Mohnkuchen Mania

Poppy-Seed-Babka-600x600Mohnkucken fans in Cincinnati are in luck!   I happened to find a local bakery that makes something similar to Mohnkuchen.   Although its neither German nor family owned, Breadsmith Bakery on Hyde Park Square has a poppy seed babka that is rolled in poppyseed paste.

They’re a chain out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, founded in 1993.   But I like their motto “old world values in a new world.”   Using European artisan bread recipes, all their breads are made by hand, without preservatives and never frozen.  They’re then baked in a 5 ton European hearth stone oven.  Their menu of breads ranges in the hundreds, so I’m guessing they have the most extensive list of European pastries and breads around.

I had a neighbor who raved about Breadsmith’s  orange-chocolate bread and thought I’d stop by before the New Year, and before my carb-ban started up again, to sample their breads.   I bought a cinnamon raisin roll and told the clerk it was my last two days to eat bread before my new year’s health kick.   She replied, with a cheeky smile, “We’ll be here when it doesn’t work out !”

When I asked her if they did special recipes for customers and told her that I couldn’t find any Cincinnati area bakeries that carried Mohnstrudel during the holidays she said, “Oh we have something like that.”     Then she told me about their babka and other poppyseed items.

The poppyseeed babka dough is flavored with lemon and dried orange peel, and probably tastes more like a mohnstrudel.   It’s probably as close as we’ll come to Mohnkuchen in Cincinnati until a German Oma shows up a Findley Market with a homemade authentic version!

Breadsmith also carries a poppyseed Hamantaschen in the spring around Easter, which is a golden, triangular, delicate cookie filled with poppyseed paste.   It’s really a traditional Ashkenazi Jewish cookie  served around Purim .   Although made with a variety of fillings like apricot (one of my favorites) cherry, fig, chocolate, raspberry, raisins, or apples, the poppyseed version is the oldest and most traditional.        Israelite Queen Esther, who’s book of the Bible, describes the origin of Purim (called Megilla in Jewish texts), was said to only have eaten nuts because she didn’t have access to kosher foods – thus the use of poppyseeds in this Purim pastry.

I think the lesson of “if you seek, you shall find”, applies.  Or maybe it’s if you stop looking, the right thing will fall in your lap.    We’re still talking about food, right?!Hamantaschen-Poppy-Seed-600x600

New Year’s Gratitude To My Readers



As we approach another New Year and a new set of resolutions – I’d like to thank you all for visiting my blog and commenting, encouraging and even correcting me.     Hopefully you were reminded of your family’s signature dishes or even reconnected with a friend or relative over an historic dish you’ve enjoyed.    Hopefully you found recipes or even recreated your own to help you relive your own food history. 

Whether your interest is in savory or sweet, solid food or liquid libations, you’ve listened to me rattle on about regional foods and their sordid histories.    I think food history is as important as our political or social history.  We are what we eat and we’ve never had so many choices of what to eat than we have today.    We are being exposed to and have access to more food from other cultures than we ever have.    Who knew we’d be talking about Pho or Banh Mi sandwiches from Vietnam, or using the North African spice Harisssa in our soups.   My grandmother certainly would not have known how to use lemongrass or even spell sriracha – I had to double check the spelling myself!

Most of what we call our comfort foods were born as a result of convenience and frugality.    People made due with what food was available and affordable.  Some of those foods are not as healthy today with our more sedentary lifestyles and it’s important to remember this.   With moderation, we can still enjoy the wonderful feelings these comfort foods bring us.    We can enjoy the holiday treats our mothers and grandmothers made, or that specialty hot dog we had with Dad at the ball game as a kid.   

I thought it’d be interesting to share with you the top posts you visited this year on my blog.  They are in order of most visited :

1.)  Minster Meat Grits and the Cincinnati Goetta Connection

2.) Let Them Eat Rye Bread (the history of Cincinnati’s Rubel’s Rye)

3.) Cincy Beer Barons and their Summer Farms (who doesn’t like beer history?!)

4.) Hitch Your Wagons to the Kentucky Chili Bun Trail ( a cousin to the Cincinnati Cheese Coney)

5.) Krampus Bread

The post in which most of you commented was “The Frito Pie – New Mexico’s Version of the Threeway”.

