When Eastern Europeans immigrated to America, they brought their hamantashen recipes with them. (photo from Infrogmation via Wikimedia Commons)
When it comes to Purim pastries, hamantashen are what most of us think of first. The word is taken from the German mohn, meaning poppy seeds, and taschen, referring to pockets. Some say the pockets refer to Haman, who stuffed his pockets with bribe money.
The original name, mohntaschen, and the tradition of eating them, may date back as far as the 12th century. Israeli historian, caterer and cook Shmil Holland says that, when Jews fled Germany for Eastern Europe in the late Middle Ages, they took the poppy seed pastry with them and added the Yiddish prefix ha, thus making it hamantash.
In the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Gil Marks (z”l) writes that Eastern Europeans and their foods came to dominate the Ashkenazi world in the 19th century, and “hamantashen emerged as the quintessential Ashkenazic Purim treat.” The original dough was kuchen, a rich yeast dough, and common fillings include poppy seeds, chocolate, prunes or other fruit fillings. When Eastern Europeans immigrated to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the idea came with them.
(An aside: In 18th-century Bohemia, Jews added a prune filling. The story is that a local merchant was accused of selling poisoned plum jam; when he was cleared of the charges, his family marked the occasion as a holiday, called povidl Purim, or plum jam Purim.)
In addition to the pocket imagery, several other explanations have been suggested for the triangular shape of hamantashen. Some say they represent a triangular-shaped hat worn by Haman, the villain in the Purim story, and that we eat them as a reminder that his cruel plot was foiled. Others say they represent Esther’s strength and the three founders of Judaism: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as a midrash says that, while reflecting on his plan to get rid of the Jews, Haman realized the three Patriarchs would intercede.
Yet another explanation lies in the cookies’ name in Israel, oznei Haman, Haman’s ears – perhaps referencing an old custom of cutting off the ears of criminals before they were executed. When the resulting treat became known as Haman’s ears for Purim is unknown, although it is mentioned as early as 1550. However, according to Marks, historical oznei Haman were strips of dough fried in honey or sugar syrup – a 13th-century Andalusian cookbook has a recipe for this “ear” dish and it was adopted by Sephardim.
Whatever their name, the reason behind eating hamantashen remains the same: remembering how close the Jewish people came to tragedy and celebrating the fact that they escaped death.
Here are some recipes from my family for your own celebration of Purim, which starts this year on March 12. My grandmother (z”l) made the most beautiful-looking yeast hamantashen.
GRANDMA’S PRUNE FILLING
1 1/2 cups finely cut prunes
1/4 cup sugar
2 tsp lemon juice
- Place prunes in a saucepan with water to cover. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer until soft.
- Mash prunes, add sugar and lemon juice.
GRANDMA’S POPPY SEED FILLING
1 cup ground poppy seeds
1/4 cup milk or water
2 tbsp butter or margarine
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup finely chopped nuts
2 tbsp honey
1 tsp vanilla
- Place poppy seeds, milk or water, butter or margarine, raisins, nuts and honey in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until milk or water is absorbed.
- Add vanilla.
GRANDMA’S YEAST HAMANTASHEN
4 tsp dry yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter or margarine
1 tsp salt
1 cup sour cream
4-5 cups flour
Day before baking:
- Dissolve yeast in a bowl with warm milk. Let stand.
- Beat eggs and sugar in a bowl. Add yeast mixture, butter or margarine, salt and sour cream and blend well.
- Add four cups flour and mix thoroughly. Gradually add the rest of the flour and knead until the dough is smooth and does not stick to your hands.
- Grease a large mixing bowl and add the dough. Turn the dough until it is covered with the oil. Cover with a cloth and refrigerate overnight.
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a cookie sheet.
- Roll out dough on a lightly floured board to 1/4-inch thick.
- Cut into 16 squares. Place a spoonful of filling on each. Fold to form triangles. Place on greased cookie sheet. Let rise one hour until double in size.
- Bake for 20 minutes or until brown.
MOM’S COOKIE HAMANTASHEN
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup margarine
2 3/4 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
juice of half an orange or 1/2 cup sour cream
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a cookie sheet.
- In a mixing bowl, blend eggs, sugar and margarine.
- Add flour, baking powder and salt and mix well.
- Add vanilla and orange juice or sour cream and blend into a dough. Refrigerate 20 minutes.
- Roll out dough 1/4-inch thick. Cut into three-inch circles. Place one tablespoon of filling in the centre of each and fold to make a triangle. Place on a cookie sheet and bake for 20-30 minutes.
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, lecturer, book reviewer and food writer in Jerusalem. She created and leads the weekly English-language Shuk Walks in Machaneh Yehudah, she has compiled and edited nine kosher cookbooks, and is the author of Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel.
Poppy seed hamantashen from owl-at-home.blogspot.ca.
Purim has its share of food customs as it is observed by Jewish communities around the world, but for this article, I will narrow my question to one: why the poppy seeds – particularly in hamantashen?
