Tracing the history of Hamantashen, poppy seeds, and prune fillings. Plus—recipes for “Haman’s ‘Ears,’” “Mohnbrodt,” and “Hamentashen de Panema,” along with instructions on how to shape a perfect Hamantashen.
by Tina D. Wasserman
It's the celebration of good triumphing over evil, intelligence and courage trumping greed and oppression. And it's based on a story that took place some 2500 years ago: When the evil Haman's plan to annihilate the Persian Jews was foiled, he was hung on the gallows he himself had constructed. Is this an early example of "Hoisted on one's own petard"?
Many wonderful foods are associated with Purim. Filled foods such as Hamantashen are typical, as they represent the intrigue associated with Queen Esther and Uncle Mordechai's uncovering of Haman's wicked plot. Sweet foods convey our wishes for a sweet future. Sephardic Jews eat cookies that are fried or baked in the shape of Haman's ear, which was purported to be twisted and triangular in shape. Ashkenazic Jews enjoy fruit or nut-filled triangular-shaped cookies or pastries--a shape said to represent Haman's hat, Haman's pocket, or, alternatively, the three Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Poppy seeds are another popular ingredient in Purim confections. Aside from their general widespread use in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the seeds are said to be the only food Esther consumed during her three-day fast prior to revealing Haman's plot to the king. Some say poppy seeds also symbolize the promise God made to Abraham to have offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands of the seashore (Gen. 22:17)--the antithesis of annihilation. Mohn, or poppy seed filling (a mixture of ground poppy seeds, milk, sugar or honey, and often raisins and or nuts) was also a popular addition to triangle cookies in medieval Central Europe, and the finished confections were known as Mohntashen, or poppy seed pockets. It is said that because these cookies sounded like the name "Haman," Hamantashen (or Haman's pockets) thereby became adopted in the 11th century as the first unofficial Purim treat.
Prune filling became traditional in the 18th century. As the story goes, in 1731 a plum preserve merchant named David Brandeis living in the Czech town of Jungbunzlau was imprisoned for allegedly poisoning plum preserves. Finally, he was acquitted. To celebrate his freedom, the Jews of Jungbunzlau filled their Hamantashen with povidl, plum preserves (prunes are dried plums), and thereafter referred to the holiday as Povidl. When Rhineland Jews moved east to Poland, Russia, and Hungary, they brought this Hamantashen tradition along with them.
Today, it's easier than ever to make Hamantashen. Prepared mohn filling as well as prune (lekvar) and other fruit fillings can be found in many supermarkets. And those who prefer ready-made Hamantashen cookies can buy them year round in bakeries across North America--another example of a traditional Jewish food going mainstream.
Whether you fashion your favorite dough into Haman's hat, pocket, or ears, may your Purim be festive and fun.
Throughout the Sephardic world, thin strips of dough are fried to represent Haman's pinched and pointy ears. While the following recipe--a variation of fried Italian dough--has no historic association with Purim, it's a perfect example of Jewish custom infiltrating the wider society. Italians often substituted anisette for some of the brandy in the recipe. And the finely-grated zest of 1 small lemon may be added for a more "Jewish" variation.
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for rolling
2 Tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/3 cup milk
1 egg yolk
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 Tablespoons Brandy
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
Vegetable oil for frying
1. Combine the first four ingredients in a mixing bowl. Set aside.
2. Whisk the remaining ingredients in a small bowl until well combined. Immediately add this mixture to the flour (so the brandy won't curdle the egg), stirring (by hand or machine) until a soft, slightly sticky dough is formed.
3. Turn out the dough onto a generously-floured board. Gently knead about 15 times, then form the dough into a soft ball. Cover with the inverted used mixing bowl and let the dough rest for 1/2 hour (so the gluten in the flour will relax and the dough won't shrink back when rolled out).
4. Divide the dough in half. Roll one half on a moderately-floured board until it is very thin (approximately 1/16th of an inch) and almost transparent.
5. Pour three inches of oil into a deep pot or fryer and heat to 375°F on a thermometer or on high heat until hot but not smoking.
6. Using a sharp knife, cut strips of dough 4 inches in length by 1 inch wide. As you lift up each strip, the dough will stretch a little; this is fine. Bring the two ends of dough together and lightly press them to form a sagging O.
7. Fry the dough 3 or 4 pieces at a time for approximately 2 minutes or until golden. Drain on crumpled paper towels. Roll out the remaining dough. Repeat steps 6 and 7.
8. When all the dough is fried, place on a serving tray and sprinkle liberally with Confectioner's sugar. Makes 3-4 dozen pieces, enough for a large party.
- Whenever a recipe calls for draining food on paper toweling, always crumple the paper into loose balls before lining your tray. The crumpling creates more surface area for oil absorption, minimizing both your grease and your towel consumption.
- Apply Confectioner's sugar to warm foods--warmth facilitates the adhesion of the sugar.
On Purim, you'll often see cookies fashioned in stick shapes, denoting the finger of accusation which Haman pointed at the Jews. The addition of poppy seeds to this sweet is very common in Israel.
