It’s Purim again. You know, that “other” Jewish holiday this time of year that starts with the letter P. Always the stepchild to Pesach, better known as Passover, even though it occurs earlier in the Hebrew year.
As you may know, Purim celebrates the Jews’ survival from another threat to their existence. Actually, that seems to be the theme to many Jewish holidays: Passover and Chanukah come to mind. Purim dates back to the 4th century BCE when Jews faced eradication in Persia during the rule of King Ahasuerus. His grand vizier, Haman, apparently felt himself insulted by Mordecai, a Jew who refused to bow down to Haman, and Haman decided to kill all the Jews. Fortunately, however, the Queen of Persia, Esther, just so happened to be Jewish, although neither the King nor Haman knew this at the time Haman devised his plot to kill the Jews. Mordecai, who was Esther’s cousin and guardian, convinced Esther to intercede with the King which she successfully did. As a result, Haman faced the gallows. The Jews survived. For those who want the authentic story not distorted by my abbreviated version, read the Book of Esther in the Old Testament. For those who need a website, try http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Esther.
As a child, I loved Purim, far more than I loved Passover. During Passover I could not eat my favorite foods. When I was growing up, the number of foods that were “kosher for Passover” was limited. One of my favorite “foods,” using that term loosely, Heinz Ketchup, was not made kosher for Passover despite my unanswered plea to the Heinz company by letter in the 1950’s. Some of the best chocolate were also not available.
But Purim, which admittedly only lasted a day, had abundant treats, most notably hamantaschen. What are hamantaschen, you ask? A hamantasch is a filled-pocket cookie or pastry in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine recognizable for its three-cornered shape. The shape is achieved by folding in the sides of a circular piece of dough, with a filling placed in the center. The filling is often poppy seeds but sometimes prunes or other delights. The pastry draws its name from Haman, of course, and is eaten as part of the festivities celebrating Jewish survival and Haman’s downfall.
During Purim, the Megillah of Esther, the Scroll or Book of Esther, is read at the synagogue. Young children furiously shake noisemakers or groggers every time Haman’s name is mentioned during the reading. Then it’s back home for the hamantaschen. I imagine there was some deep religious discussion that accompanied the celebration of Purim when I was a child but, frankly, that was lost in translation!
In any case, my family would always travel to my mother’s parents’ home when I, my brother and sister, were children, and there we would devour Grandma’s hamantaschen. They were absolutely delicious. We would always take a truckload of them home with us. Grandma’s hamantaschen were filled with prunes and were large, soft shelled and puffy.
Ever since my childhood I have longed for my Grandma’s hamantaschen. One year, decades ago, my mother made a batch and mailed them to me in California. Since then, however, I have sought my Grandma’s hamantaschen in vein. I searched various Jewish bakeries in Southern California to no avail.
This year I decided to at least try to figure out what made my Grandma’s hamantaschen so different than all the others I have tasted. And I’ve discovered the key! My Grandma did not use cookie dough, whether soft or hard, to make her hamantaschen. Most who make hamantaschen use cookie dough. My Grandma used dough with yeast that yielded a much softer pastry with a brownish color. Unlike most cookie dough hamantaschen which crumble before they reach your mouth, Grandma’s hamantaschen retained their shape until disappearing inside our mouths.
I was able to find several sources on the Web that distinguish Grandma’s kind of hamantaschen from the usual cookie dough variety.
The usual cookie dough variety of hamantaschen typically looks like this:
In contrast, my Grandma’s hamantaschen looked like this:
Now I must find someone who knows how to cook to make my Grandma’s hamantaschen. Then life would be sweet!