Before we started enhancing hamantaschen with funfetti and tahini, the triangular cookie was tethered to simple fillings. Poppyseeds, sweet prune Lekvar, and bright apricot jams were traditional. Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers followed Eastern European recipes, rolling out yeast doughs enriched with eggs and butter, leavened with yeast. Traditionally, kuchen dough was the go-to pastry, a buttery canvas that was adaptable to all kinds of coffee cakes yet agreeable stepping in as a triangular cookie. In the 19th century, the advent of baking powder changed everything, including the sweets served at Purim. Yeast-risen doughs took a back seat while bakers embraced the short cuts afforded by cookie doughs leavened with baking powder. The dried fruits, poppyseeds and jams revered by our flour-dusted grandmothers suddenly had to make room for some forward-thinking fillings. Nutella and s’mores were far more hip than dowdy prunes, raspberry jam cooler than apricot.
Anyone who begrudgingly spent weekday afternoons and Sunday mornings in Hebrew school remembers the commercial hamantaschen doled out during Purim. The cookies were both dry and cakey, a thick, unremarkable dough with rick-rack edges enveloping a jammy filling. The cookie part of the hamantashen was lackluster, the justification for the triangular sweet was the filling. Dressed in costumes that were assembled the night before, all of the girls chose Esther, crowned and bejeweled and majestic in fancy dresses and in some cases, floor length nightgowns. (I don’t recall a single Vashti-Queen-of-Persia among us.) All of the boys wore bathrobes over their chinos or dungarees, signifying royalty. There were a few penciled-in mustaches amongst the Mordechais and Hamans and we celebrated loudly, shouting “boo” when Haman’s name was mentioned and cheering for Esther and Mordechai in the reading of the Megillah. We assembled small gifts packages of food known as “shalach monos” which were distributed through the community via the dedicated moms of the Sisterhood.
Hamantaschen provided an opportunity to empty our kitchen cabinets of flour, in anticipation of Passover which fell four short weeks after Purim. Hamantaschen were tedious to prepare and the only one who followed the traditional Eastern European baking style which called for yeast dough, was my grandmother Minnie. Most of the time, my mother purchased an assortment of hamantaschen from the bakery. They were tasty in an old-fashioned-baked-good kind of way. They were not however, nearly as exciting as a cheese-filled Danish or a cream horn.
Contemporary hamantaschen options border on dizzying, with filling and dough choices as gaudy and over-the-top as the costumes we once donned for Purim. Any pastries signifying the triumph of good over evil are worth the time required to make them. Embarking on the hamantaschen journey requires a little planning and a generous amount of patience. Taking the time to chill the pastries before baking will pay off in the end, keeping the cookies intact, avoiding the dreaded misshapen triangles. A holiday that encourages merriment and celebrates the bravery of a woman named Esther seems like a fine way to usher in spring; costumes optional.
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