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Author Notes: As in all things Jewish, there’s some debate: which came first, Purim or hamanstaschen? Purim is the Jewish festival commemorating the deliverance of ancient Persian Jews from destruction, as recorded in the biblical Book of Esther, also called the Megillah. The triangle cookie we know and love as hamantaschen is associated with the three-cornered hat of Haman, the villain central to the story.
And here’s where the plot thickens and the feasting begins.
According to the Book of Esther, Haman, royal advisor to King Ahasuerus, planned to kill the Jews, but his plan was foiled at a feast where the bold and steadfast Queen Esther reveals her identity as a Jew. Whether there were poppy seed cakes at that feast God only knows. But records show it was customary to eat poppy seeds and honey at Purim-time all the way back to the days of Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, the renowned Jewish scholar of the Eleventh Century.
Poppy seed-filled cakes, called mohn-taschen, were also popular in European Jewish cuisine – mohn meaning poppy seed and taschen meaning pockets. Because mohntaschen sounded like the Yiddish pronunciation of hamantaschen, the cookies were renamed.
For most American Jews, Purim is a pleasant afternoon spent with children in costume at a synagogue or community center carnival. In Israel the holiday is Mardi Gras and Halloween rolled into two boisterous days of parades in masquarade, parties and baskets of sweets delivered to family and friends.
For me, a hamantashen isn’t a hamantaschen without that dark honey-laden poppy seed filling – yup, the kind that gets stuck in your teeth. The custom of filling the cookies with plum or prune is Czech in origin, but those handy little pockets of sweet dough lend themselves to a variety of fruit fillings, as well as cheese, nuts and chocolate.
Recipes for hamantaschen abound and include both yeast-based and cookie doughs. My version is based on a favorite from The Jewish Holiday Cookbook: An International Collection of Recipes and Customs, by Gloria Kaufer Greene. I’ve added pecans to the dough with the result of a slightly richer pastry texture. Deliberating over the filling as I stirred the poppy seed mixture over a low flame on the stove, I added minced dried apricot and cherries, then an ounce of unsweetened chocolate. For good measure. Choose one or all. It’s all good.
Makes 20 to 24 cookies
For the dough
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter or margarine
- 1/4 cup packed dark or light brown sugar
- 1/4 cup honey
- 2 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose white flour
- 1/4 cup pecans, finely chopped in food processor
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon orange or lemon zest
Poppy seed filling
- 1 cup poppy seeds (about 5 ounces)
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/2 cup honey
- 1/4 cup dried apricots (minced in food processor)
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- In an electric mixer at medium speed, cream the butter with the brown sugar and honey until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and vanilla, cinnamon and orange zest and beat until well mixed.
- Add the flour, baking powder, baking soda and pecans and mix until well combined.
- Form the dough into a sphere, wrap in plastic wrap or wax paper and refrigerate.(Dough may be made ahead for up to three days).
- In a small saucepan, combine poppy seeds with all filling ingredients. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently until the mixture thickens and liquid has been absorbed. (About 10 minutes.) Remove filling from heat and let cool.
- To make cookies, cut the chilled dough into four equal pieces for ease of handling. Working with one piece at a time, roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface until it is about 1/8 inch thick.
- Using a cookie cutter (or top of a glass) cut out circles about three inches in diameter. Put a heaping teaspoon of filling into the center of each circle.
- Fold edges of the circle to form a triangle base and pinch the edges together tightly, leaving the center of the cookie open. Option, brush dough with egg wash
- Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 15 minutes.