The March chill is starting to fade. Robins and crocuses are peeking out of their hiding places. College students drag themselves over the finish line of their midterms with nothing but the promise of a week off. Spring, it seems, has finally made it. Maybe most people are beginning to make Easter plans, but not me. While the momentous and memorable holiday of Passover looms on the horizon, us Jewish folks get a little treat to usher in the change of seasons: Purim.
Purim is the goofiest holiday on the Jewish calendar. It has the same purpose as most Jewish holidays: “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” For once in the year, though, we dispense with solemnity and jump straight into Drunk Jewish Halloween. Sure, traditionally your costume is supposed to be one of the characters of the Purim story (the intrigue-filled Book of Esther, featuring magnificent feasts, nefarious plots, and the dumbest king in the Old Testament), but these days you’re more likely to see tiny Spider-Men and princesses bouncing around the sanctuary. Synagogues hold carnivals for the kids, everyone boos loudly whenever the villain Haman’s name gets spoken during the reading of the story, and then the adults that don’t have to drive get to cheerfully follow the directive straight from the Talmud:
“It is one’s duty on Purim to drink until one cannot tell the difference between ‘blessed be Mordecai’ and ‘cursed be Haman.’”
Honest. It’s in there.
To my non-Jewish friends, though, Purim means one thing: Katie’s baking. If I mention a Jewish holiday besides Hanukkah, the response is always the same: “Is this the one with the cookies?!”
Finally, I can say: Yes, it is. And here they are.
Hamantaschen (pronounced like HAH-mun-tosh-in) are a fun way to represent the villain of the Purim story and then, of course, devour him whole. The name literally means “Haman’s pockets,” referring to the cookies’ jam-pocket nature, but really we say that the triangular shape of the cookies looks like Haman’s tricorn hat. They’re an emblem of the season, and the way my Dad’s eyes light up when someone mentions hamantaschen is as much part of the holiday as finding them populating the kosher grocery.
These easy-to-make treats are the most exciting moment in March – yes, beyond even the basketball games. Every year since I can remember, my mother has pulled a tiny purple prayer book out from its hiding place between the cookbooks, and it automatically falls open to the well-used recipe hiding in the very back.
They might not be as authentic as the Crown Market’s lekvar (prune jam) and mohn (poppyseed-filled) traditional recipes, but boy, do they get the job done.
½ cup (1 stick) butter or margarine
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp milk
2 tsp baking powder
2 cups flour
¼ tsp salt
Fruit preserves (Use any kind of jam you like! It also works with pie fillings or Hershey’s kisses.)
Start by creaming together the butter and sugar. Once the sugar is well incorporated, stir in the vanilla, egg, and milk and beat until it reaches a uniform consistency.
Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together. Then gradually stir the dry ingredients into your mixture until it forms a soft dough. I usually have to quit stirring towards the end and gently knead in the last bit of flour. You want the dough to be soft, solid, and just barely sticky.
Chill the dough in the refrigerator for at least twenty minutes.
I usually cut the dough in half and leave one half in the refrigerator while I make the first set of cookies, just to keep it cool.
Roll out the dough on a clean, floured surface with a rolling pin until it is around ¼ inch thick. It’s tricky to get just the right thickness – thin enough to fold but thick enough not to break. No shame if you squish all the dough back together and try again.
Once the dough is rolled out, take a wide-mouthed glass or a round cookie cutter and cut out circles. Keep rolling the excess dough out until you don’t have enough for another cookie.
Important tip: do not eat all of the raw dough. You will want to, but you must restrain yourself.
Now comes the fun part: shaping the cookies.
Spoon a dollop of jam in the center of the circle.
Then fold the edges of the dough up…
…and press together to make a point.
Flip up the last remaining side…
…and press those corners into points too.
I can usually fit about twelve on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 10-12 minutes at 400˚F, until the edges are just starting to turn golden-brown. With the size I make them, I get about 24 in a batch, but that may vary based on the size of your cookie cutter.
Simple, right? Be glad, because as soon as Dad comes home and smells the vanilla in the air – well, you’re going to have to make another batch.
Don’t store them in a regular cookie tin; the jam will make them soggy. I find it best to leave them on the cooling rack or on a plate with just a napkin or paper towel to cover.
They’re perfect for snacks, dessert, guilty-pleasure breakfasts, or stuffing in mishloach manot, the traditional gift baskets exchanged between friends and neighbors over the holiday. Share them with your friends, share them with your classmates, share them with your local rabbi. Or eat them all yourself.
Just remember to wait until after you’re done using the oven to drink until you can no longer tell the preheat button from the broil.
Chag sameach and happy noshing!
Recipe adapted from The Jewish Holiday Home Companion