So again, thanks for visiting my blog.   I hope you all have a wonderful and tasty 2016!

Don’t stop asking yourself the questions – why am I eating this food?  Where did it come from?
Guten appetit !!


Dann Woellert – The Food Etymologist

Tale of Two Tasty Treats



Like the Long John and the éclair, the schnecken and the rugelach are pastries commonly mistaken for each other.   While they’re both rolled yeast dough pastries with sweet glaze and fillings, they both hail from a very different origin.   They’re both equally delicious, but they should be loved for their differences.

For us in Cincinnati, schnecken means the old buttery Christmas delicacy hand made at Virginia Bakery by the Thie family in Clifton.   Virginia Bakery schnecken was so popular that they had a loyalty club, long before retail chains developed their barcoded demographic databases.   You bought 12 loaves and got one free.   Each Virginia schnecken contained two sticks of real butter.   They used to say, “If you’re going to sin, sin right!”     Now Busken owns the recipe and makes Virginia bakery schnecken at Christmas.

Schnecken is the German word for snail, which the rolled shape of the pastry resembles.     It is a rich yeast dough enriched with eggs, sour cream, and tons of butter.     Schnecken are rolled into a cylinder and sliced, becoming a flat spiral, whereas rugelach are formed from individual triangles of dough and rolled into a croissant shape

Schnecken was and is a popular breakfast treat in Germany and in many parts of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, where many bakers happened to be Jewish.   In America it has even been elevated as a dinner dessert, served in the slab, warmed, with good applesauce and vanilla bean ice cream.

Schnecken are commonly found in Jewish immigrant communities in the United States (Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Cincinnati) or German immigrant communities in Southern Brazil (where they’re spelled xineques).

One of the most popular schnecken recipes comes from the German Jewish Bake Shop in Cincinnati, Ohio. The United Jewish Social Agencies opened the Bake Shop in 1929 to provide part-time employment for women. It became an instant success and institution in the Jewish community.     Although shuttered in 1966, the schnecken recipe of the Bake Shop still remains a fond food memory for many Cincinnatians.

Schnecken is the grandfather of the American sticky bun or cinnamon bun.   You would never smell that wonderful warm cinnamony aroma in American shopping malls care of Cinnabon, if it weren’t for the German immigrants who brought the schnecken recipe with them. But classic schnecken are more crispy than our ooey-gooey cinnamon rolls.   They are washed in caramel syrup and baked open faced in a rectangular pan.

Rug in Slavic languages of Russian, Polish and Ukrainian means spiral.   Rugelach is typically rolled in a spiral shape like a croissant.   They are made without sour cream as the schnecken dough is.   Instead the rugelach used cream cheese when the recipe was Americanized.     I’m not sure why the change, because both sour cream and cream cheese are non-pareve or kosher.

While schnecken keeps its traditional fillings of cinnamon sugar and raisins, rugelach integrated other jammy fillings like raspberry and apricot.   You’ d never catch a schnecken jam-filled.   And, there’s a cookie version of the rugelach that is bite sized.    So, whichever of the two is your preference, make sure you know which one you’re biting into!


Mohnstrudel – A Lesser Known German Christmas Pastry



While the Dresdener stollen is the most common of the German holiday fruitcake, there’s another lesser American known version, called the Mohnstrudel.   In a lot of cases, particularly the North Rhine – Westphalia region, the two cakes are made together during the Christmas season.     The main difference between the two is that Mohnstrudel is made with ground poppyseed paste.   Poppy seeds have long been popular in East Germany and Eastern Europe in parts of the former Austro-Hungarian empire. Poland, Romania, Austria, Croatia, Bohemia, Lithuania, Russia, and Ukraine all have a long tradition of preparing poppy seed pastries.   There’s even poppyseed baklava in Turkey and Greece.

Long known as a folk remedy for fertility and aid in sleeping, the poppyseed was also known in Germanic legend for its ability to make someone invisible.     This may come from the high its opiate plant induces.

