The triangular-shaped pastries eaten on the Jewish festival of Purim are called hamantaschen. According to the Book of Esther, which tells the Purim story, the villain, Haman, wore a triangular-shaped hat. We symbolically eat his hat to celebrate his defeat and demise.
For readers unfamiliar with Purim, here’s what we are celebrating:
- It is the fifth century BC, in the city of Shushan, Persia. Jews are living in exile under the rule of Xerxes I, aka Ahasuerus.
- The king has a party, summons his wife, Vashti, to dance (naked) before his guests. She refuses and off with her head.
- He gets lonely and seeks a new queen. Young maidens throughout his realm are rounded up and sent to his harem. Among the ladies is Esther, a Jewish orphan in the care of her beloved uncle, Mordecai.
- Ahasuerus picks Esther out of all the women to be his queen. Mordecai hangs around the palace gate, hoping to keep an eye on her.
- Meanwhile, the king’s main minister, Haman, gets mad when Mordecai refuses to bow down to him. He gets Ahasuerus to sign a petition declaring that all Jews will be killed.
- Mordecai pleads with Esther to intervene; after all, Ahasuerus doesn’t know his queen is Jewish. Esther risks her life by seeking an unauthorized audience with him.
- She cleverly invites Ahasuerus and Haman to a party, where she reveals Haman’s evil intentions.
- The king is outraged. Haman and his sons are hanged.
- The Jews celebrate with festive meals, sending gifts of food to each other and giving charity to the poor.
Eating hamantaschen is an important part of the holiday. Bakers have the option of making one of two kinds – a yeast dough or a cookie dough. Yeast dough pastries, unless a good danish, are not particularly appealing to me. Let’s focus then on the perfect cookie dough.
It shouldn’t be difficult to make tasty hamantaschen cookie dough. Yet, I have never in my six decades bitten into one and exclaimed, “Wow! This is sooo good! I have to have another! Can I please have your recipe?”
The basic recipe consists of flour, sugar, eggs, shortening or oil, baking powder, pinch of salt and maybe some flavorings such as vanilla and/or lemon or orange juice and zest. The dough is rolled out and cut into circles — three-inch circles work the best. Filling is placed in the middle of the circle. The edges are pinched into a triangle and baked until golden brown on the bottom.
Somehow, somewhere, something gets lost in translation. I’ve baked dozens of hamantaschen over the years and have tried numerous recipes. Some are awful; some are so-so. One recipe I use makes a decent tasting hamantasche when they are fresh. By the next day, they are soggy and soft, having lost their crisp cookie crunch.
I recently found a recipe in my mother’s handwriting with a note saying “very good.” It uses honey, margarine and brown sugar in place of white sugar and oil. I have no recollection of my mother ever making these, so am hesitant to try. Maybe they’re good; maybe not.
A key ingredient to the prefect hamantasche is the filling. The most common European filling is mohn (poppy seeds) or prune paste. Neither one “floats my boat,” especially the prune filling. It seems a shame to waste a lot of calories on prunes. And beware of eating too many poppy seed hamantaschen. A family friend lost out on a job because of a drug test he took the day after Purim. His urine showed traces of opium. He couldn’t figure out how he failed until he remembered the four or five mohn hamantaschen he ate the day before.
Other popular fillings are fruit based. I don’t advise using jelly. It doesn’t bake good in my opinion. Forget about using canned pie fillings, such as cherry, apple or lemon. The results are soggy hamantaschen unless your dough is very thick. A thick cookie dough gets gummy in your mouth.
I found a recipe that called for cooking dried apricots into a filling. That’s too much work. My go-to filling is made by a company called Solo. The apricot and raspberry are my favorites, but they make others (including prune and poppy). Solo filling is hard to find, though Giant usually carries it.
Using chocolate chips is always an option. In my experience, though, you can’t place more than five or six chips in each three-inch circle of dough. The dough usually overpowers the taste of the chocolate. Some bakers might use Nutella but that’s too messy for me.
A dilemma I have this year of COVID-19 is whether to bake any hamantaschen. We won’t be getting together with friends and family for the celebratory Purim day meal. What’s the point, then, of making two to three (or more) dozen hamantaschen for two people? We certainly don’t need the calories, and it’s not as if they are irresistibly delicious!
I usually bake a batch to send to my grandkids (and their mom and dad) in Texas. However, the Chanukah package I sent them, with non-perishables, arrived in January, almost four weeks after it was mailed. (I paid $16 for priority mail, too.) It doesn’t seem to make sense to send them a Purim package that will arrive just in time for Passover!
To sum up—I’m sorry, bakers, but I have never ever had yummy, tasty hamantaschen that left me wanting for more. So, when you tell me, after reading this, that you have the best recipe ever, know that I’ll be rolling my eyes and thinking, “Yeah, right.”
“Great Hamantashen” from the Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed Kosher Chef, p. 117
- 4 C flour
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- 2 eggs
- 3/4 C oil
- 1 naval orange, rind & juice (about 1/4 C juice)
- 1 C sugar
- 2 tsp. vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 350°.
- Sift together dry ingredients.
- Using wooden spoon, combine eggs, oil, juice, rind and vanilla.
- Turn out on floured board and knead until smooth.
- Divide dough into portions and roll out each to 1/8″ thickness.
- Cut into circles and fill with 1/2 tsp (or more) filling.
- Pinch into triangles.
- Bake approximately 15 minutes or until golden brown.
Makes about 3 dozen.
- 1/2 C butter or margarine, softened
- 1/4 C brown sugar
- 1/4 C honey
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- 2 large eggs
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 1/4 tsp baking soda
- 2 1/2 C flour
- Preheat oven to 375°.
- Cream honey, sugar & butter.
- Beat in vanilla and eggs.
- Mix in dry ingredients.
- Form dough into ball and refrigerate for several hours.
- Continue steps 5-8 as above in previous recipe.
Makes approximately 2 dozen.
Read more by Eileen Creeger.