Not only have humble tri-corned cookies been studded with marshmallows and poked with lollipop sticks, Rice Krispie treats and Fruity Pebbles have boarded the Purim train. More troubling, teetering on ungodly, is notification from BuzzFeed that the Unicorn Hamantasch has left the stable. It is doubtful that Purim’s heroine, Queen Esther, was referring to a unicorn when she asked for “…a horse the king had ridden, one with a royal crest placed on its head.” I am also skeptical that a woman hell bent on overturning Haman’s plot to massacre the Jews would have had time for kitchen crafts. Staging a whimsical Purim dessert buffet seems somewhat incidental in light of the whole megillah. If Esther was anything, she was definitely more of a poppy seed/prune sort of gal.
Before Hamantaschen were featured in rainbow colors, they were simple cookies, traditionally filled with mohn, (poppy seeds) nuts, dried fruit or jam. In some parts of the world, Purim ‘cakes’ were yeast risen, with a rich cheese or sweetened poppy seed filling. Brushed warm from the oven with honey, “Haman Pockets,” might have been considered more of a breakfast treat than a cookie. Additionally, Purim sweets provided the opportunity to empty one’s home of flour in anticipation of the next holiday on the Jewish calendar, Passover. Sadly, none of this information is made available to the slightly anxious ‘taschen seekers we encounter at work.
Writing the word Hamantaschen on the bakery chalkboard creates a little bit of a feeding frenzy. Hundreds of triangles later, I’m ready to return to a 9” aluminum pie plate. What ‘taschen noshers don’t realize is that there’s more to the cookie than choosing a filling. The dough is by nature a one-roll-wonder, meaning it prefers to be rolled and cut only once. Any scraps that are re-rolled automatically shrink, creating more of an oblong than a circle. Placing filled cookies in the oven without allowing them time to chill causes them to unfold in the oven, creating distorted cookies and burnt jam puddles. Commercial bakeries that fill their cases with towers of Hamantaschen are often selling cookies made with oil, not butter. The taste is dramatically different, the shelf-life hovering somewhere between that of a Twinkie and a Tastykake.
It is not that I am unfeeling; I know what it’s like to have my Hamantaschen hopes dashed. Not once, but twice this week, in the city most likely to boast triangular Purim cookies at every turn, I came up empty handed. Bakeries I swore would be overrun with poppyseed and prune offered nothing in the way of Purim sweets. In some cases, the front of house staff had no idea what I was talking about. A few bakeries told me they don’t make them any more because they’re too time consuming. One baker told me, “We can’t make enough and then people get angry and it’s supposed to be a happy holiday.” I nodded, eyeing the black and white cookies lined up behind the glass case. They looked just the slightest bit smug knowing that no one would be poking them with a lollipop stick or studding them with cold cereal.
Traditional baked goods featured on the Jewish calendar beg for improvisation because by nature, they are unadorned, simple, classic. The flour dusted hands of our grandmothers would set down their rolling pins in both amusement and horror at today’s take on Hamantaschen. I know that it’s just a matter of time before poppyseed and prune jump to the top of the BuzzFeed list, rebranded as ‘retro-old school’ classics. Is this a good thing? Yes and no. It means the price of these humble ingredients will sky rocket. It means that folks will start sprinkling and garnishing everything with splashes of prune and runaway poppy seeds. (This will also generate an uptick in dental floss sales.) I’m hopeful that before Esther and Haman swing through town again, Unicorns will be upstaged by something less glaring and sprinkles will calm the heck down. Until then, I have more immediate holidays in front of me. In just two short weeks, my favorite holiday comes to town in all of its 9” aluminum pie plate glory. See you next time, Esther. Don’t let the bakery door hit you on the way out, Haman.