Saturday, March 10, 2012

Purim - A Soap Opera

"God may play dice with the universe, but not with Mrs. Schmalowitz’s lukshn kugl, nor especially with her latkes and hamantaschen."
-Michael Silverstein, University of Chicago Professor of Anthropology & Linguistics
            Waay back when I was in college, I was dating this guy. He was Jewish but in that Woody Allen way. Kinda nebbishy but with a sense of humor. A couple of months into our relationship, I asked him if he knew where to get hamantaschen in Cambridge.
             “What’s hamantaschen?”
I think he just lost his Jewish credentials right there.
            To those of you who don’t know, hamantaschen, literally translated as “Haman’s Pocket” in Yiddish, are the traditional triangular pastries for Purim[1]. To those of you (including my ex-boyfriend) who don’t know the story of Purim, it’s pretty good. If it weren’t a story of the impending extermination of the Jewish people, I think it would have made for an excellent soap opera, with Susan Lucci playing the female lead. The story goes something like this:
 According to the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible, Haman, an advisor to King Ahasuerus of Persia, plots to kill all the Jews in Persia by convincing the clueless King that Jews were a “… certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your realm. Their laws are different from those of every other people's, and they do not observe the king's laws; therefore it is not befitting the king to tolerate them." Esther 3:8.
Because the King is clueless, he tells Haman why don’t you do something about these supposed “certain people”? This is when Haman hatches a plot to kill the entire Jewish population.
             But why would this Haman guy do something this evil? Because he was once insulted by a Jew…some guy named Mordecai, who apparently refused to bow down to him. A pretty pathetic reason to kill an entire people, but don’t worry, Haman gets his due. What Haman doesn’t know is that Queen Esther, the super cute wife of the King is secretly Jewish, having been raised lovingly by her cousin…Mordecai.
            Mordecai convinces Esther to pipe up to the King about the upcoming massacre-not the wisest thing to do especially considering that the talking to the King without being summoned could involve death and she would be basically outing herself as Jew. A double no-go. But after starving herself for three days to get the balls to talk to the King Clueless, she decides to do it. Upon hearing this, the King finally figures out that he’s been a total fool and orders Haman and his ten sons (only in the Bible would anyone have ten(!) sons) to be killed.
            And there was much rejoicing…
            So what’s the deal with these Hamantaschen? Beyond the name Haman, there are various stories behind the pastry. One theory is that the cookies are supposed to resemble Haman’s tri-cornered hat. Possible, but not really convincing (like anyone really knows what kind of hat Haman was wearing). Another suggests that the pastry is supposed to resemble Haman’s ears, in reference to the defeated enemy. Plausible, but I’m still trying to connect the dots between ears and death. One anthropologist has suggested that Hamantaschen were to resemble the dice used by Haman to determine the date of the planned Jewish massacre. I’m going with this one because…it sounds scientific?
            Whatever the symbolic reasoning behind hamantaschen, they are crazy delicious. But after years of being able to get good hamantaschen, I never bothered making them. Why put in the effort when yummy bagel shop has LOADS of them? Bzzz. Wrong answer. It’s when you don’t have the deli, you realize that you should have learned to make them before you were S.O.L.
            After messing with a bunch of so-called “bubbie’s” recipes, I finally have gotten one that seems to the right balance between crumbly and chewy. As for the filling issue, I am partial to poppy seed, if not for the discreet thrill of maybe testing positive for heroin if I eat too many (that has yet to happen), but prune and apricot are also popular. But whichever you choose, you can’t go wrong. And you didn’t even have to starve yourself for 3 days to earn them.

This recipe is for the poppy seed filling. If you would like the fruit filling, you can easily substitute good fruit marmalade for the filling.

Zest of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 orange
1 c. powdered sugar
1 ¼ c. white flour
1 c. whole wheat flour
2 eggs
1 c. (2 sticks) of butter, softened

Poppy Seed Filling:
1 c. milk
½ c. sugar
1 c. poppy seeds
Juice of ½ lemon
Juice of ½ orange
2 tbs. butter
1 egg, beaten

1.     Place lemon and orange zest, powdered sugar, white and wheat flours into a food processor to blend thoroughly. Add eggs and butter and process until dough forms a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least 3 hours or overnight.
2.     While dough is chilling, make filling. Grind poppy seeds in a spice or coffee grinder. In a small saucepan over low heat, heat milk, butter and sugar until sugar dissolves. Pour about 1/4 of hot milk mixture into beaten egg and beat well. Return egg mixture into saucepan with the remaining milk mixture until the mixture begins to thicken and coats the back of a spoon (not unlike a custard or curd). Take off heat and stir in poppy seeds. Stir in lemon and orange juices to thoroughly combine. Cool completely before using.
3.     Preheat oven to 350F. To form pastries, roll dough to ¼ inch thickness. Use a cookie or biscuit cutter to make about 3 inch circles. Place a generous ½ tsp. of filling onto the middle of the circle. Fold up sides of dough into a triangle shape so that the last corner under the starting point, so each side has one underlying and one overlapping corner (like a pinwheel). If one of the sides has a 2 overlapping corners, you did it wrong. (Folding like a pinwheel makes sure that the flaps won’t burst open during baking.)
4.     Place cookies on parchment or silpat covered baking sheets. Bake cookies until brown, about 15 minutes. Cool before eating.

[1] The word “Purim” comes from the ancient Akkadian word for lots (same basis for the word lottery in English), referring to the lottery that Haman used to choose the day of Jewish extermination.
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