The Hamantaschen Project

The Jewish holiday of Purim is in progress as I type these words, and last night, after sunset, when festivities kicked off, I was making dough for hamantaschen, the quintessential Purim sweet.

As an O'Donnel growing up in a largely Jewish community outside of Philadelphia, hamantaschen (hah-mahn-tash-en) became part of my cultural vernacular like corned beef and egg creams. One of the best parts about my weekly ballet class was a visit to the adjoining Jewish bakery on Haverford Avenue, where I'd pick out the best-looking cherry-filled hamantaschen on display, leaving the traditional poppy seed or prune varieties for the old folks.


Sour cherry jam-filled hamantaschen.(Kim O'Donnel)

If you've never had the pleasure, hamantaschen are triangular-shaped cookies, made from a sweet soft dough, and filled with fruit, poppy seeds, cheese or chocolate (which is considered untraditional). But what I love most of all about these hand-held treats is the story.

And so it goes: Esther was a Jewish woman living in Persia with her cousin Mordechai, who raised her like a daughter. The King of Persia, Ahasuerus, requested that Esther become part of his harem. He loved her most of all, so he made her queen, but he didn't know she was Jewish, at the insistence of Mordechai, who was also the leader of the Jews.

As with any great story, there's a villain, and his name was Haman. Appointed as an advisor to the king, Haman hated Mordechai and announced to the king he planned to kill all the Jews. Mordechai convinced Esther to speak to the king and inform him of Haman's evil plot. Esther revealed the plot and her own Jewish identity to the king, pleading with him to save the Jews. Miraculously, he obliged his queen and ordered that Haman himself be hung.

It is said that Haman wore a tri-cornered hat or a robe with three-cornered pockets, which explains the shape of the cookie. According to Jewish culinary historian Gil Marks, the day preceding Purim, "is customarily observed with a fast. The day itself is commemorated with the recitation of special prayers, gifts of charity to the poor, a festive meal and in some instance, a public reading of a special megillah (story) and the giving of food gifts to friends."

If you've got nothing on the agenda this weekend, I highly recommend giving these special cookies a whirl. With a fresh copy of "Arthur Schwartz's Jewish Home Cooking" at my side, I got to work yesterday on the dough, which is easy stuff in a food processor.

In my other hand was this week's issue of New York Magazine (the one with the memorable Spitzer cover), which offers a hamantaschen recipe with a rhubarb filling, which sounded like a perfect tribute to spring.

However, my filling hopes were dashed when rhubarb was nowhere to be found, so I improvised with sour cherry jam, which worked beautifully.

Without thinking, I used white whole wheat flour, a more wholesome alternative to regular all-purpose but without the heaviness of whole wheat. BAD IDEA. The dough would not come together. Do follow the instructions below and use all-purpose flour, folks.

The dough is very soft and easily tears, so take care when lifting from work surface to baking sheet and use a dough scraper. Schwartz suggests a three-inch cutter, but I found 3.5 inches gave me a wee bit more room to play with. I also learned the importance of sealing the edges to minimize oozing of filling. Here's a handy tip I found online:

Put a dollop of filling in the middle of each circle. Fold up the sides to make a triangle, folding the last corner under the starting point, so that each side has corner that folds over and a corner that folds under (see picture at right). Folding in this "pinwheel" style will reduce the likelihood that the last side will fall open while cooking, spilling out the filling. It also tends to make a better triangle shape.

With these recipe details, I leave you for the weekend, as a hamantaschen snack awaits. Have a delicious weekend -- and if you're a veteran hamantaschen baker, please share your tips and tidbits in the comments area below.

Hamantaschen
Adapted from "Arthur Schwartz's Jewish Home Cooking"

Ingredients
Dough
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons (1 stick plus 2 tablespoons) cold, unsalted butter or pareve margarine, cut into ½-inch cubes
2 eggs
2 egg yolks (reserve whites for egg wash)
1 teaspoon vanilla
Egg wash: 2 reserved egg whites, lightly beaten with 2 teaspoons sugar
Filling: About six ounces of your favorite jam, prune paste, fig spread. Recipe for rhubarb filling

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with metal blade, add flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Pulse several times to combine.

Add butter and pulse several more times, then process to form mealy crumbs (this took me about 20 seconds).

In a small bowl, beat together eggs, yolks and vanilla.

Pour egg mixture into bowl of food processor and pulse several times to mix, then process for about 10 seconds (worth counting). With a rubber spatula, stir mixture up from bottom as best you can, then process again until dough begins to clump together, another 10-20 seconds.

Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and with floured hands, press dough together, divide in half and form into two discs. Wrap each disc with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour, or up to three days. (Dough may be frozen for up to four months.)

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. If baking on two sheets, position racks in the lower and upper thirds of the oven. If baking one sheet at a time, rack should be in the center of the oven.

Grease corners of the baking sheets with oil spray or butter and line with parchment paper.

Allow dough to warm slightly so it can be rolled out, about 20 minutes. On a lightly floured work surface, roll dough to a thickness of about 1/8 inch. Using a three- (or 3.5) inch round cookie cutter, cut circles of dough and place them on prepared sheets (a dough scraper is handy here.)

Place about two teaspoons of filling in the center of each circle. Brush perimeter of each circle with egg wash. Using dough scraper, lift dough to partially cover filling, spacing it at one-third intervals, like a tri-cornered hat Seal the three ends well. Brush tops of formed cookies with egg wash.

Bake for 15-18 minutes, or until cookies are golden brown.

