Hamantaschen: A Sweet Reminder of a Wicked Man
Guest post by Bill St. John
Bill St. John has written and taught about restaurants, food, cooking and wine for more than 40 years, locally for Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, and KCNC-TV Channel 4, and nationally for Chicago Tribune Newspapers and Wine & Spirits magazine. A Denver native, St. John lives in his hometown.
As with Hanukkah, the rabbis consider Purim a “minor” holiday, meaning that, even though the Purim story recounts important events in the Bible, that story is not included in the five books of Moses, the Torah.
That does not diminish its importance for Jews come the month of Adar—March in the secular calendar. Because like Hanukkah (and several other minor and major feast days), Purim celebrates—with special rituals and foods, neither to be missed—the common Jewish celebratory pivot from “days of gloom” to “days of gladness.”
Purim marks the happy occasion when the Jews, under rule in Persia during biblical times, delivered themselves of a potential massacre due to the ministrations of Queen Esther and her cousin (some read uncle), Mordechai.
The great food of Purim is the hamantasch, a triangular-shaped pastry (in the plural “hamantaschen” because pastries are always eaten in the plural) named after the instigator of the massacre, Haman, a sort of prime minister to Esther’s husband Ahasuerus, the king of Persia.
The shape itself is, in a way, controversial. Some say it mimics Haman’s three-cornered hat, a shape that would not have been used in the Middle East in ancient times (having been popularized in Western Europe during the days of—and after being favored by—Napoleon Bonaparte). Others say its three corners or sides refer to Esther’s progenitors of note, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Still others point out that “tasche” (plural, “taschen”) is from the German for “sack,” or “bag” or “pocket,” and clearly refers to Haman’s pants’ pockets wherein he secreted his many bribes, for Haman was an evil man. Because 15th-century (some claim 18th- or even 19th-century) German Jews popularized the baking of hamantaschen for Purim, this derivation and definition of the word holds the most filling.
The hamantaschen themselves are yet another Jewish celebratory pivot, for they turn the memory or symbol of something (indeed, someone) wicked into something sweet.
As for the sweetness, additional squabbles and opinions. Options for filling the dough pockets of the hamantaschen run the gamut from sweetened poppy seeds (favored by OG traditionalists) to the dried-then-softened fruits of prunes, apricots, dates, or other fruit preserves, to apples, cherries, chocolate chips, dulce de leche, goat’s cheese, salted caramel, and (get this) gummy bears. There have been Nutella hamantaschen, a flavor profile which, one must admit, has a nice ring to it.
For more than 75 years, American universities such as Harvard and the University of Chicago have hosted annual debates by students and faculty who hold forth over which is to be preferred for gustation: the latkes of Chanukah or the hamantaschen of Purim?
I’d only point out that, swapped into English, the four Hebrew letters adorning the dreidel, something toyed with at Chanukah only and after the ingestion of many a latke, spell out “T-U-M-S.”
Purim, Jews, and wine
The custom on Purim is to drink. To what extent or throughout the day or only during the seuda (the Purim meal)—all of these and more matters the rabbis have discussed ever since Esther’s victory over her Persian persecutors began at “a banquet of wine.” (Esther 5:6)
An evergreen question is whether to consume wine only or are other alcoholic drinks just as kosher? Of course, wine was the default banquet beverage in Esther’s time (although beer predated it in the history of Levant and was just as diffuse).
Yet the point at Purim isn’t the wine; it’s the drinking—to a level where the drinker isn’t able to distinguish the difference in meaning between “blessed is Mordecai” and “cursed be Haman.” Because Esther’s was such an unexpected victory, such a reversal of fortunes, and because the miracle happened with wine, Purim celebrants are encouraged to re-create the unexpected, to drink a wee too much, to party and masquerade, in general to “let go.”
In many ways, Purim excess is the high point of wine’s role in religious practice. Psalm 104 says that God gives us the fruit of the vine so that we may make wine “to gladden the heart of man.” Wine makes us giddy and, as such, is a prelude, a presage, a foretaste of the end of days where mere human giddiness will be supplanted with an eternal gladness and a never-ending joy.
“Re-ligio,” an ancient word, translates as “to bind” man to God in what the Greeks called “enthousiasmos” or divine possession. On Purim, then, it may not matter how one gets there, whether with wine or whiskey.
On the other hand, to honor history and trod once again a great trail of tradition, it would be to drink wine only.
Earl Grey & Apricot Hamantaschen
From Dessert Person, by Claire Saffitz (Clarkson Potter, 2020). Note: This recipe is dairy.
Recipe author’s note: “Unfortunately, the hamantaschen you get in most bakeries aren’t very good, because the dough requires a lot of flour to help the cookies maintain their triangular shape in the oven and not unfold into wonky circles with exposed filling. In my version, I spike the dough with cream cheese and lemon zest for tang and just enough flour to hold its shape.”
