[Beginning Saturday night, March 14, 2014] Jews in America, Israel and around the globe will celebrate Purim, a holiday known for costumes, carnivals and noisemakers. Even rabbis and synagogue presidents dress up for a playful re-telling of the holiday story during Purim spoofs called spiels. With all the fun of the holiday, it’s also important to remember Purim’s more serious underlying themes of persecution and survival in the face of the planned genocide of ancient Persia’s Jews. Based on events over 2,000 years ago, these themes resonate throughout the centuries and in today’s world as well. By speaking up and speaking out, justice will triumph over evil.
At the center of the Purim story is the powerful and wealthy King Achashverosh, his brave new bride Queen Esther, her wise uncle Mordecai and the villain of the story, Haman, the king’s advisor who was determined to rid the land of the Jewish “outsiders.” As queen, Esther conceals her Jewishness in order to work with Mordecai to help save their people. All of the evil plans, court intrigues, power shifts and the eventual triumph of good over evil are recorded in the Scroll of Esther or the megillah, which is read aloud as the holiday begins each year. Tradition demands that each time the name of Haman is uttered, it is drowned out by noisemakers and yells so that no one has to hear the name of this evil man.
One of Purim’s special traditions is the sharing of hamantashen and other gifts of food with friends while it is also traditional to give gifts to the poor, particularly donations of money that recall the price put on the head of every Jew in Esther’s Persia. We are taught to give generously on Purim. One never knows what tomorrow will bring.
As for hamantaschen, special treats associated with the holiday, folklore says the three-cornered shape of these filled pastries represents the shape of Haman’s hat. However, the word taschen meant “pockets” in old German—as in Haman lining his pockets with the King’s riches—while mohn is the poppy seed paste that is the most traditional filling for the pastries. Some people say they were originally called “mohntaschen” but eventually the name became haman-taschen for obvious reasons. And why poppy seed? It recalls the clandestine way Esther was able to maintain her Jewish identity and keep kosher in the palace by eating vegetarian including seeds and nuts.
Here are two hamantaschen recipes, one an easy take on the classic Ashkenazic (Eastern European) hamantaschen and the other a three-cornered savory treat from Sephardic cuisine. The recipes are provided by Susan Barocas, who most recently led the launch of the Jewish Food Experience project in Washington, DC.
This recipe makes a non-diary, crispy pastry that is good with a variety of fillings. The oranges juice and zest add extra flavor. The dough also makes a good cookie including thumb print that can be filled as desired.
- 5-5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour*
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- 4 eggs
- 3/4 cup vegetable oil
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1/4 cup orange juice or water
- 2 teaspoon grated orange rind
Fillings of choice including poppy seed (mohn in Yiddish), prune butter (lekvar), hazelnut chocolate spread, lemon curd, thick fruit preserve, crumbled halvah
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease baking sheet or cover with parchment paper. Add flour and baking power to a bowl and blend with a dry whisk. Use the whisk to beat the eggs in separate larger bowl. Add oil, sugar, vanilla and orange juice or water and beat until well blended and creamy. Mix in grated rind. Add flour mixture to the wet ingredients gradually, mixing in completely each time with a wooden spoon. Once the dough can be formed into a ball not too sticky to handle, knead it together until smooth.
All of the steps up to this point can also be done in a food processor fit with steel blades. Blend the wet ingredients, then add the flour gradually until a ball forms and continue to roll, fill and fold.
Once the dough is in a smooth ball, pull off a large piece and roll to ¼ inch thick on a lightly floured board or counter. Cut into 3 to 3 1/2-inch rounds; the top of a glass works quite well. Place about 1 teaspoon of filling of choice in the center of each round. Moisten around the edge of the dough circle, then fold into a triangle, pinching each corner closed and leaving some filling showing. Bake 20 to 25 minutes just until starting to barely golden brown. Yield: about 3 dozen
*To add some whole grain, you can trade out up to half the all-purpose flour for white whole wheat flour.