Remove from oven and allow to rest on baking sheets for two minutes. Loosen cookies with a thin metal spatula and transfer to wire cooling racks.

Store cookies in an airtight container, layered between wax or parchment paper, for up to five days. Cookies may be frozen.

Note: When re-rolling dough scraps, do not gather them in yoru hand. Stack scraps onto a piece of plastic wrap, bring four sides to the middle and press pieces of dough together, forming a small rectangle. Refrigerate before re-rolling.

Makes about 36 cookies. (I got more like 24 using the larger cutter).

By Kim ODonnel |  March 21, 2008; 11:36 AM ET Baking , Jewish Holidays
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Comments

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I tried making hamantaschen last night and when I pulled them out of the oven, they had grown (almost double) in size and were very soft and chewy -- not the small, crumbly cookie dough I was hoping for...i used a standard recipe from 'epicurious'...but added a tablespoon of applesauce, for experimentation...

what might have gone wrong?

Posted by: Hamantaschen explosion | March 21, 2008 12:23 PM

Kim--

I tried your recipe for Chocolate Bark last night, and it worked beautifully! Now, though, I have a boatload of crystallized ginger to use up. I was thinking of shunting part of it, minced, into oatmeal cookies with golden raisins. Would this work? Maybe, say, 2 Tbs minced ginger?

Posted by: JS | March 21, 2008 12:25 PM

JS- Crystallized ginger is one of my favorite ingredients. I think it would be fantastic in oatmeal cookies and I may need to try that myself. I have also made wonderful biscotti with crystallized ginger, almonds, and orange zest. You can use any basic biscotti recipe as the base.

Posted by: Sweetie | March 21, 2008 12:44 PM

I didn't make them this year, but in the past I've made hamentaschen from a recipe in a Maida Heatter cookbook; the filling is a combination of apricots and prunes (both traditional fillings in their own right. She adds walnuts as well, but I've always used pecans. The dough is very soft, and contains some orange zest and orange juice, which goes beautifully with the filling.

Posted by: annapolis | March 21, 2008 12:49 PM

Do these make crispy cookies? I prefer that over the thicker, cakier ones.

Mordechai was Esther's uncle:
http://www.hillel.org/jewish/holidays/purim

Posted by: Elizabeth | March 21, 2008 1:04 PM

Elizabeth, these are more cakey but with a cookie edge. Does that make sense. I've seen references to both uncle and cousin for Mordechai, by the way.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | March 21, 2008 1:26 PM

Kim,

So glad you posted about hamentaschen! I have to say they are probably my favorite food to make of all the Jewish holidays. I have of many memories of making them through the years. I was lucky enough this year to have my little brother in town to bake with me.

We use orange and lemon juice in our dough which really gives it a great flavor!

Posted by: DC | March 21, 2008 2:01 PM

Here's a link to a page that shows how to fold the Hamentaschen so the filling doesn't ooze out:

http://www.jewfaq.org/holiday9.htm

I also have made Maida's recipe. I remember they were very good but I can't remember the texture. I've never had one that was a thin, crisp cookie.

Posted by: Fran | March 21, 2008 2:19 PM

Explosion: I would say follow the suggestion of folding one tip under another as I mentioned in the above post, but I just tried this method with my remaining dough, and I had more ooze than last night's batch. The baking powder will make them grow, as it's leavener, but wondering how much filling you put inside? I wouldn't do more than two teaspoons. Cheers.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | March 21, 2008 2:36 PM

I just enjoyed my first homemade hamantachen this morning! A co-worker made them for Purim and brought in some extras for work. She doesn't do the fruit filled ones so hers were filled with dark chocolate, nutella, and peanut butter. The chocolate one was delicious with my mid morning tea. I've got a ton of homemade strawberry jam I made last spring that I might use to make these delicious treats to serve at Easter (cultural appropriator that I am!)

Posted by: Sean | March 21, 2008 3:10 PM

Ah well, it looked like it might work! The times I made them, I pinched the edges together. One problem may be that jam is too soft. A filling made of poached, drained, chopped to a puree dry fruit or a poppyseed filling are thicker with less ooze factor.

Ooze or not, I bet yours tasted good!

This year I bought some at our wonderful local (Queens) bakery which is owned and run by two Indian women from Kenya and London with help from Hispanic bakers. They were tops. (I love the diversity of this place.)

Posted by: Fran | March 21, 2008 3:16 PM

Sean, you must, you must! I think you'll be pleased.
Fran, thanks for your tidbits on filling -- good points all. And yes, even with ooze factor, they were dee-licious.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | March 21, 2008 3:30 PM

Moving the filled, shaped cookies can be very difficult with such a soft dough. First, make sure your dough is very well chilled. Second, it's easier to put the cut dough circles on the baking sheet and then fill them there. Third, jam doesn't make a great filling. It oozes and it doesn't have the concentrated flavor that pastry fillings have. I like the Solo brand apricot pastry filling. Joan Nathan has a recipe for a prune/raisin/apple/nut filling that is very easy and delicious. And my kids love nutella in hamantaschen. It surprisingly firms up when it is baked.

Posted by: Amy | March 24, 2008 1:29 PM

I have a different filling technique, and it has served me well for many years. Make the triangles first! Cut your circles, transfer them to the baking sheet, and fold into triangles, pinching dough where necessary. Once the shape is solid, fill the pocket with preserves or jam or whatever you are using. If you shape before filling, you can always reroll your mistakes.

Posted by: Lois | March 24, 2008 2:28 PM

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