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The Jewish feast of Purim

The Hamantaschen cookie from Joan Nathan, not the yeasted variety. They have a nut and fruit filling.
Elspeth Hay
The Hamantaschen cookie from Joan Nathan, not the yeasted variety. They have a nut and fruit filling.

A few years ago, Harriet Jerusha Korim of Wellfleet wrote a little booklet on the springtime ritual of Purim.

"It’s usually celebrated on the last full moon of winter and the next full moon is the first full moon of spring and that is usually, not always but usually when Passover comes," she explains.

Passover of course is a time of purity and prohibition — the feast of unleavened bread to remember the Jewish people’s escape from slavery. But Purim celebrates a failed assassination attempt on the Jewish people, and it’s a day of debauchery and indulgence.

"Purim the idea is to drink a lot, which is not a very Jewish tradition at all so this is an exception where you’re actually encouraged to drink so much you can’t tell the difference between the hero and the villain."

In the Purim story, the villain is Haman and the hero is a Jewish man named Mordechai. Traditionally, Mordechai’s victory is celebrated by baking a pastry called hamantaschen — little triangular pockets filled with poppy seeds and honey or fruit preserves. Harriet says partly, this baking frenzy has a practical seasonal purpose.

"You’re getting rid of all the flour because you don’t want to have anything that may have been fermented or gone stale or rancid when you’re doing Passover because it’s just such a — it’s a purification time," she explains. "And the other thing is it’s a signal to the housewives and house men: clean up the house! For you know, they do a big housecleaning traditional for so many cultures in spring, including Jewish culture."

Baking off the last of the flour into hamantaschen is a way of saying goodbye to winter and its foods. But the word hamantaschen is also symbolic — it translates to Haman’s pocket and is said to be symbolic of the Jew’s defeat of Haman, villain of the Purim story. But Harriet doesn’t totally buy this explanation. She sees an older link between hamantaschen and ancient spring rituals around female fertility.

"Ok, here are these triangular sweet cookies or pastries that can be yeasted or not, but you know that they're triangular and they're traditionally filled with poppy seeds. Which is kind of has a reputation for being kind of mind altering and slightly aphrodisiac too," she says.

"And it's springtime, it's just on the on the edge of spring and you're eating these triangular seed filled — you know, and don't tell me this has anything to do with anybody's pocket or hat, you know. They’re yoni-taschen!"

Harriet got into baking her own hamantaschen several years ago. She wanted to recreate the Purim pastries she remembers from her childhood and she couldn’t find anything quite like what she was looking for.

"When I was a little girl, the hamantaschen that I remember were yeasted. And everybody else that I know of now is into the cookie version, cookie versions of hamantaschen. So I wanted to make yeasted ones a few years ago. And I have this great cookbook by Joan Nathan, who's done a lot of, you know, Jewish recipe stuff online and elsewhere. And, she has a very interesting chapter on Purim."

Nathan says that in its seasonal position as the last feast before Passover, Purim is a practical but also creative Jewish gastronomic holiday. The foods of Purim are often deep-fried and flour-rich. In Russia, people bake strudels and sugar cookies. In Morocco, Jews bake small breads filled with hard-boiled eggs. In Iraq, turnovers filled with chicken or cheese are popular, and everywhere, including Wellfleet, Jewish cooks celebrate Purim with Hamantaschen.

Yeasted Hamantaschen

Adapted from The Jewish Holiday Kitchen, by Joan Nathan

Yields approx 36 yeasted cookies

Elspeth Hay Note: Many Hamantaschen recipes I've looked at offer options for two types of fillings: either a nut and fruit version, or a poppyseed version. I prefer the nut and fruit version, but Harriet likes the poppyseed best, so I'm including two options here. I found I was able to use more local ingredients in the nut version — I had dried figs from our fig tree, local black walnuts collected in the fall, and an orange marmalade made from Bitter Hardy Oranges, and the combo was fabulous. And if you want to make a 'cookie' version of Hamantaschen (without yeast), I have tried and devoured another Joan Nathan rendition, found online here.

Ingredients

For the dough: 

2 pounds all-purpose flour, unbleached

2 large eggs

3 egg yolks

1 cup butter (2 sticks)

2 tablespoons dry yeast

1/2 warm cup water

1 and 3/4 cup potatoes, peeled and boiled (still warm)

1 cup granulated sugar

a pinch of kosher salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

grated rind of 1 lemon

2-3 tablespoons white wine

For a Poppyseed Filling:

1 pound granulated sugar

1/2 cup water

1 pound poppy seeds

2 egg whites

1 teaspoon vanilla

grated rind and juice of 1 lemon

grated rind and juice of 1 orange

2 tablespoons rum

4 ounces raisins

2 ounces fresh figs, chopped

cinnamon to taste

2 cups apricot or raspberry jam

1/2 cup butter (1 stick)

For a Nut Filling: 

2 cups walnuts

1 cup granulated sugar

4 dried figs, coarsely chopped

2 teaspoons vanilla

flesh and juice (not rind) of 1 lemon

flesh and juice (not rind) of 1 orange

1 cup orange marmalade

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 tablespoons rum, or triple sec (optional)

To make the dough, measure the flour into a large bowl and make a well in the center. One ingredient at a time, mix in the whole eggs plus one egg yolk and the softened butter. Meanwhile, mix the yeast into the warm water and pour over the potatoes. Puree and add to the flour mixture, then add the sugar, salt, vanilla, grated lemon rind, and enough wine to make the dough come together. Knead well for several minutes, until the dough is smooth. Divide into six balls and set aside, covered, to rise for about 45 minutes. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Meanwhile, make the filling.

To make the poppyseed filling, combine the sugar and water and simmer over low heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar is dissolved. Grind the poppyseeds in a food process or spice grounder for a minute or two, until some are soft and powdery. Add the poppyseeds to the sugar mixture, then stir in the egg whites, vanilla, lemon zest and juice, orange zest and juice, rum, raisins, figs, and cinnamon. Simmer over low heat for roughly 5 minutes, then stir in teh jam and butter. Simmer a few minutes longer until the butter is melted and all the ingredients are combined. The filling is ready to use, but can be firmed up for a few minutes in the fridge as necessary.

To make the nut filling, combine all the ingredients in a food process and pulse until the ingredients are combined and well ground.

To make the hamantaschen, Punch down the dough and divide each ball again into 6 or 7 small round balls. Roll out each small ball of dough into a circle about 3 inches in diameter. Spoon a heaping tablespoon of filling into the middle, leaving 1/2 inch border. Fold the dough into a triangle shape by pinching the top together, then folding up the bottom and pinching each side. (You can use water on your fingertips to wet the edges of the dough if it's having trouble sticking). Be sure the sides are folded up enough to keep in the filling, and transfer to a greased baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough balls. When you're ready to bake, whisk the remaining two egg yolks together and brush the edges of the dough. Bake for about 15 minutes, then brush on another coat of egg yolk. Bake 15-20 minutes longer, or until the dough is golden brown.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.