as a Vitamix and grind until the seeds double in volume and become dark black.

Poppy seeds in large quantities are available at Middle Eastern, Eastern European and some Kosher supermarkets.

Yields about 30 rugelach

For the dough:
1 lb. (440 grams) flour, plus more for dusting
2 1/4 teaspoons (7 grams) instant dry yeast
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup warm milk
2 eggs at room temperature
1 stick (8 tablespoons) soft butter
1/2 teaspoon salt

For the poppy seed filling:
6 oz. (170 grams) ground poppy seeds (see note above)
3/4 cup milk
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons cookie crumbs or ground almonds
1/2 cup small chocolate chips

For the syrup:
½ cup sugar
½ cup water

For egg wash:
1 egg, lightly beaten

1. To make the dough, put flour, yeast and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Mix for a minute, then add milk and eggs and mix on medium speed for 2 minutes. Cut butter into small pieces, add to mixer and mix on medium speed for 6 minutes. Add salt, mix for a minute longer and remove from mixer. Gather dough into a ball and put in a large bowl dusted with flour. Cover with plastic wrap and put in the fridge for 2 hours and up to overnight. Remove dough from fridge 1/2 hour before you’re ready to roll the rugelach.

2. In the meantime prepare poppy seed filling. Put ground poppy seeds, milk, sugar and vanilla extract in a saucepan over medium heat and bring to boil. Reduce heat to low and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. Add butter and mix until it melts, then mix in cookie crumbs. Set aside.

3. To make the sugar syrup, put sugar and water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook for a minute and remove from heat. Set aside.

4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (175 degrees Celsius). Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.

5. Lightly flour a surface and a rolling pin. Divide dough into two. Roll half the dough into a very thin rectangle, about 30”x 6” (75 by 15 cm). Using a sharp knife, cut dough into 6” (15 cm) long triangles with 2” (5 cm) base. You’ll have about 15 triangles. Spread poppy seed filling on bottom 2/3 of the triangles, and sprinkle with a few chocolate chips. Roll into croissant shapes, starting from the 2” base, stretching the base with your fingers as you roll. Transfer rugelach to baking sheet, arranging them 2” apart. Brush with a beaten egg. Repeat with the second half of the dough.

6. Bake for about 20 minutes, until golden. Remove from oven to a cooling rack and brush im-mediately with a sugar syrup.

7. Keep covered at room temperature overnight before serving. These keep up to three days.

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