In Germany, poppyseed pastries, called Mohnkucken are eaten around Christmas time.   Mohnback, an already prepared poppyseed paste is readily available in Germany to save the holiday baker’s time. Mohnback is typically made with ground poppyseeds, almond paste, semolina flour, milk, and eggs.   Mohnkucken is a yeast cake filled with this ground poppyseed paste and topped with a buttery streusel – like a coffee cake.   The Mohnstrudel, like the Dresdener stollen integrates dried, rum soaked fruit pieces and is rolled in the poppyseed filling, creating a rich, fruity cake.   Sometimes cooked apples are integrated into the poppyseed filling for an Apfel-Mohnstrudel.

In a quick search it doesn’t appear that any of the local German style bakeries in the Greater Cincinnati area sell traditional mohnkucken or mohnstrudel.     There is a possibility that some of the Jewish delis might make them seasonally, as they are also very popular in Jewish cuisine as well.       There are lots of bakeries that make a lemon –poppyseed cake, but none with the thick mohnback paste of the German variety.

One Cincinnati Jewish cookbook of 1889, Aunt Babbette’s, has a mohnkucken recipe.   I imagine there are some really wonderful legacy recipes for these poppyseed pastries in German-American Cincinnati families and would love to see Servatti make one for the Christmas season.


The Sordid Life of the Holiday Jell-O Salad



If like me, you were a child of the 70s or early 80s, you were lucky enough to catch the tail end of Jell-O salad popularity.   Thankfully, most of the nasty savory Jell-O salads had fallen out of favor, by then. They were replaced with tossed salads and other healthier side dishes.   Jellied tuna salads in fish-shaped molds, and nasty mayonnaise based Jell-O salads with floaters and sinkers like pickles, olives, and celery, and even Jellied Veal loaf, were some of the savory salads from which Gen Xers were saved.

The festive colors of Watergate Salad, (also called Green Fluff, Green Goop, Shut-the-Gate Salad) and the strawberry flavored Pink Fluff made them the perfect holiday table salads.   Both are salads with a base of pudding and/or Jell-O, marshmallows, fruit salad, and whipped topping. Like me, you might have even watched the ill-fated Star Wars Christmas Special in 1978 while eating pink or green fluff. According to Kraft Corporate Affairs, they developed the recipe for Watergate Salad, then called Pistachio Pineapple Delight, in 1975, the same year they released their pistachio pudding mix.   Apparently an unnamed food editor in Chicago began calling it Watergate Salad in her column, and the name was eventually changed.

There were all sorts of cranberry salads at Thanksgiving that poured onto Christmas tables as well.   The can jellied cranberry (created by Ocean Spray in 1941) along with Jell-O popularity spawned these varieties. My favorite was one my grandma made that used Gingerale to make the cranberry Jell-O, with toasted pecans and a cool whip and cream cheese layer on top.

There was also a green salad dubbed Under-the-Sea Salad by the Kraft company in their 1962 Jell-O cookbook that made it to the holiday table. It had a lime Jell-O layer over a cream cheese layer with canned pear slices embedded.   This was a favorite of my mother. But since I’ve always hated canned pears and their mealiness, I always asked for this salad without the pears, or snarkishly ate around the pears when my mother served it.     It accompanied our traditional Christmas Eve lasagna for many years before Midnight Mass.

The Sunset Salad was an orange Jell-O concoction with grated carrots and pineapple, and sometimes mandarin orange slices.   It was a bit more rare at the holiday table, considered more of a summer picnic salad. But, it was so popular in my mother’s family it did make it to the holiday table periodically.



Many families still serve these salads today over the holidays as traditional nods to the past, and because they’re easy to make.   It wasn’t necessarily about technique, and more about presentation. But, there was a science to Jell-O salad architecture that’s detailed in the 1962 Jell-O cookbook – how to set it before layering on top of cream cheese to avoid contamination, when to add cool whip for fluffiness, and how to use it as a glaze for meats.

The second edition, Joy’s of Jell-O Cookbook says, “The bounty of Jell-O doesn’t end with its lightness, good taste, convenience, and versatility. Jell-O Gelatin is nutritious and low in calories, just 83 calories per half-cup serving.   It sits lightly on your conscience as it does on top of any meal.”   I have a South Beach diet approved, low carb version of green fluff using sugarless lime Jell-O and cottage cheese that’s really good.


