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Pursuit of Poppyness

My father loved my grandmother’s poppy-seed cookies, or mohn kichlach, but she never made them for me. Could I duplicate her recipe?

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Mohn kichlach made by Stacey Harwood. (Len Small/Tablet Magazine)

“No one who cooks, cooks alone,” writes Laurie Colwin, and there are times when my tiny kitchen can become quite crowded, especially when I’m baking. It’s then that I’m joined by the ghosts of my father and my paternal grandmother, Bessie, who, in addition to her claim that she was once a great beauty, was also an expert baker, having been an apprentice to a master in her native Poland before immigrating to this country as a young woman.

My father often reminisced about his mother’s cooking. No one made blintzes as pillowy. She rolled strudel dough on the kitchen floor until it was so thin you could read the newspaper through it. During the Great Depression she could stretch the humblest of ingredients—offal and cheap cuts of meat—into a gourmet feast to feed her family of seven.

Yet Bessie was not a doting grandmother, happily bustling about her kitchen, something delectable always going into or coming out of the oven. By the time I got to know her, she was bitter and tired, her mouth frozen in a frown, parsimonious with affection. Worst of all, she refused to share her recipes. “They go with me to my grave,” she said, when I begged for her secrets while sneaking bits of challah dough. With a slap on my knuckles, she changed the subject by grabbing my ponytail and dragging me to the sink to wash my face with milk. “This is the secret of my great beauty,” she said, a rather alarming assertion coming from a woman who may once have been a looker but certainly was no longer.

Is there a daughter alive who doesn’t crave her father’s approval, no matter if he’s a scoundrel or a saint? Sometimes I think my pleasure in cooking and my insistence on perfecting the foods of my father’s youth derive from this primitive need, though my dad is long dead. And while my taste memory tells me I’ve duplicated certain of Bessie’s specialties successfully, I will never know if I’ve succeeded with the poppy-seed cookies my father yearned for most of all. They slipped off of Bessie’s baking play-list before I had the chance to try them.

Stacey Harwood's grandmother and father.Stacey Harwood’s grandmother and father. (Courtesy Stacey Harwood.)

Mohn kichlach, poppy-seed cookies, originated with Eastern European Jews. These cookies were traditionally baked for boys heading off to war because they remained fresh for weeks. According to my father, they were small and hard, not too sweet, and utterly addictive. My father last had them when he and my mother embarked from their home in the Bronx on a cross-country drive shortly after they married in 1948. Bessie, who lived nearby, packed a shoebox full of them, with instructions for my parents to deliver the box to a relative in California.

The cookies didn’t make it out of Pennsylvania.

Over the years I accumulated several recipes for mohn kichlach, from Jewish-organization and other cookbooks, but I resisted making them because my father was no longer around to give a thumbs up. Then last summer, in anticipation of a roughly five-hour drive with my husband from New York City to the Finger Lakes region of Western New York, I decided to experiment. Some of the recipes I tried were for drop cookies, others for rolled. One included chopped onions, for a kind of cracker-bialy hybrid. I rejected one recipe that called for an alarming one cup of oil; the cookies slid around the baking sheet and were so flabby and unappealing that I slid them right into the garbage. I finally settled on a rolled version with more poppy seeds and less sugar than most. For some reason—a message from beyond?—I imagined these were close to my grandmother’s.

While I can’t know for sure if I succeeded, I do know this: My cookies didn’t survive New Jersey.

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So where is the recipe?????????????

I was about to ask the same thing. Then I noticed the “recipe” link over the photo of the cookies.

My father’s mother made poppyseed cookies, too. They were a little bit dry and not too sweet and, like the author’s grandmother’s, totally addicting. Little Grandma used to bring them to us in a huge Tupperware bowl. We loved them, but never thought to get the recipe. She died in 1976, and I have been
trying to duplicate them ever since. (Well, not continuously, but you know what I mean.)

Thank you for this! I can’t wait to try this version.

Steph F. says:

Click on the picture of the cookies, in the box where it says “recipe.” I had the same question at first, then I figured that out.

Why not publish the recipe?

Scott Morris says:

So, please save the rest of us the aggravation and time of trying various recipes, and share the one that you got to work. Lest, you become the grandmother who took her recipe to the grave.

Larry Gaum says:

Why would Stacey Harwood want to duplicate the cookies of such a hateful person even if she was her grandmother?
My grandmother was a kind and loving person and loved her grandchildren with constant smiles and kisses. I have duplicated many of her recipes and when we eat her Borscht, we think fondly of her and her memory is a blessing.
If i had to eat one of Staceys grandmother’s cookies, I would gag and throw up.
A “verbissena” person
Dr. Larry Gaum

Martin Horowitz says:

Are you THE Lsrry Gaum?

Selma Golub says:

How do I get the recipe… mouth waters for my Bubbies cookies. Can these be them???????

Rosanne says:

Dear Stacey! Back in Louisville in the 1950s, my grandmother, whom we called Mimi Sarah, made these same cookies, but used a crinkle-edge, kite-shaped cookie cutter. But we didn’t call them mon kichlach, as far as I can remember. Or maybe it WAS kichlach, but with, you know, a Southern drawl. Can’t wait to try that recipe–

Adina Bloch says:

Dr. Gaum, You clearly didn’t read this moving essay or wouldn’t put up such mean-spirited comment. You obviously did not inherit your grandmother’s kindness.

ps. I tried the recipe yesterday; the cookies are gone already. Delicious.

I hope everyone has now figured out that the recipe is already in the article (follow the link in the sidebar). I tried these out yesterday, using anise seed instead of poppy seed because I was out of poppy. They were a huge hit and the recipe is definitely a keeper. Thanks!

Stinky Goldberg says:

So what is the recipe? What kind of article is this?

Merle Bachman says:

Lovely, Stacey. I’m glad to see you are cookin’ up some wonderful words!

Stacey says:

I hope everyone has found the recipe. Eve, the anise substitution is something I’m going to try! Merle, thanks – nice to have you as a reader.

I came to this in the hopes of submitting an article and have been mesmerized by the recipes instead! I had no idea that anybody else even KNEW of what we used to call Tsibela Mon Kichel! However, my nana used to let me watch her bake, and when I was a young adult I asked her for her recipe box…she let me borrow some of them…index cards, handwritten of course! I have her recipe for this and will be happy to share it with Stacey’s consent. I made them just once and they tasted like hers.

big daddy says:

My Grandmother would make similar cookies. I called them sinkers but they tasted great. A poppy seed onion cookie or biscuit of some kind. I had the recipe but lost it years ago. A lot of work to make it her way, I know that. So for nostalgic reasons I am going to try to make them myself with my 80 year old mom. She doesn’t remember the recipe just how much work her mother had to do.


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Pursuit of Poppyness

My father loved my grandmother’s poppy-seed cookies, or mohn kichlach, but she never made them for me. Could I duplicate her recipe?

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