Friday, March 21, 2008

Hamantaschen for Good Friday... er, Purim

Thursday morning, at o'dawn o'clock, I was rolling out dough for Hamantaschen. Yup. me. Hamantaschen. For Purim. Pre-dawn.

To fully appreciate how ridiculous this situation is, you have to go back a bazillion years to when some Jewish dude wrote the book of Esther. The quick and dirty of it is that Queen Esther of Persia [Yaaay!], secretly Jewish, thwarts the evil plot of Haman [Boooo!] to have the King kill all the Jews. There's some mighty creepy epilogue, including Haman and all his sons being hanged and the Jews killing 75,000 men defending themselves against their enemies. Ya know, it's biblical. So, to celebrate escaping genocide, we have the lesser holiday of Purim, a raucous commemoration that's sort of like a Jewish version of Mardi Gras. One of the days' mitzvot is to have a "festive meal," which gets liberally interpreted to mean costumes, lots of wine, puppets, songs, etc. Purim started Thursday at sundown, and goes through until sundown on Friday.

Friday? As in, Good Friday? The most solemn day in the Christian Calendar coincides with one of the most jovial holidays in the Jewish Calendar?

Yup. Someone up there definitely has a sense of humor. I mean, if the Almighty was going to schedule St. Paddy's Day, the drunken holiday of the WASPs, during Holy Week, He might as well add Purim to the pile. The more the merrier! It kind of reminds me of that Tom Lehrer song, "Doing the Vatican Rag," with the mind-boggling mix of High Holiness and Laughing-at-oneself. Which, frankly, isn't a bad approach to religion anyway.

But back to Hamantaschen. These little pastries are either named after Haman's [tricorn] Hat or Haman's Pocket (neither one of which is mentionned in the book of Esther, but it kind of makes you think of Haman as a little Napoleon, doesn't it?). I'm told that, in Israel, the pastries are called Haman's Ears. You have to have a pretty vivid imagination to see their resemblance to ears, but a few swigs of Purim wine might just do the trick. The catch here is that Hamantaschen are an Ashkanazi tradition and are predominant in American Judaism mostly because, well, guess where most American Jews' ancestors came from?

So here I am, at o'dawn o'clock, a literal White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, trying to figure out how to make Hamantaschen for my Tunisian/French/Irish boyfriend, whose Jewish side of the family didn't even come from anywhere remotely resembling Eastern Europe! Oy! Just another step in the somewhat exciting, somewhat petrifying process of taking two distinct heritages and weaving a new set family traditions that we can share together.

Entertainingly, the closest claim we have to Hamantaschen is the spoof Great Latke-Hamantash Debate that our Alma Mater puts on every December. It's a fabulously irreverent tradition that gets great professors (Martha Nussbaum, Milton Friendman and the like) to substantiate their culinary preferences with "academic" arguments. Some of the greatest included "the roundness of the latke clearly suggests the circle of perfection (Plato's ideal form)" or "the latke increases the United States' dependence on oil." Hehe. I love nerds. Needless to say, I had no idea what either a Latke or a Hamantash was before college.

The Hamantaschen that I made yesterday, for a first try, turned out damn good. I used Gil Marks' The World of Jewish Cooking, a historical cookbook that delves into the cooking traditions of the entire Jewish diaspora. I usually take Gil Marks' recipes with a grain of salt, as he sometimes chooses historical accuracy over tastiness (and let's face it, culinary traditions of the medieval masses tend to be dubious at best in terms of tastiness). Hamantaschen used to be made predominantly with yeast dough, but our 21st century sweet-tooth has made a cookie-dough version more popular. I shouldn't have worried about insufficient yumminess: the cookie dough in this recipe is almost pastry-like in thin, flaky kind of way -- they look so cute and delicate! As D noted, they are just sweet enough not to be a biscuit. Unfortunately, the cookbook doesn't mention that the dough becomes more crumbly and more difficult to seal as it warms up; so you need to toss it in the fridge between batches.

I also made a half batch of the traditional poppy seed filling (Mohnfullung), which was enough for all but 10 cookies (those we filled with jam). The Poppy Seed filling was Outstanding. I love the flavor of poppy seeds. It had an interesting texture with the dried fruit and the nuts, yet it wasn't overwhelmingly sweet. I opted for an orange flavor, but his suggestion to use lemon juice could have produced an interesting sweet-and-sour filling. All in all, interesting and different in a way that makes for a fairly sophisticated pastry. And, as we found out this morning, they go VERY WELL with tea for breakfast! D has been dropping several not-so-subtle hints that we (read: I) should make them more often -- my response is that he should learn to bake! (His response was that, on the list of cooking skills that he needs to acquire, baking is still pretty low on the list.)

Gil Marks' Cookie Dough Hamantaschen

1/2 cup + 3 Tbs butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
3 Tbs orange juice, or sweet red wine, or a water/lemon juice combo
1 tsp vanilla extract or grated lemon zest
1/4 tsp salt
About 2 3/4 cups all purpose flour
About 1 1/2 cups Mohnfullung (see below), or prune jam, or plum preserves
  1. Beat the butter until smooth. Gradually add sugar and beat until light and fluffy (5-10 min). Beat in egg. Blend in juice (or wine, or water), vanilla (or zest), and salt. Stir in enough flour to make a soft dough. I'm not sure what this means, but I added about 2.5 cups.

  2. Wrap dough in a plastic wrap and chill until firm, 1 hour minimum. At this point, tt can be fridged for days or frozen for months. Let stand at room temperature for several minutes, until workable but not soft.

  3. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

  4. For easy handling, divide the dough into 4 pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll out each piece 1/8" thick. Using a 3 inch glass (ish), cut out rounds. Reroll the scraps.

  5. Place 1tsp of filling in the center of each round. Pinch the bottom side of the dough round together over the filling. Fold down the top flap and pinch the two other sides together to form a triangle, leaving some filling exposed in the center. Hamantaschen can be prepared ahead to this point and frozen for several months. Defrost before baking.

  6. Place the Hamantaschen 1 inch apart on ungreased baking sheets. Bake until golden brown, about 13 minutes. Let cool completely.
Makes about 40 small cookies.

Gil Marks' Mohnfullung (Traditional poppy filling)

1 cup poppy seeds, crushed or ground
1/2 cup water or milk
1/2 cup sugar or honey
Pinch of salt
2 Tbs lemon or orange juice or 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp grated lemon or orange zest
1/2 cup golden raisins or chopped dried apricots
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts or almonds (optional)
  1. Combine the poppy seeds, water or milk, sugar or honey, and salt in a small saucepan. Simmer over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens, about 10 min.

  2. Remove from heat and stir in the remaining ingredients. Let cool. Store in the refrigerator
Makes about 2 cups.


LisaRene said...

Ah, yes, you are bringing back memories of poppy seed filled little pastry/cookies. I loved those little cookies and haven't had one in years and years. Poppy seed filling should be utilized in many more ways. Bet "cinnamon" rolls would be great with poppy seed filling in place of the sugar/cinnamon mixture!

Johanna GGG said...

these look amazing - and I love your historical background info - friends of mine used to rave about a poppyseed strudel because it had a dense poppyseed fillng like yours - I like the idea of a yeasted pastry like a pierogi one but am sure the cookie dough would taste amazing too!

Jessy and her dog Winnie said...

That looks delicious!

Unknown said...

Those look good. The poppy filling sounds tasty.