With Purim approaching, our thoughts turn to colourful costumes, cocktails and baskets of edible goodies.
There are plenty of symbolic foods connected with the festival: vegetarian dishes packed with nuts and seeds in honour of Queen Esther’s diet in the king’s palace; the less healthy deep-fried dough fritlachs; anything with alcohol — as this is the one point in the year when we are encouraged to drink to excess — and hamantaschen, the small but perfectly formed triangular pastries.
What the hamantasch denotes is open to speculation. Not everyone calls them by the same name. For Ashkenazi folk, they are hamantaschen, Yiddush for “Haman’s pockets” — allegedly full of bribe money. In Israel, they are oznay Haman meaning “Haman’s ears” — which some sages say comes from the old practice of cutting off criminals’ ears.
Most will know that the three-sided treat is symbolic of the three-cornered hat believed to have been worn by Haman. Another explanation, though, is that the triangular shape represents the strength given to Esther by the three founders of Judaism — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Israeli historian and chef Shmil Holland wrote in his book, Schmaltz, that the biscuit may have had its origin in the 16th-century German pastry, montash — “mohn” being poppy seeds and “tash”, pockets.
As with any recipe that has evolved over generations and in different parts of the world, there are endless variations on the theme.
The dough can be yeasted or a sweet short-crust biscuit pastry. Both are simple to mix. The yeast-based version will require rising time and the pastry will need chilling to make it easy to handle.
Fillings can be either sweet or savoury and the choices are endless. The most traditional and ubiquitous is poppy seed. The seeds are believed to represent all the bribe money Haman collected.
There are many more options: more traditional versions include apricot or raspberry jam, chopped prunes or date, chocolate chip, cherries and marzipan. Recent additions to the menu use meringue with cream, marshmallows, halva and even pistachio nut and rosewater.
Israel’s diverse population makes for a range of recipes. Savoury fillings of caramelised onions with kasha in a flaky pastry were popular in Czechoslovakia and Bohemia during the 17th century. Other Ashkenazi Jews are wedded to the traditional poppy seed, nuts and dried fruits.
There are also differences over whether to hide or display the filling. In the UK, we tend to completely cover our filling as a visual reference to that view that God had a plan for the Jewish people’s future even though they could not see it from the outside. However in other parts of the world the topping can be seen.
Here are my tips for the perfect hamantaschen:
If you are using a short-crust biscuit pastry, make sure that you chill it for 30 minutes before rolling out, as it needs to be easy to handle and form into shape.
Roll out your dough on a lightly floured work surface or cling film to prevent sticking. If you are covering the filling, the pastry should be slightly thicker so it does not seep through (approximately 0.3cm thick).
Make them all the same size so that they all cook for the same time.
Use round biscuit cutters measuring at least 7.5 cm — any smaller and they will be difficult to fold.
Do not use too much filling or it may overspill and burn — about a teaspoon is sufficient.
For hidden fillings: first grasp the two sides to form a triangle. Pinch the edges firmly together in the shape of a tricorn hat.
To show fillings: grasp the left side of the circle and then fold towards the centre. Then take the right side and fold it towards the centre overlapping to create a triangle. Finally take the bottom part of the circle and create a third flap and complete the triangle. Press the sides down firmly to secure the shape.
Get the children involved and have fun.