This week, we’re gearing up for Purim. That means it’s all about Hamantaschen! But first, a little history.
The History of Purim
Purim is the celebration of Esther, Queen of Persia, who saved her Jewish community from genocide. Incidentally, it’s also the story of a successful intermarriage between a Jew (Esther) and a non-Jew (King Ahasuerus of Persia). I’m going to give you a brief summary of the story, illustrated by the paintings of several Dutch artists — apparently, the Purim story was a popular subject for Rembrandt and his contemporaries!
Imagine me telling you this story like Sophia Petrillo on the Golden Girls. It’s more fun that way. 🙂
Picture it—Persia, fifth century BC. In the ancient city of Shushan, King Ahasuerus banishes his queen, Vashti, for publicly disobeying him. The king then goes in search of another queen. He falls for Esther, a Jewish orphan who was raised in Shushan by her cousin Mordechai. Mordechai works under the King’s command, and once saved the King’s life from two servants who were plotting to murder him. Mordechai warns Esther to keep her Judaism a secret from the king, which she does.
Meanwhile, King Ahasuerus promotes Haman, the Agagite, to a high-ranking position in the palace, placing him above all other princes in the kingdom. Haman doesn’t like Jews… especially Mordechai, Esther’s cousin, because he refuses to bow down to Haman. Morally, Mordechai has no choice; bowing down to Haman is a clear violation of Jewish law. Haman takes his refusal to bow as a great insult, and because of this decides to exterminate all the Jews in the Persian Empire.
Esther finds out about the planned extermination, but she’s in a tough spot—she can’t plead her case with the king unless he asks for her to join him. The king hasn’t asked for her company in over a month; to go to him without being invited would be risking her life. Mordechai pleads with Esther to help her people. After three days of fasting, Esther bravely goes before the king and invites him to a feast she has prepared.
King Ahasuerus agrees to feast with Esther, not at all angered by her intrusion. In fact, he says, “Whatever you ask, Queen Esther, it shall be granted you, even to the half of my kingdom.” I’m thinking this Esther must have been quite a looker! Esther asks for Haman to join them at the feast as well. The king agrees to her request.
Side note here—I’ve often wondered why Esther doesn’t come right out and plead her case with the king. Instead, she invites him to feast with her for two nights in a row before bringing up the subject. Could it be that Esther knows a little something about the persuasive power of a fabulous meal?
After the first night of feasting, Esther invites the king and Haman back for another celebration the following evening. The king agrees. Meanwhile, Haman is plotting to execute Esther’s cousin Mordechai on a gallows built near the palace.
That evening, the king is reminded that Mordechai saved his life from two servants who were plotting to execute him. Mordechai was never rewarded for this. Concerned, the king calls Haman to his chamber and asks, “What shall be done to the man whom the king delights to honor?”
Haman thinks to himself, “The king must be talking about me!” He tells the king to dress up the man in royal robes, with a royal crown, and parade him around the streets on his royal horse. The king agrees and tells Haman to coordinate all this for Mordechai. Haman is shocked and embarrassed, but does as he is told.
On the second night of feasting, the king is so pleased with Esther that he again tells her, “Whatever you ask, Queen Esther, it shall be granted you, even to the half of my kingdom.” At that point, Esther bravely reveals her Judaism, and tells the king that her people are about to be destroyed at the hands of Haman.
King Ahasuerus, angered that the Queen’s people are threatened, orders for Haman to be executed on the very same gallows he constructed for Mordechai. He then promotes Mordechai to a high ranking position in his court, and the Jews are protected by royal order. Mordechai is paraded around the streets in royal robes, and the Jews are saved because of Esther’s bravery.
In modern times, we celebrate Purim by giving to charity and helping others (tzedakah) and spending the day in celebration. It’s a really festive holiday. We put on costumes, party, and eat… what else? Hamantaschen!
