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.
Hamantaschen (makes about 3 dozen)
- 1 cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar
- 2 eggs, at room temperature
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- Finely grated zest of a lemon or orange
- 3.5 cups all purpose flour
- 2.5 teaspoons baking powder
- 3/4 teaspoon table 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. Whisk remaining dry ingredients over the bowl, beating until fully incorporated. Use your hands to knead dough for a few minutes, until it easily comes together a ball. If it’s too dry, gradually add drops of melted butter — up to 2 teaspoons. (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, about 1/6″ 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.
Place chilled cookies on the prepared cookie sheets with at least 1.5 inches between them. Bake 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 dough that’s just barely sweet, these cookies are a great vessel for their decadent centers. 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.
*Maybe next time… The cookie dough is rather plain, so feel free to try adding extra citrus zest, some vanilla bean, or a few drops of almond extract to the dough while mixing. You can also add another few tablespoons of sugar if you prefer a sweeter dough. For a prettier outcome, lightly brush dough with egg white wash just before baking (whisk an egg white well with a teaspoon of water, avoiding pooling). 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 and even chopped nuts with tiny bit of water or juice, then pureeing it.