The running joke about Jewish holidays is that some goy always asks, “What is this holiday about?” And the answer is always, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.”
It doesn’t matter what holiday it is. There’s usually some lurid twist that makes for good storytelling, but the general idea is almost always the same.
Since this isn’t a religion blog, I won’t recount all of the details here, but they include treason, conspiracy, a crafty stripper, and leprosy. The most important point is that the bad guy, Haman, wore a three-cornered hat; thus (obviously!) we commemorate the holiday by eating triangular cookies called hamantaschen, or Haman pockets. (Or humdingers, as a non-Jewish family friend used to call them.)
The issue of fillings is contentious. Poppy seed is by far the superior filling, yet some people weirdly are unconvinced. Apricot jam is pretty good too. Some people put Hershey’s kisses in there, or prunes, or other kinds of jam.
All of the aforementioned are traditional, but there is no real rule about it. There is probably some yuppie out there making savory caramelized onion and chèvre hamantaschen, and somewhere in L.A. you can probably get gluten-free hamantaschen with açai berry and flax.
Every year I intend to make hamantaschen for Purim, and every year I don’t get around to it. This year was no exception, although I did receive gifts of hamantaschen from two different friends. One brought hamantaschen from the reputable Market Hall Bakery in Oakland. They were good cookies — buttery and fresh, filled with universally inoffensive apricot jam — but not the traditional hamantaschen of my youth.
The other friend, however, brought hamantaschen he had made himself. He has never met my mother, but the cookies, flecked with orange zest and filled with poppy seeds, could have come from her kitchen. It inspired me all the more to whip up a batch.
Luckily, hamantaschen, like matzo-ball soup, are technically a holiday food but appropriate to enjoy at any time of year.
Our family recipe came from my great-grandmother, and probably her ancestors in the Old Country before that. When I asked my mother for it, she produced a 30-year-old handwritten piece of paper that had been carefully recorded from her mother in Skokie, Illinois, and kept folded in an old, stained copy of The Tassajara Bread Book.
The recipe makes a ton of cookies. It’s kind of time-consuming and kind of a commitment, but extra fun. Also, you probably want to get together a couple of friends and a bottle of sherry or something and rock it for an afternoon. Your friends/roommates/family/co-workers will love you.
That nice young man at the office? Bring him a few hamantaschen, too. You’ll thank me later, and so will your mother.
Related recipe: Hamantaschen
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Change in our kitchens
Reflections on cooking — and a career that’s based largely at the stove.
Flatbreads from around the continent
Beyond a supporting role
The great Sicilian-Neapolitan kitchen rivalry
Five ideas each month for eating better