Every Jewish school child knows the characters: Ahasuerus, the foolish king; Vashti, the spurned wife; Haman, the wicked first minister (sound your groggers now!); Esther, the brave and beautiful maiden; and Mordecai, her honorable protector. Their tale of intrigue is told in the Scroll of Esther (Megillah) as an annihilation plot is foiled and our people saved. Purim, which begins at sundown on Wednesday, March 7, is the holiday of merriment, mirth and trickery!
To celebrate our deliverance, sweets are the order of the day. Gifts of cakes and fruit (shaloch manot) are exchanged. For Ashkenazim, no Purim celebration would be complete without eating three-cornered hamantaschen, traditionally filled with poppy seeds, while Sephardim enjoy honeyed pastries called oznei Haman (Hebrew for Haman’s ears).
Bulletin! This just in! Taschen means “pockets,” and Haman never wore a three-cornered hat! (You just can’t believe anything you hear these days.)
Matthew Goodman, the Food Maven columnist of the Forward, points out in “Jewish Food: The World at Table” that these Purim sweets were originally called mohntaschen, meaning “poppy seed pockets.” Over the years the word morphed into hamantaschen (“Haman’s pockets”), which supposedly held the lots (purim) he cast in order to choose the date for the slaughter of the Jews.
According to chef, rabbi, historian and Jewish cooking expert, Gil Marks, the association of Haman with a three-cornered hat didn’t arise until the late seventeenth century.
Pockets, hat, whatever…eat and enjoy! Paula Shoyer offers three varieties in The Kosher Baker: Orange Poppy Seed Hamantaschen (recipe follows), Hamantaschen with Fruit Filling or Homemade Lemon Curd, and Chocolate Candy Hamentaschen filled with chocolate covered raisins. (You’ll find the latter two recipes on my website, www.cookingjewish.com.)
What is it about Purim and poppy seeds anyway? András Koerner states in A Taste of the Past: Daily Life and Cooking of a 19th Century Hungarian Jewish Homemaker that although poppy seeds have long been associated with the holiday, they were used during Purim well before the baking of hamantaschen. A religious twelfth century poem by Abraham Ibn Ezra, he says, recorded the eating of poppy seeds and honey for Purim. Marks explains further in his latest work, the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (Wiley, $40) that the tradition arose because the Yiddish word for poppy seeds, mohn, is similar to the name Haman (Hamohn in Hebrew).
From Afikomen to Za’Atar, the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” reveals everything you ever wanted to know about Jewish foods, culinary traditions, rituals and holidays. For Purim Marks presents other traditional delicacies that go way beyond the ubiquitous hamantaschen.
We eat dishes with a filling, “alluding to the many intrigues, secrets, and surprises unfolding in the Purim story,” he writes. Both Ashkenazim and Sephardim also enjoy chickpeas, “the legumes alluding to a tradition that Esther, in order to keep kosher, ate only vegetarian foods while living in the king’s palace.” Hummus is my favorite chickpea dish, but don’t save this appetizer just for Purim!
Layered Hummus and Eggplant with Roasted Garlic and Pine Nuts
1⁄4 cup balsamic vinegar
1⁄2 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1⁄2 to 1 teaspoon kosher (coarse) salt, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1½ to 2 pounds eggplant, cut into ¼-inch slices
1⁄2 to 3⁄4 cup olive oil
Hummus with Roasted Garlic (recipe follows)
1⁄2 bunch cilantro or flat-leaf parsley, chopped (1/4 cup)
1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
About 8 pita breads, cut into wedges
1 Prepare dressing: Whisk vinegar into olive oil in a small bowl. Add sugar, salt and pepper and mix well. Set aside.
2 Heat 1 to 2 tablespoons oil in large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add eggplant, in batches, and fry until cooked, browned and slightly crisp, about 5 minutes per side. Continue cooking eggplant, adding more oil as needed. Drain very well on ink-free paper towels. Coarsely chop drained eggplant, and transfer to a bowl. Add salt to taste.
3 Whisk dressing, pour about 6 tablespoons over eggplant, or to taste, and stir. Add salt to taste.
4 To assemble: Spread hummus evenly on large, flat decorative platter. Top with chopped eggplant, spreading to within about 1 inch of edge of hummus. Sprinkle with cilantro and toasted pine nuts. Serve with pita for scooping.
1 head garlic
1 tablespoon plus 1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 can (15 ounces) chickpeas, drained
1/2 cup tahini (100 % sesame seed paste)
5 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon kosher (coarse) salt, or more to taste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 Preheat oven to 400°F.
2 Slice off top of garlic head exposing cloves. Place garlic on square of aluminum foil and pour 1 tablespoon oil over exposed cloves. Twist foil tight and roast 40 minutes. Open foil and let cool.
3 Combine all remaining ingredients in food processor. Squeeze cooled roasted garlic out of cloves and add to other ingredients. Process until smooth.
Source: Adapted from Cooking Jewish (Workman) by Judy Bart Kancigor
Orange Poppy Seed Hamentaschen
Makes 4 dozen
3 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon orange zest (grated outer peel)
1 teaspoon fresh orange juice (from zested orange)
1 teaspoon poppy seeds
3½ teaspoons baking powder
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for sprinkling
1/2 cup poppy seeds
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon orange zest
(grated outer peel)
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 large egg white
2 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
1 Preheat oven to 350ºF. Line 2 large cookie sheets with parchment.
2 Dough: In large bowl, mix eggs, sugar, oil, zest, juice and poppy seeds. Add baking powder and flour; mix by hand until dough comes together. Divide dough in half.
3 Filling: In a bowl, mix poppy seeds, sugar, zest, cinnamon, egg white, honey and flour.
4 Sprinkle flour on piece of parchment, cover with dough half, then sprinkle a little flour on dough. Place another piece of parchment on top of dough and roll until dough is about ¼-inch thick. Every few rolls, peel back parchment and sprinkle a little more flour on dough.
5 Use 2-3” glass or round cookie cutter to cut dough into circles. Place teaspoon of filling in center, then fold in three sides to form a triangle, leaving a small opening in center. Pinch the three sides tightly. Place on prepared cookie sheet.
6 Bake until bottoms are lightly browned, 12 to 16 minutes. Watch closely to avoid over-baking; they should not be brown on top. Slide parchment onto racks to cool.
Source: The Kosher Baker (Brandeis University Press) by Paula Shoyer