Purim Pleasures Fit for a Queen (or a Jewish Princess)

This article originally appeared in the Orthodox Union’s weekly e-newsletter, Shabbat Shalom (www.ou.org/shabbat)

The quest for a recipe for Mohnlach began several weeks ago with a phone call from my mother’s cousin Roy. “Norene, maybe you can help me? I keep thinking about the poppy seed candy my mother used to make for Purim when I was a little boy. I thought if anyone would have the recipe, you would. I remember that she cut it in diamond shapes and that it was very sweet. I loved it.”

I was instantly flooded with warm, delicious food memories from my childhood. I vividly remembered my grandmother’s old-fashioned kitchen, her wood stove and the wonderful aromas that emanated from it. I can still picture her patting out the sticky honey and poppy seed mixture on a wet cutting board on her dining room table. I would stand on my tiptoes, peering over the table top, eagerly waiting for the candy to get hard so I could taste a little piece.

I hadn’t thought of this scrumptious candy in years and told Roy that I wasn’t exactly sure how to make it….but I would find out.

Mom to the rescue! My mother is my personal culinary consultant as she has the most incredible memory for food and recipes. She defines most life experiences in terms of food and eating. I asked her if she remembered the recipe for poppy seed candy. “Of course I remember it!” she replied. “I used to make it for Purim, both your babas made it, your Auntie Lily made it, so did my friend Bessie…everybody made it!”

She remembered the basic ingredients – honey, poppy seeds and nuts, but she wasn’t sure of the exact quantities. We started searching through my huge cookbook collection in search of the right recipe. We checked cookbook after cookbook, but no luck!

It wasn’t until I pulled out my very oldest cookbooks that I finally found two recipes. Both books were published in the late fifties – tattered, torn and food-stained, but true treasures. One recipe was in Jennie Grossinger’s cookbook, “The Art of Jewish Cooking” with a price tag of 60 cents. The other was in Molly Goldberg’s Jewish Cookbook, price 75 cents. A bargain at today’s prices! Jennie’s recipe called for ground poppy seeds, Molly’s didn’t.

My mother, the maven, insisted that the poppy seeds had to be ground, or the candy would be too gritty. She said that the best way to grind them was to soak them overnight in warm water, then boil them in milk and then grind them in a poppy seed grinder. I told her that I wanted the recipe to be pareve. I also said that I lost my special poppy seed grinder years ago and had never replaced it. It was time for us to be creative and find alternative solutions.

I knew that my food processor, blender and electric coffee grinder wouldn’t pulverize the seeds properly, so I pulled out my electric mini-chop, which has a grind cycle. I alternated between grinding and chopping the poppy seeds, putting the whirling blades into forward gear, then reverse. It took about 2 or 3 minutes – and it worked. The results weren’t as perfect as I had hoped, but it did the trick.

I suggested to my mother that we should invite Roy and Elsie over for tea and serve them the Mohnlach. My mother jokingly replied, “Don’t bother. He probably won’t be able to eat them any more – he’d break his teeth!”

Here is Jennie Grossinger’s recipe, with my comments in parentheses. Enjoy!

1 pound poppy seeds
2 cups honey
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups chopped nuts
1/2 tsp. powdered ginger, optional (my mother’s mother made them with ginger too!)

Have the poppy seeds ground for you when you buy them. If this is not possible, grind them in a food chopper or pound them with a mortar and pestle.

Cook together the honey and sugar until syrupy. (Be sure to use a big enough pot and that it is heavy enough or the mixture will boil over when you add the poppy seeds!)

Stir in the poppy seeds and cook until mixture is thick, about 20 minutes. Stir frequently. (Watch carefully the last few minutes or the mixture may burn!) Drop a little on a wet surface; if it doesn’t run, it’s thick enough. Stir in the nuts and ginger.

Moisten hands; pat out mixture onto wet board to thickness of about 1/2 inch. Let cool 5 minutes (maybe longer!), then cut into diamonds or squares with a sharp knife. When knife sticks, dip into hot water. Cool completely and lift from board with a spatula.

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While searching through my cookbooks, I thought about the various symbolic foods served on Purim, such as poppy seeds, hamentashen and triangular-shaped foods. Poppy seeds are symbolic of Queen Esther’s three day fast in the palace, where she followed a vegetarian diet to avoid breaking Kosher dietary laws. When she broke her fast at night, she ate only seeds while she prayed to G-d to repeal Haman’s decree.

Triangular-shaped foods such as cheese kreplach or challah shaped like a giant triangle, sprinkled with poppy seeds are other symbolic foods served by Ashkenaz Jews. Sephardic Jews serve Haman’s Ears – deep-fried strips of dough or kichel dipped in sugar syrup or sprinkled with icing sugar.

This year, why not make poppy seed cookies cut in triangular shapes? A fluted pastry wheel will make them look so pretty! This dough can also be used to make traditional hamentashen. These easy, versatile cookies are fun to make with the kids!