Purim, sometimes called the Jewish Halloween because it involves costumes and treats, arrives this year on the evening of March 4. While I may not head for the local synagogue to listen to a reading of the "megillah"--the traditional recitation of the biblical story of Esther and how she saved her people from the villainous Haman--I can never resist the urge to make hamantaschen, the filled triangle-shaped cookies associated with this ancient holiday. The cookie's name is Yiddish for Haman's pockets, but when I was growing up, we were always told it meant Haman's hat, so I pictured this bad guy with a tricornered hat filled with prunes and nuts, which is what my mother used to put in the pastries. In Israel, the cookies are called oznei Haman, or Haman's ears. In any case, they represent some part of this very wicked man, who, according to the story, had convinced the king of 5th-century B.C.E. Persia to let him exterminate all the Jews--until Esther, the king's wife, who just happened to be Jewish, persuaded him to get rid of Haman instead.
One of the most joyous of Jewish holidays, customs on this day include dressing up as the key characters in the Purim tale, exchanging gifts of food and drink, donating to the poor, reciting the story of Esther (in other words, the whole megillah!), and--my favorite--making and eating hamantaschen.
The cookies are a bit of work but a lot of fun to make. Traditionally, they often contained poppy seed (mohn) or prune or apricot (lekvar) fillings, but there's a lot of room for creativity. A quick search on Pinterest yielded myriad variations on the triangular pastry, from rainbow hamantaschen to taco and s'more hamantaschen (graham cracker crust filled with marshmallow fluff and chocolate).
There were even more variations on how to shape the cookies into the requisite three-corner shape without having the cookies open up while baking and/or erupt like mini volcanoes. On her blog, The Shiksa in the Kitchen, Tori Avey gives an excellent step-by-step description of how to fold the cookies in a sort of triangular pouch that remains intact in the oven. I prefer the "pinch" method, which, after a bit of practice, I've found works beautifully. You can play around. But there are a few principles that make the difference between a happy hamantasch experience and one that makes you give up and reach for the nearest Girl Scout Thin Mint. (But should you have a yen for one, you're in luck--there's actually a recipe for chocolate mint hamantaschen!)
For the dough, I used a recipe I found in one of my favorite Jewish cookbooks, Joan Nathan's The Jewish Holiday Kitchen. I made three fillings, one prune, one chocolate-almond and one with apricot jam, coconut and almonds (see below). But there is nothing to stop you from experimenting; it's what makes baking fun.
Makes enough for 24 to 36 cookies*
(Adapted from Joan Nathan's The Jewish Holiday Kitchen)
2/3 cup unsalted butter (or pareve shortening), softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 to 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest (optional)
1 large egg (optional)
1. Cream the butter and sugar in a large bowl, using either a food processor or mixer.**
2. Add the egg, vanilla and zest, if using. Continue mixing until the batter is smooth.
3. Sift flour and baking powder into a small bowl, beginning with the smaller amount of flour. Save the remaining half cup to add to sprinkle on the dough if needed when you roll it out later.
4. Add the flour to the butter mixture, pulsing or mixing until a ball of dough is formed. Try to avoid over-mixing as it will create a tough dough.
5. Split the dough into three or four balls, covering each in plastic wrap. Refrigerate 3-4 hours or overnight.
6. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cover a cookie sheet with parchment or grease it lightly with butter or a spritz of oil.
|Rolling out dough using plastic wrap|
7. Take a packet of dough and roll out to the thickness of about 1/8 inch (you just have to guess at this!) on a lightly floured board or between two sheets of plastic wrap (my preferred method). Cut into 2 1/2- to 3-inch circles (I used a floured glass that was just shy of 3 inches in diameter).***
|Using a glass to make circles|
|A teaspoon of filling in the center|
|Turning a circle into a triangle|
|Ready for the oven!|
8. Fill with about 1 teaspoon of filling (better too little than too much!). Then, using your two forefingers, push the top two thirds of the cookie toward the center. Fold up the bottom third upward with your two thumbs, and press lightly together, leaving some of the filling showing in the center. Lightly pinch the three seams together.
9. If you wish (I did), lightly brush the cookies with a beaten egg before putting them in the oven. Bake for 10-15 minutes until lightly browned. Prepare remaining hamantaschen while the others are baking.
*The number of cookies is dependent on how thick you roll the dough and how large you make the cookies. I used a water glass measuring almost 3 inches to cut out the circles.
**I found the food processor worked beautifully for making the dough. I pulsed the butter a few times before adding the sugar, egg and vanilla and mixing until smooth. I then added the flour and pulsed a few times until well combined. A hand or stand mixer would also work.
***If you don't have a cookie or biscuit cutter, a floured water glass works fine, although sometimes you have to use a knife to coax the circle of dough out of the glass.
1 cup finely chopped pitted prunes
1/4 raisins, soaked in 1/4 cup juice, sweet wine or water
1 cup water (or more if needed)
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/4 cup honey
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1. Put chopped prunes into small saucepan with water and soaked raisins, including juice.
2. Boil, then simmer until soft, checking frequently to make sure the liquid hasn't boiled away. Before it does, be sure to add more water. The smell of burnt prunes is not very appetizing!
3. Add the lemon juice, zest and honey. Stir well.
4. Mash with a potato masher or use an immersion blender if you want a smoother consistency. (I didn't, and the cookies tasted just fine.) Stir in chopped walnuts.
Suggestions for other fillings
I made two, but, as I didn't measure carefully, I will just include the basic ingredients, leaving it up to you to experiment. The Internet, of course, is always a great resource!
Chocolate Almond Filling
I took a shortcut and used Love 'n Bake's Chocolate Schmear filling, mixing equal parts with almond butter, adding a tablespoon or two of milk (you can use almond milk if you prefer) to thin the mixture a little, plus another couple of tablespoons of chopped roasted almonds. I added one drop of almond extract. The mixture should be thick but pliable.
I mixed apricot jam with toasted coconut and chopped walnuts. Any jam mixed with your choice of nuts and/or coconut would work. If the mixture is too thick, add a little water. If it's too sweet, add some lemon juice. Nutella, the flavor du jour, would also make a delectable filling for hamantaschen. As for turning these pastries savory, I may be too much of a traditionalist for that, but there's one I saw filled with brisket that looks intriguing...