If ever a holiday cries out to be celebrated, it is Purim (beginning this year at sundown on Wednesday, March 23). Merriment and joy are the order of the day–we are actually commanded to eat, drink and be merry.
The iconic Purim food, of course, at least for Ashkenazim, is hamantaschen, our beloved three-cornered filled cookie. Various legends explain its origin, one being that its shape represents Haman’s pockets, which supposedly held the lots (purim) he cast in order to choose the date for the slaughter of the Jews. Some say the shape represents Haman’s hat. However, according to the late food historian, Gil Marks’ “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food”: “Persians never wore tri-cornered hats.” Mystics invoked the three patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – as the meaning behind the three corners. Hidden foods eaten on the holiday, such as the filling hidden inside the dough, represent G-d’s hidden presence in the Purim story, as there is no mention of G-d in the Megillah.
Until the arrival in America of Eastern European Jews toward the end of the nineteenth century, hamantaschen were unknown here. Marks cites the first recording of the word in the 1903 “Jewish Encyclopedia”: “The Haman Tash, a kind of turnover filled with honey and black poppy seed, is eaten on the Feast of Purim, but probably has no special meaning.”
Among the Sephardim, fried strips of dough dipped in honey or sugar syrup called Haman’s Ear (“Oznei Haman”) are popular for Purim, perhaps because they are shaped like ears, or maybe, Marks suggests: “Eating a pastry bearing the name of the archfiend or formed to represent part of Haman’s clothing or anatomy–most notably his pocket, hat, foot or ear – thereby symbolically eliminating some part of Haman and erasing his name, contributed to the enjoyment and theme of the holiday.”
Legends aside, hamentaschen are cookies, and who doesn’t love a cookie? Cookies are our earliest treats. Give a baby her first cookie, and she looks at you as if to say, “I’ve been eating strained squash and spinach, and all this time you’ve had these?”
We learn to bake by making cookies. There’s mom in her organdy apron, pumps, and pearls, guiding your grubby little hands as you sift, stir and roll. She lets you lick the bowl…or at least she did before the raw egg police came along to spoil the fun <sigh>. This is the stuff of which memories are made…well, maybe your memories. My mother never baked cookies when we were growing up. She didn’t buy them either. Dad was a diabetic and we were supposed to be on diets. But when no one was home, one could always sneak upstairs to Mama Hinda and Papa Harry’s apartment. They weren’t diabetic and they didn’t diet either, so don’t cry for me, Argentina.
Somehow between the organdy apron and the feminist movement cookie baking got a bad rap, as in the expression “staying home and baking cookies,” usually uttered with a supercilious sneer by some shrill virago probably wearing ill-fitting shoes. Like you have to “stay home” to bake cookies! Hah! That’s the beauty of cookies. Baking them doesn’t have to be a complicated, all-day project. Working moms can create memories too.
Here are some tips for creating perfect cookies:
• To measure flour, stir, then spoon lightly into a measuring cup and level it off. (You’ve been scooping and sweeping, haven’t you?)
• Line your cookie sheets with parchment paper. Greasing the pan makes for burnt bottoms and overspread cookies. (Of course silicone liners are fine too).
• Oven temperatures vary, so adjust baking times accordingly. Cookies bake for such a short time that even a minute can make the difference between a delectable bite and a burnt offering.
• For rolled cookies, roll the dough between sheets of parchment or waxed paper while it is soft. Then refrigerate or freeze before cutting them out.
• Most cookie doughs (except for soft cookies) may be frozen for up to 1 month. Take out as much or as little as you like and create your own memories.
And why beans for Purim? Legend has it that Esther, while living in the king’s palace, ate only vegetarian foods in order to keep kosher. Therefore, the eating of beans, chickpeas and the like has become tradition for Purim in some communities.
These hamantaschen adapted from “Cook, Pray, Eat Kosher” (Oakhurst) by Mia Adler Ozair, are a fun project to bake with your children or grandchildren, who love to cut them out, shape and fill them.
Makes: About 5 dozen
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup oil
1/3 cup shortening
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons orange juice
4 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon orange extract
Melted butter or margarine, for brushing
2 pounds filling of choice (poppy seed, fruit jams or jellies, chocolate spread or chips, etc.)
1 Preheat oven to 350°F. Line cookie sheet with parchment paper.
2 Cream sugar, oil and shortening; add eggs and juice and mix well.
3 Blend with dry ingredients and roll dough into ball; divide dough into four parts. Roll each part approximately 1/8 inch between two sheets of waxed paper and refrigerate until firm enough to handle (2-24 hours).
4 When ready to bake, reroll dough within the paper to even it out. With rim of cup or glass cut into dough to make circles. Place 1/2 to 2/3 teaspoon of filling in middle of each circle. To shape triangle, lift up right and left sides, leaving bottom side down and bring both sides to meet at center above filling. Lift bottom side up to center to meet other two sides and pinch together.
5 Brush pastries with melted butter or margarine; place on cookie sheet and bake until starting to turn golden, approximately 18 minutes. (Start checking bottoms after 16 minutes.)
Black Bean Soup
This hearty soup comes from “Celebrate” by Elizabeth Kurtz (Feldheim). “A home- cooked meal is something to be cherished and remembered forever,” says Kurtz, creator of the kosher website www.gourmetkoshercooking.com. (Proceeds from sale of the book benefit Emunah’s Children’s Homes in Israel.)
Makes 10 to 12 servings
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium-size yellow onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon ground cumin, or more to taste
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
3 (15-ounce) cans black beans, drained
1 (29-ounce) can diced tomatoes
6 cups beef broth, chicken broth, or vegetable broth (no salt added)
1 (29-ounce) canned pumpkin puree
1/2 cup dry red wine
Toasted pumpkin seeds and Tofutti sour cream, for garnish (optional)
1 Heat oil in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Add onion, garlic, cumin, salt, and pepper; cook until softened, stirring occasionally, about 7 minutes. Add black beans and tomatoes to stockpot; cook additional 2 minutes. Add broth, pumpkin, and wine; bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to a simmer and cook, uncovered, about 25 minutes.
2 Remove from heat; cool, uncovered. Puree with an immersion blender or in a food processor until smooth. Serve warm.
3 Garnish with toasted pumpkin seeds and sour cream before serving, if desired.
Jlife food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.