Even the name Watergate , speaks to the Jell-O salad being a truly American Innovation.   How many other dishes are named after national scandals?   Well apparently in the 1960s and 70s there was a trend for satirically named dishes like Nixon’s Perfectly Clear Consumme, and (Senator) Liddy’s Clam-up Chowder.

But creating gelatin molds and salads in aspic is a European invention, that dates back to Medieval times. Back then, it was only the rich who had well-staffed kitchens who could render animal collagen into gelatin by boiling the required bones and hooves in a several day process.     Thomas Jefferson’s time in France influenced him serving ‘wine jelly’ at Monticello to guests.   It was probably served by his house servant, Peter Fossett, who eventually came to Cincinnati after Jefferson’s death, and ran a catering business to the elite robber barons of our city for several decades.

But when Jell-O gelatin became commercially available in 1897 to the American housewife, she innovated and created all the concoctions we grew up with at home and in church basements. At the turn of the century, gas stoves, electric irons, and the telephone were revolutionizing Home Economics, and Jell-O played a large role in that revolution.   Pearl Waite, a cough syrup manufacturer, first patented the Jell-O brand, and sold it two years later, for $450 to the Genessee Food Company.   The brand is now owned by Kraft-Heinz.

Sugar rationing during World War I slowed sales of Jell-O, but the Depression made it’s popularity soar as housewives sought ways to stretch their food.   Then the addition of lime Jell-O in the 1930s boosted its popularity even more – entire cookbooks were devoted to lime Jell-O and thus the birth of the Under-the-Sea Salad and many more.   If meat and potatoes represented culinary masculinity, the Jell-O salad represented femininity.   Tea houses and social luncheons served these dainty dishes.

But even Jell-O became replaced by much more convenient microwaveable foods, as more women began entering the workforce in the 1970s and 1980s.   And, Jell-O Salads went the way of the relish dish – off the table.

There are still areas of the U.S. where Jell-O salads are still very popular in the rural Midwest and Deep South.   Mormon Utah, though, seems to be the epicenter of its popularity. Nicknamed the “Jell-O Belt” Utah adapted the Jell-O salad as its official state snack in 2001.   Although not as ubiquitous as it once was, the Jell-O salad, as food author Laura Shapiro says, is “a once loved dish safely congealed into the decorative mold of history.”

A Papal Butter Ban and the Dresdener Christmas Stollen



This past weekend, a ridiculously large fruitcake, called strietzel or stollen , was wheeled in a carriage through streets of Dresden to the Christkindlmarkt or Christmas market. This Dresden Stollen Festival, traditionally held on the second Sunday of Advent, has been going on almost continuously since King Augustus the Strong started the tradition in 1730.     A large oversized knife is used to cut the stolen into pieces that are distributed for a small fee going to charity. That knife, called the “Grand Dresden Stollen Knife”, is a silver-plated knife, 5 ¼ feet long weighing over 26 pounds, and is a copy of the lost baroque original knife from 1730.   As you can see, the people of Dresden take their Christmas stollen very seriously.

Growing up my family’s Christmas fruitcake was this delicious Dresdener Stollen variety. We did not have the heavy  bricks of commercial fruit cake you might get from Pepperidge Farms.   Those are the kind that could keep in your bomb shelter for 20 years without spoilage.

Many cities like Manitou Springs, Colorado,  even hold an annual catapult toss of those  unwanted commercial fruitcakes.    So all the jokes of re-gifting these tasteless fruitcake were lost on me.  Our Christmas fruitcake, the stollen, was well spiced, with cinnamon and cardamom.   It wasn’t dense, but rich and buttery, and flavored with golden raisins and dried currents, not the unnatural green and red maraschino cherries of the laughable variety.

Ours were bakery fresh and was bought from Schultz’s , Servatii’s or Bonomoni or another wonderful German bakery around town.     My Grandpa made a similar version for the holidays at his bakery in Dayton, Kentucky. They had to be ‘eaten up’ within a week, and went great next to goetta and eggs at a breakfast during the Christmas season.   But I wondered how this wonderful German variety morphed into the horrible American example.   When and who was responsible for the fruitcake’s fall from grace?