3 3/4 cups flour
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons poppy seeds
1 cup sugar
1 cup peanut oil
Zest of 1 lemon, grated
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 Tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Also: parchment paper
1. Combine the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, soda, salt, and poppy seeds in a bowl. Set aside.
2. Using an electric mixer or a wire whisk, combine the sugar and oil on high speed in a 3-quart mixing bowl for about 1 minute, until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the eggs, zest, juice, and vanilla. Mix until thoroughly combined.
3. Stir in the flour mixture until well blended.
4. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper.
5. Lightly oil your hands. Divide the dough into four portions. Lightly handle each portion as you form a loose log approximately 10 inches long and 2 inches wide. Place 2 logs on each parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Gently smooth the 4 logs of soft dough into 4 uniform logs that are now about 12 inches long and 2 1/2 inches wide.
6. Sprinkle the tops of the loaves with the cinnamon and sugar mixture.
7. Bake at 350°F for 20 minutes, or until the edges are golden brown.
8. Remove the loaves from the oven and let cool for 5 minutes. Slice horizontally into 1/2-inch cookies. Return the cookies, cut side up, to the oven and bake for another 5 minutes. Turn the cookies over and bake for 5 more minutes.
9. Enjoy! Makes 4-6 dozen cookies.
- Whenever a recipe for a baked good calls for a large amount of oil, it is imperative that the oil, eggs, and sugar be beaten together well to form an emulsion. If this step is followed properly you will never have a greasy cake or cookie. Your finished product will be light and airy.
- Keep parchment paper on hand in the kitchen. This silicon-coated paper is designed to withstand oven temperatures up to 425°F. Your baked goods will not stick to the pan and your pan will stay clean.
Hamentashen de Panama
In Mexico you'll find a large Sephardic population from Syria and Lebanon, as well as a substantial Ashkenazic community. Their traditions have been commingled, probably through shared celebrations, to produce the following recipe:
3 1/4 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
Zest of one small lemon
1 stick margarine, cut into eighths
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into eighths
1 egg yolk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
2 or more Tablespoons of brandy or rum
Commercially-prepared poppy seed, prune, or apricot filling
Also: parchment paper
1. Place the flour, sugar, salt, and lemon zest in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse the machine on and off to combine. Alternatively, combine your mixture in a bowl and mix with a fork.
2. Add the margarine and butter. Pulse on and off about 20 times or until the dough resembles a coarse meal.
3. Quickly combine the yolk, vanilla, and brandy in a small bowl.
4. Immediately add the liquid mixture to the processor while it is running. Mix only until a ball of dough begins to form. Do not over-mix; otherwise your dough will be tough and dry. If the dough looks too dry, consider adding another Tablespoon of Brandy or milk. However, take care not to make the dough too moist, or your cookie will be heavy.
5. Turn the dough out on a lightly-floured board and gently knead it into a ball. Divide the dough ball into two or three portions and refrigerate, covered with plastic wrap, for 20 minutes.
6. Roll out the dough to 1/8-inch thickness on a surface that has been liberally coated with Confectioner's sugar.
7. Cut into 3-inch circles and place a small amount of prepared filling in the center of each circle. Shape the dough into triangles, pinching the edges together (for detailed instructions, see "How To Shape a Hamantashen," which follows). You should have approximately 30 cookies.
8. Place the cookies on 2 parchment-lined cookie sheets and bake for 12-15 minutes in a preheated 350°F oven until golden brown. Yield: 2-3 dozen cookies.
- Whenever you make pastry, add liquid, even in small amounts, to bind the flour and fat together. A processor is so efficient that dough might still be formed, but without the liquid your concoction will nonetheless fall apart when it's rolled or baked.
- Pastry that contains alcohol or fruit juice will taste even better the next day, as the flavors need time to combine and become less harsh.
- Always roll sweet pastry in Confectioner's sugar instead of flour. The cornstarch in the sugar prevents sticking and the sugar creates a light, glistening glaze over the finished product.
How to Shape a Hamantashen
1. Using your favorite rolled sugar cookie recipe or prepared store-bought variety, roll your dough out to 1/8-inch thickness and cut into 3-inch circles.
2. Place a teaspoon of filling in the center of each circle. Regular fruit preserves with lots of fruit pieces can be used, but don't use jelly (it will melt and dissipate, leaving you with an empty cookie).
3. Hold your hands so that the tips of your thumbs touch, your forefingers are straight up in the air, your left hand makes an L and your right hand makes a J. Place your thumbs at the bottom of the circle (see "B" in the chart) and slightly lift up the dough. Bring your forefingers down at an angle (between "A" & "C" and "A" & "D") and gently push the dough from all sides until it forms an equilateral triangle. Gently pinch the edges together and voila!--you'll have perfect Hamantashen. n
Tina D. Wasserman, a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas, has been teaching at her own cooking school for more than thirty years and writes a kosher cooking newsletter on the Internet.
New: See the URJ Press book by Tina D. Wasserman, Entree to Judaism.
Tina will be delighted to assist you. E-mail AskTina@urj.org.