The History of Hamantaschen
So obviously this no-goodnik Haman is considered a major villain in Jewish history (genocidal tendencies will get you that kind of reputation). One of the weirdest legends about Haman is that he wore a triangular hat everywhere he went. Hamantaschen cookies have three corners, just like Haman’s hat. Some people also think Haman had triangular pockets, since Hamantaschen literally translates from Yiddish as “Haman’s Pockets.” A more poetic perspective links the three corners of a Hamantaschen cookie to the three founding fathers of Judaism—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Whatever the reason, it’s traditional to eat Hamantaschen on Purim… so eat them we must!
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, kindly sent me his family’s favorite recipe for hamantaschen. Here is their mission statement:
Since 1988, the Jewish Outreach Institute has been a leader in the development of Jewish community-based outreach programming. Through our national conferences, publications and informational resources, JOI has helped foster the creation of scores of Jewish outreach programs from coast to coast. Our research has garnered national attention on the opportunities for including the intermarried in the Jewish community.
Cool, right? I’m all for promoting interfaith outreach. 🙂
Rabbi Olitzky told me he got this recipe from a religious school teacher who worked with him about 25 years ago when he was a congregational rabbi in West Hartford. It’s been his family’s favorite hamantaschen recipe ever since… and I can see why, it’s really yummy! The filling is so unique.
You should know that this recipe creates quite a bit of dough… I ended up with over 60 hamantaschen. Feel free to cut the recipe in half, unless you’re planning on sharing!
Note: Since writing this blog, I’ve found a better method for shaping hamantaschen. Before, I would roll the edges to prevent the cookies from opening/spreading during baking, but I have since found that folding into a pinwheel shape produces the prettiest results with the least amount of spreading. I have updated the instructions in the recipe below. If you have questions, please comment and let me know!
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Rabbi Olitzky's Chocolate Cream Cheese Hamantaschen
- 5 cups flour
- 1 lb vegetable shortening, room temperature
- 1 cup pineapple juice
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 cups brown sugar
- 6 oz cream cheese
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1 cup chocolate chips
To Make Dough
- Mix all ingredients together until soft dough forms. The easiest way to do this is with a stand mixer.
- Knead the dough into a ball, place into a bowl, and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for a few hours to overnight.
To Make Filling
- Cut the cream cheese into small chunks. Mix together all filing ingredients until well combined.
To Make Cookies
- Remove dough from refrigerator. If the dough has turned hard, allow to soften for 15-20 minutes. Divide the dough into four pieces. Pound each piece out, one at a time, then use a rolling pin to roll out the dough on a floured surface. The dough should be rolled quite thin, as cookies will puff up during baking.
- Note: As the dough warms it will become sticky. Keep your rolling pin lightly coated in flour to prevent it from sticking.
- Cut the dough into 3-4 inch circles. Place circles onto ungreased cookie sheet.
- Place a teaspoon of filling into the center of each circle. Do not use more than a teaspoon of filling, or you run the risk of your hamantaschen opening and filling spilling out during baking.
- Assemble the hamantaschen in three steps. First, grasp the left side of the circle and fold it towards the center to make a flap that covers the left third of the circle.
- Grasp the right side of the circle and fold it towards the center, overlapping the upper part of the left side flap to create a triangular tip at the top of the circle. A small triangle of filling should still be visible in the center.
- Grasp the bottom part of the circle and fold it upward to create a third flap and complete the triangle. When you fold this flap up, be sure to tuck the left side of this new flap underneath the left side of the triangle, while letting the right side of this new flap overlap the right side of the triangle. This way, each side of your triangle has a corner that folds over and a corner that folds under-- it creates a "pinwheel" effect. This method if folding is not only pretty-- it will help to keep the cookies from opening while they bake.
- Pinch each corner of the triangle gently but firmly to secure the shape.
- Repeat this process for the remaining circles. When all of your hamantaschen have been filled, bake them on the ungreased cookie sheet at 400 degrees F for 20-25 minutes till cookies turn light golden brown. Remove the cookies from the pan and cool them on a wire rack. Cool the cookie sheet completely before making more cookies.
Special thanks to Rabbi Olitzky for his delightful Hamantaschen recipe!