As we do with many food pathways, food historians trace the fruitcake back to the ancient Romans.   They made sort of an energy bar of barley, pomegranate seeds, nuts and raisins.   Those crazy Romans had a lot of world conquering to do, after all.   But it’s the Middle Ages to which the modern fruitcake can be traced.   That was when dried fruits became widely available and Western Europeans integrated them into their breads.   Variations on these fruited breads popped up.   First came Italy’s sweet and spicy panforte ( translated, ‘strong bread’) coming out of 13th century Sienna.    Although rich, this is also much better than the American mail-order commercial fruitcake, and became associated as a Christmas bread, like our fruitcake.

Then came Dresden’s stollen, whose first mention in official documents was 1474.   Originally called Strietzel, it is produced in the city of Dresden and marked by a special seal depicting King Augustus II, the Strong.   Only 150 lucky Dresden bakers are allowed to make this official stollen.   I imagine a ‘fruitcake mafia’ to whom a Dresden baker must tithe to get into this exclusive circle.

As a Christmas bread, stollen was baked for the first time at the Council of Trent in 1545, and was made with flour, yeast, oil and water.   The Advent season in Catholic Germany was a time of meat fasting, and bakers were not allowed to use butter because it was an animal byproduct.   They were only allowed to use oil, and the cake was tasteless and hard. In 1560, the bakers of Dresden offered the rulers of Saxony Christmas Stollen weighing 36 pounds each as gift, and the custom of giving fruitcake at Christmas continued.

In the 15th century, in medieval Saxony (in central Germany, north of Bavaria and south of Brandenburg), the Prince Elector Ernst (1441–1486) and his brother Duke Albrecht (1443–1500) decided they wanted a much more decadent holiday bread and wrote to Pope Nicholas V (1397-1455).   They claimed that their Saxon bakers needed to use butter in their stollen, as oil in their region was expensive, hard to come by, and had to be made from turnips.

The Pope in 1450 denied noble brothers’ the first appeal. Five popes had to die before finally, Pope Innocent VIII (1432–1492) sent a letter to the Prince in 1490, known as the   “Butterbrief” or “Butter-Letter” which granted the use of butter (without having to pay a fine), but only for the Prince-Elector and his family and household.

Others were also permitted to use butter, but on the condition of having to pay annually 1/20th of a gold Gulden to support the building of the Freiberg Minster.  It was sort of a revenue generating ‘butter indulgence’ for the Church.   It’s just like today the 1% get all the bennies, while the rest of us peasants have to pay for it!  The ban on butter was removed when Saxony became Protestant and the Pope’s approval was no longer required.

So back to the Stollen Festival.   Augustus II, the Strong, (1670–1733) was the Elector of Saxony, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. The King loved pomp, luxury, splendour and feasts. He was kind of like the Germanic version of Louis, the Sun King of France who lost his head in the Revolution.   In 1730, ‘King Gus’ wanted to impress his subjects, ordering the Bakers’ Guild of Dresden to make a giant 1.7-ton Stollen, big enough for everyone to have a portion to eat. There were over 24,000 guests taking part in a legendary amusement festivity known as Zeithainer Lustlager. For this special occasion, the court architect Matthaus Daniel Poppelmann (1662–1737), built a massive Stollen oven. This is also when the famous knife was designed.   This story reminds me of my favorite line from the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, “Augustus, save some room for later!”

Over the centuries, the bread changed from being its tasteless original bake to a sweeter bread with richer ingredients, such as marzipan, although traditional stollen is not as sweet or light as the unauthentic copies made around the world.


The flambouyant Augustus II the Strong, creator of the Dresden Stollen festival and making it part of Germanic pop culture.

The tradition of making fruitcakes for special occasions such as weddings and holidays gained in popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries, even though its Christmas occasion had already been well established in Saxony. Because of the cost of the ingredients it was a rare indulgence for special events.

But, it was the modern mail system and shelf stability requirements that sent fruitcake into its downward spiral as a holiday joke.   So, if you want to avoid these leaden bricks of holiday hilarity, find a good German bakery like Servatti’s, and get  a delicious Dresdener stollen for you and yours.