Poppy seeds, which for centuries reigned as the default hamantaschen filling, has become unfashionable in pastry cases tyrannized by chocolate and cream. But Andrew Meltzer, baker for Stopsky's Delicatessen, has remained steadfast in his poppy seed affection.
"We always do poppy seed, because that's my favorite," says Meltzer, who's bracing for a flurry of hamantaschen sales in conjunction with this week's Purim holiday. "I'm really proud of our poppy seed filling. We grind all of our poppy seeds by hand."
Poppy seeds were once essential to Jewish cookery. The plant migrated to central Europe in advance of the Jews, who used the inexpensive seasoning to crust their meats and flavor their desserts. The reliance on poppy seeds was so complete by the 20th century that American home cooks enthusiastically stirred them into Duncan Hines cake mix, pioneering a recipe that still surfaces in temple sisterhood cookbooks.
But no recipe better showcased the figgy sweetness of poppy seeds than hamantaschen, a doughy three-cornered pastry created for Purim, a festival which commemorates the Biblical story of how a beautiful woman and her uncle foiled an evil political adviser's plot to kill the Jews. The adviser's name, Haman, is a near-homonym for mohn, the Yiddish word for poppy seeds. And taschen means pocket, so a hamantaschen is a poppy seed purse. (Any resemblance to Haman's rumored three-cornered hat is purely coincidental.)
The filling's preeminence was briefly threatened by prunes, which became an acceptable filling after an 18th-century Bohemian Jew was imprisoned for selling tainted prune butter. When it became clear the deaths linked to the jam were actually caused by tuberculosis, the salesman was freed, occasioning a celebratory hamantaschen baking spree. In honor of the spared man's profession, the pastries were filled with prunes.
"I'd like to do prunes, but they're not popular," Meltzer says. "People definitely aren't into it. I could call it dried plum and I'm sure it would be more popular."
While prunes are a victim of bad publicity, poppy seeds have suffered partly because transforming them into a palatable filling is an arduous job. But using unprocessed seeds - or, worse yet, pre-made filling - misses the point of baking with poppy seeds, Meltzer says.
"Raw poppy seeds, your teeth can't really break them down, and the flavor's in the oil," he says. "If you don't grind them, they pretty much pass through your body and the oil is never released."
Other eaters object to the musty overtones and unabashedly saccharine character of poppy seeds, preferring chocolate and fruit-based fillings. In deference to his customers, Meltzer keeps apricot hamantaschen on his menu.
"It doesn't do much for me," he says.
Meltzer describes his hamantaschen as "semi-puffy."
"They're not real dry," he says. "I've had some that taste like they're just made out of pie dough, but this is more of a cookie."
Stopsky's hamantaschen recipe was developed after numerous recipe testing sessions.
"We had a heck of a time," Meltzer recalls, using a phrase which happens to be a fairly eloquent summation of the holiday's theme.
Purim begins tomorrow night. And for religious Jews, there will be drink as well as food: The Talmud declares it's a good deed to get drunk on the holiday. While there are disagreements about the passage's meaning, as the Chabad-Lubavitch movement puts it, "authorities are unanimous in ruling that it is a (commandement) to drink, and drink to excess, on Purim." Unlike poppy seeds, that's a practice which seems likely to remain popular.