Purim is this Sunday, March 16. While we like the carnivals and the costumes, we love the hamantashen – both baking them and eating them.
According to the world-famous, super useful, really fun to read Dictionary of Jewish Words, hamantashen literally means “Haman’s hats.” Haman was the bad guy in the story of Purim. An advisor to King Ahasuerus of ancient Persia, he hatched a plot to kill the Jews. Queen Esther and her righteous uncle, Mordecai, were the good guys. Esther foiled the plot and saved the day. Spoiler alert: The king was in love with Esther.
During Purim services, the Megillat Esther, the scroll of Esther, is read in synagogue. It’s customary to make noise – clap your hands, stomp your feet, and twirl your grager (a small noisemaker) – whenever Haman is mentioned, to drown out his evil name.
It’s also traditional to bake and eat hamantashen, triangular-shaped cookies filled with fruit. Traditional flavors include apricot, cherry, mun (Yiddish for poppy seed), and lekvar (the Hungarian word for jam that has become synonymous with prune butter). We’ve been known to fill hamantashen with dark chocolate chips, too.
We kvell when Yiddish words show up in the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. In 1983, the winningest word was “Purim” correctly spelled by Blake Giddens from New Mexico! In 2007, contestants were asked to spell lekvar and in 2013, knaidel (spelled just the way we spell it, incidentally) was the winning word. Maybe next year it’ll be hamantashen!
Hamantashen are fun to make, and a great project to do with kids.
We’ve expounded on hamantshen before, but were inspired to write this post because we saw many hamantashen recipes on the Internet, and not all of them were great. As experienced Jewish cooks, we can’t resist dishing out our advice.
1. Don’t use regular jelly or jam. It will melt and run out during the baking. Use pie filling fruits, the kind that comes in cans, or fruit “butters,” like prune butter or apricot butter. (Apple butter is too thin.)
2. Don’t roll out the dough. Many recipes for hamantashen instruct you to roll out the dough and cut circles with a cookie cutter. Anyone who has ever made sugar cookies/Christmas cookies/Hanukkah cookies knows that rolling out dough can be challenging. The dough sticks to the counter and the rolling pin. It’s difficult to lift the wiggly shapes of dough onto the cookie sheet. The kids start to complain that baking together isn’t really fun. We are here to tell you that rolling out the dough is UNNECESSARY. It is much easier to simply make a small ball of dough (meatball-sized) and flatten it with the palm of your hand. This gives you the circle shape that is perfect for filling and folding into a triangle. Our friend the Bible Belt Balubusta – an experienced and creative Jewish educator, agrees with us.
3. Don’t overfill them. As delicious as that lekvar is, you really should only put a scant teaspoon of fruit in each one. Fold the three sides of dough up and pinch the corners together to ensure that filling does not leak out.
Many hamantashen recipes are pareve – meaning that they contain neither milk nor meat, which allows those who keep kosher to enjoy them with any meal. We’ve found that using cooking oil (instead of dairy butter) gives a more cookie-like, crunchy texture, but the raw dough can be too crumbly to shape well. Using margarine, butter or a combination of solid and liquid fats gives a more easily shaped dough. If your dough is too dry or crumbly, add a few teaspoons of liquid. We like orange juice, which imparts a fresh citrus vibe. Modern pareve cooks can also add in almond or soy milk.
2/3 cup margarine or solid vegetable shortening (like Crisco)
1/3 cup oil
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 cups flour
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a cookie sheet or line it with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, cream the margarine or shortening, oil, sugar and eggs. (You can use an electric mixer to amke this part easier) Mix in the baking powder, vanilla and salt. Add the flour to this mixture one cup at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl until it forms dough. If you need to, add a teaspoon or two of milk or orange juice to get the dough to come together.
Use our secret “flatten a ball method” to make dough circles.
Filling: Fill with your favorite pie filling (if you stick to our recommendations and only use a teaspoon or so per hamantashen, one can of each flavor filling should be plenty.) We like Solo brand cake and pastry filling, which we find in the baking aisle of our supermarket.
Fold them into triangles and bake until brown on the edges, about 18-22 minutes. They won’t look completely brown like a traditional cookie, just brown on the bottom and tips of the triangle.
Makes 1-1/2 to 2 dozen medium-sized hamantashen – bigger than an Oreo, smaller than a catcher’s mitt.
Have a good nosh!