Food processor, 3 1/2-round cutter (see Note 1, below)
Ingredients for the Earl Grey apricot filling (See Note 2, below)
6 ounces (170g) dried apricots, coarsely chopped (about 1 rounded cup)
3 tablespoons honey (2.3 oz / 64g)
2 Earl Grey tea bags
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (0.5 oz / 15g)
For the dough & assembly
12 tablespoons unsalted butter (6 oz / 170g), cut into 1/2-inch pieces, at room temperature
4 ounces (113g) cream cheese, cut into 1/2-inch pieces, at room temperature
1/2 cup powdered sugar (2.1 oz / 60g)
1 large egg yolk (0.6 oz / 16g)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking powder (0.14 oz / 4g)
2 cups all-purpose flour (9.2 oz /260g), plus more for rolling out
1 large egg, beaten
Poppy seeds and demerara sugar, for sprinkling the top
Make the filling: In a medium saucepan, bring 2 cups of water (16 oz / 454g) to a boil. Remove from the heat and add the apricots, honey, and tea bags and let the mixture steep uncovered for 10 minutes. Remove the tea bags and set the mixture over medium heat. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to cook at a gentle simmer, stirring and mashing the apricots often with the back of a wooden spoon or a potato masher, until you have a thick paste that doesn’t immediately cover the line left by the spoon as you scrape it across the bottom of the pan, 25 to 30 minutes (the thicker the filling, the less likely the hamantaschen will be to open up during baking).
Remove from the heat and scrape the apricot mixture into a heatproof glass measuring cup. You should have between 1 and 1 1/4 cups—a bit less is fine, but if you have more than an extra tablespoon or two, return it to the saucepan and cook it a bit longer. Stir in the lemon zest and juice. Let cool completely, then cover and refrigerate until you’re ready to fill the cookies.
Make and chill the dough: In a food processor, combine the butter, cream cheese, powdered sugar, egg yolk, vanilla, and lemon zest and process in long pulses, scraping down the sides of the bowl once or twice, until the mixture is smooth and creamy, about 20 pulses total. Scrape down the sides and add the salt, baking powder, and 2 cups flour. Pulse until a dough forms around the blade, about 10 pulses. Divide the dough in half, wrap each half in plastic, and press into a 3/4-inch-thick rectangle. Refrigerate until the dough is firm, at least 2 hours and up to 2 days.
Preheat the oven and prepare the baking sheets: Arrange an oven rack in the center position and preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
Roll out and cut the dough: Remove one piece of dough from the refrigerator and let it sit at room temperature for about 5 minutes to soften slightly, then roll out on a lightly floured surface, dusting the top and underside of the dough with more flour as needed, into a 1/8-inch-thick slab (any size is fine). Use a 3 1/2-inch round cutter to punch out rounds, cutting them as close together as possible to maximize the yield. Place the rounds on one of the prepared baking sheets. Gather the scraps, quickly mash them back together, and roll out again with more flour. Cut as many rounds as you can from the scraps and place on the baking sheet; discard any remaining dough scraps. Space all the rounds equally on the baking sheet—you should have about 10.
Fill and fold the hamantaschen: Dollop a scant tablespoon of filling in the center of each dough round. Working one at a time, use a pastry brush to paint the perimeter of each round with a thin layer of beaten egg. Fold the dough over the filling on three sides to make an equal-sided triangle, leaving an opening about 1/2-inch wide in the center and pinching very firmly at the three points to make sure the dough sticks to itself. Repeat until all the rounds have been filled and folded into triangles. Brush all three sides of each hamantaschen with more egg and sprinkle with poppy seeds and demerara sugar. Transfer the baking sheet to the refrigerator and chill the hamantaschen, uncovered, for at least 10 minutes before baking. (See Note 3 below.)
Meanwhile, repeat the rolling, cutting, filling, shaping, and chilling process with the second piece of dough and remaining filling and egg, placing the hamantaschen on the second baking sheet.
Bake and cool: Remove the first baking sheet from the refrigerator and bake until the hamantaschen are golden brown all over, 22 to 27 minutes. They may open up slightly while baking but should maintain their triangular shape. When the first batch comes out, transfer the second batch from the refrigerator to the oven and bake. Allow the hamantaschen to cool completely on the baking sheets before removing them from the parchment paper.
The filling, stored airtight and refrigerated, will keep up to 1 week. The hamantaschen, stored in an airtight container at room temperature, will keep up to 5 days. The dough can be refrigerated up to 2 days or frozen up to 1 month (allow frozen dough to thaw 24 hours in the refrigerator before rolling out).
Note 1: You can use a smaller cutter, like a 3 inch or even a 2 1/2 inch, if that’s what you’ve got. Just remember to scale down the amount of filling and note that smaller hamantaschen might bake slightly faster than the larger ones.
Note 2: To save time, use your favorite store-bought fruit preserves or jam instead of making the apricot filling (recommended: fig preserves or bitter orange marmalade). Just be sure to pick a jar of something that is thick and concentrated, like a compote with pieces of actual fruit or a fruit butter.
Note 3: Chilling the hamantaschen before baking them is an important step, since letting the dough rest in the refrigerator helps relax the gluten and makes them less likely to open up in the oven. One or two triangles per batch might unfold slightly, particularly if they were cut from rerolled scraps. No worries, they will still taste great, and you can consider them a perk for the baker.