Purim: merriment, mirth…and good eats!

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06 Mar 2008

HamentashenIt has all the elements of pulp fiction biblical style: the foolish king (Ahasuerus), the spurned wife (Vashti), the wicked first minister (Haman), the brave and beautiful maiden (Esther) and her honorable protector (Mordecai). Add to the mix an assassination plot foiled and a people saved, leading to millennia of rejoicing.

Fast forward 2,500 years, and along come scholars asserting that Purim, the holiday of merriment, mirth, and trickery, may itself be a trick, casting doubt that the story ever happened!

Go ahead. You tell that to all those colorfully costumed kids, graggers in hand, waiting to drown out the name Haman every time it is mentioned as the Megillah is read. This is a day to party!

To celebrate our deliverance, sweets are the order of the day. Gifts of cakes and fruit (mishaloch manot) are exchanged. For Ashkenazim no Purim celebration would be complete without eating three-cornered hamantaschen (Haman’s pockets), traditionally filled with poppy seeds, while Sephardim enjoy fried pastries called oznei Haman (Hebrew for Haman’s ears). You’ll find a recipe for the Italian Orecchie di Amman from Joyce Goldstein’s “Cucina Ebraica” below.

Why Haman’s ears? According to Gil Marks in “The World of Jewish Cooking”: “Ear-shaped pastries are derived from the medieval custom of cutting off a criminal’s ear before execution as well as a legend that Haman’s ears were twisted or triangular in shape like a donkey’s.”

Long ago, in my den mother days, a non-Jewish friend gave me her family’s recipe for Polish Cream Cheese Kolacky. I shaped them into three-cornered cookies for Purim. Because my family wouldn’t touch poppy seed filling, preferring chocolate to any fruit, I created my own tradition, using a chocolate filling recipe another friend gave me, and my chocolate hamantaschen have been a perennial favorite ever since.

(Ask my sons, though, what they remember most about Purim and they will say goldfish. No, not the crackers. Every year they would win a goldfish or two at our synagogue’s Purim carnival, and if we were lucky, they might live until Pesach.)

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 eaten during Purim well before the baking of hamantaschen. He cites a religious twelfth century poem by Abraham Ibn Ezra which recorded the eating of poppy seeds and honey as a sweet for Purim.

Author Joan Nathan’s adapted her recipe for hamantaschen in her “Jewish Cooking in America” from “Taste of History: Recipes Old and New” published by Philadelphia’s Historic Spanish and Portuguese Congregation, Kahal Kadosh Mikveh Israel, which was founded in 1740. Nathan uses her own family butter cookie dough and admits that like mine, her children do not care for prune or poppy seed filling and will fill the cookies with chocolate chips, either alone or in combination with peanut butter.

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”), referring to his coat pockets, which supposedly held the lots (purim) he cast in order to choose the date for the slaughter of the Jews in his kingdom.

Pockets, hats…whatever! Eat and enjoy! This is a holiday to dress up and have fun!

Rabbi Abraham Twerski in “A Taste of Nostalgia” offers several possible explanations for the masquerade on this holiday. Among them is the possibility that we hide behind a mask as a symbol for the hidden hand of the Divine responsible for the miracle of Purim. Similarly, Esther hid her Jewish origin. Therefore, hamantaschen and kreplach, with their hidden fillings, have become traditional for this holiday.

Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family” and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.


From “Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family” (Workman Publishing) by Judy Bart Kancigor

Makes about 4 dozen



  1. Prepare the dough: Cream the cream cheese, butter, and sugar with an electric mixer on medium speed until blended and smooth. Reduce the speed to low and gradually add the flour, beating until incorporated. Divide the dough into three portions, and roll each portion out between two pieces of waxed or parchment paper until it is 1/8-inch thick. Without removing the paper, pile the sheets of dough onto a baking sheet and freeze them until firm, about 30 minutes.
  2. Prepare the filling: Combine the chocolate and the condensed milk in a small saucepan over low heat, and stir until smooth. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla. Set the filling aside to cool to room temperature. (The filling can be covered and refrigerated for up to 3 days. Let it sit at room temperature until spreadable.)
  3. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper.
  4. Remove the sheets of dough from the freezer one at a time. Remove the paper and cut out the dough with a 2 1/2-inch round cookie cutter. Reroll and cut out the scraps. (If it becomes sticky, return the sheet of dough, in the waxed paper, to the refrigerator to firm up.) Brush each round with the beaten egg, and drop 1 level teaspoon of the filling in the center. Pinch the cookies tightly in three places to form a triangle shape.
  5. Place the cookies on the prepared baking sheets and bake, two sheets at a time, on the bottom third and top third oven racks, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through, until the edges of the cookies are just beginning to brown, 18 to 22 minutes. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets set on wire racks. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling. Sprinkle confectioners’ sugar over the cookies just before serving.


From “Cucina Ebraica” (Chronicle Books) by Joyce Goldstein

Makes about 24 cookies

  1. In a bowl, using a whisk or wooden spoon, beat together the eggs (or whole eggs and egg yolks), granulated sugar, salt, citrus zest, olive oil, brandy, and vanilla until well combine. Gradually add the flour, stirring only enough for the mixture to come together in a soft dough.
  2. Turn out onto a lightly floured board and knead for 5 minutes until smooth. Roll out into a thin sheet and, using a pastry wheel, cut into strips about 1 1/2 inches wide by 4 to 6 inches long. Pinch together the ends of the longer strips to form rings and pinch the centers of the shorter strips to form butterflies.
  3. Pour vegetable oil to a depth of 3 inches into a deep frying pan or saucepan. In batches, slip the pastries into the hot oil and fry until golden, about 3 minutes. Using a slotted skimmer, transfer to paper towels to drain briefly. Keep warm until all the cookies are cooked. Arrange on a platter and sift a dusting of confectioners’ sugar over the top while still warm. Eat at once.


From “Jewish Cooking in America” (Knopf) by Joan Nathan

Yield: 36 cookies



  1. To make the filling, simmer the prunes and raisins together in the water, covered, for 15 minutes or until the prunes are softened but still firm.
  2. Add the nuts, then put the mixture through a grinder or chop in a food processor with the apple. Add the lemon juice and rind and sugar and mix well.
  3. To make the dough, cream the margarine or butter with the sugar. Add the egg and vanilla and continue creaming until smooth. A food processor is great for this.
  4. Add the flour, baking powder, and salt. Process until a ball of dough is formed.
  5. Chill for 2 to 3 hours, or overnight.
  6. Taking one fourth of the dough, roll out on a lightly floured board to a thickness of 1/8 inch. Cut into 2 1/2-inch circles. With your finger, brush water around the rim of the circle. Drop 1 teaspoon of filling in the center. Then bring the dough around the filling and press 3 ends together.
  7. Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven on a well-greased cookie sheet for 10 to 15 minutes or until the tops are golden.