Purim is a minor holiday: a 24 hour window of time that can be easy to overlook whether you’re Jewish or not. But I see it as an opportunity for all of us to reflect on a fantastic story, to honor the strong women in our lives, and – naturally – to eat and give away cookies: those tempting traditional triangles called Hamantaschen.
Purim commemorates the biblical story of Esther, a young queen who saved hundreds of lives through an act of courage. As an observant Jew, Esther’s cousin Mordecai had refused to bow down to the king. His defiance infuriated the king’s assistant, Haman, who then convinced the king that not only Mordecai, but all Jews, were disloyal and must die. The date of the massacre was determined by the casting of lots (Purim’s namesake). But before any murder could happen, the queen bravely revealed her heritage to the king, standing up and pleading that he save her people. And in the end, he did.
My own ties to Judaism come by way of the most Esther-like woman I’ve ever known: my maternal grandmother. Disowned by her father for marrying a gentile, she fled the Bronx for California in her early twenties, courageously starting a family and a life of independence. With the religious dogma of her past behind her, her Judaism was carried on through only her remaining family ties, her cultural habits and her cooking—including baking cookies.
As you might have guessed, Hamantaschen cookies are named after the villain of the Purim story. The word is said to mean “Haman’s hats”, “ears” or “pockets,” and certainly, the cookies resemble little pouches stuffed with scrumptious fruit. Their triangular shape, from what I’ve heard, symbolizes Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel: the three matriarchs who inspired Esther. I like to imagine them as I think of my life’s own Esther, baking Hamantaschen in all of their honor. Here is my own recipe.**
Hamantaschen (makes about 3 dozen)
- 1 cup butter, softened to room temperature (plus more for melting)
- ¼ cup sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- Finely grated zest of a lemon or orange
- 4 cups flour
- 2.5 teaspoons baking powder
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- About 1 cup jam or preserves*
Beat together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Keep beating, adding vanilla, eggs (one at a time), and citrus zest. In a separate bowl, whisk or sift the remaining dry ingredients together, then add the dry mixture to the wet, mixing until fully incorporated. The dough will seem dry and crumbly. Use your hands to knead it a bit, and press into a ball; if it’s too dry, gradually add up to a tablespoon of melted butter, and if needed, up to a few squeezes of citrus juice. (Avoid making the dough too wet; stop adding liquid as soon as it forms a non-crumbly ball that feels fit for rolling.)
While dough is still at room temperature, roll it out on a floured surface using a little dough at a time, making it just under ¼” thick. Cut into 3” circles, adding a heaping teaspoon of preserves to the center of each. Fold the sides upward to create a triangular window of fruit in the center. Seal outer corners well by squeezing firmly. Also squeeze inner corners very well (window edges), as they tend to want to fold open when baked. Freeze the filled cookies for 20-30 minutes, or refrigerate for an hour or so. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 F and line baking sheets with parchment paper. On the prepared cookie sheets, bake the chilled cookies for 15-18 minutes, until corners and bottoms are golden brown. Let cool completely (the filling gets very hot!). If desired, dust with powdered sugar or drizzle with melted chocolate before serving.
With its unusual addition of citrus zest and its generous butter content, this recipe makes for a truly scrumptious version of a traditional, well-known cookie. Of course, the real sweetness of Purim can be celebrated with a simple, brief pause of reflection — a moment of gratitude for the acts of courage we have witnessed; a moment in awe of the brave people we have known. Cookies and a crown are optional, but highly encouraged.
*Traditional fillings are apricot, prune, and poppy seed — but by all means, use any filling you like! Pre-made jams, preserves, or pastry fillings are convenient, with thicker varieties yielding the best results. You can also make your own filling by cooking dried fruit with tiny bit of water, then pureeing it.
**Above is my traditional hamantaschen recipe. For my newer rosemary almond brown sugar hamantaschen, filled with ice cream (or jam if you wish), click here.