A little research indicates that Esther ate seeds as part of her efforts to maintain a kosher diet. They are also said to have been the only food Esther ate during the three-day fast before she went to see the king.
Another interpretation indicates that poppy seeds symbolize the promise G-d made to Abraham (Genesis 22:17): “I will bless thee and, in multiplying, I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore …” because this is the antithesis of the annihilation planned by Haman.
Mohn, the Yiddish word for poppy seed, was combined with milk, sugar or honey and sometimes raisins and nuts and used as a filling as early as medieval times. Tasch is German for pocket, so the original name was mohntaschen, pockets filled with poppy seeds. Why pockets? Because of Haman’s coat pockets, where he carried the lots (purim) he cast to determine on which day the Jews would be killed.
When Jews fled Germany for Eastern Europe, in the Middle Ages, they took the poppy seed pastry with them and added the Yiddish prefix ha, thus making it hamohntaschen.
By the way, if you plant poppy seeds, you end up with poppy flowers. Their unripe seed capsules, when processed, are the source of heroin, opium and morphine. It is said that if you consume poppy seed-filled cake or pastry, including hamantashen, you could test positive on a drug test. Many years ago, a state police crime lab in Oregon tested the driving ability of subjects who had consumed 25 grams of poppy seeds baked into a bundt cake and found that their driving ability was not impaired – however, they did test positive for opiates. Another bit of research indicated that eating two poppy seed bagels could cause failure of a drug test!
Poppy seeds contain high amounts of oil and are best refrigerated when not being used. They are also an excellent source of calcium. But don’t eat too many, as a 50-gram hamantash may have 200 calories.
Speaking of poppy seeds, poppy seed cookies, or mohn kichel, are also popular for Purim, as is mohn torte, or poppy seed cake where two layers of pastry dough are filled with a mixture of poppy seeds, sugar or honey, ground almonds and raisins.
Another interesting note: for Purim, some people make challah shaped into a very long braid – to symbolize the rope used to hang Haman. And, in keeping with tradition, why not add some poppy seeds to it?
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, foreign correspondent, lecturer, food writer and book reviewer who lives in Jerusalem. She also does the restaurant features for janglo.net and leads weekly shuk walks in English in Jerusalem’s Jewish food market.
On a cloudless, heavenly morning, well before the Almighty turned the dust of the earth into man, he announced the holy days to the assembled Heavenly Hosts. The angels listened solemnly, especially to Yom Kippur. After a few moments of meditation, they burst into a perfectly sublime harmonious hallelujah. The holy days were fashioned; a string of pearls to decorate creation.
There was Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for the pious and meditative; Tu b’Shevat for the nature lovers. Simchas Torah for the joyous Chassids; Chanukah for the chauvinists. Passover pleased several groups; the bright-eyed lovers of matzoh balls, and the historically minded.
Yes, all the angels and cherubim and sages yet to be, thundered a mighty “Amen” as the Almighty announced the holiday lineup. All except one, that is. One of the younger angels, his wings still fluffy with down.
“What about the children?” he blurted out. “What about a holiday for the children? It should be a happy day of games and, of course, some special delectable food. And, most of all, noise! It should be the one day in the year when kids may shout to their heart’s content without a giant, adult hand muffling their mouth.”
The Holy One listened with compassionate attention. Then He pronounced, “Yes, I shall invent a happy day just for the children. I shall create an historical situation that seems destined for tragedy, but at the last minute dissolves into deliverance.” (“Just like the Red Sea and the Exodus,” whispered the excited Heavenly Hosts in unison.) “There shall be the essence of evil in the form of a tyrant.” (“Good,” thought the angels, even children must know about evil.) “And the young shall eat triangular cakes and shout as loud as they like at the evil name.” (“If they’re going to be loud and noisy, they may as well holler at evil,” said the Hallelujah Chorus.)
So, on the festival Megillah – the great scroll of the holidays – He who made time itself, inscribed Purim, a holiday for children.
My friend, Herb, a childlike celebrant who’d swap two Passovers and a Chanukah for one Purim, says that if Purim occurred daily, he’d attend shul all year round, as faithfully as the Ner Tamid, the eternal light that shines on the bima. Purim’s got it all, says Herb. “A love story like Ruth, but spiced with suspense. And all the joy of Simchas Torah, with a plot line.”
Herb may be right. Esther is one of the great triumvirates of Jewish heroines. Her two sister heroines are, who else? The militant Yael and Judith. The latter two, you’ll recall, dispatch two of Israel’s enemies to that special Gehenna where Amalekites sing Hatikvah on our holidays. This daring, dynamic duo were simple straight shooters like Annie Oakley. But Esther – ah, there’s a woman of subtlety as well as valor. You won’t find Hadassah ruining her manicure with tent pegs or swords. She’s behind the scenes orchestrating, directing. Totally invisible to her antagonists, she’s the ghostess with the mostest, you might say.
Once Cousin Mordechai alerts her to the peril facing her people, she swings into action. Two lavish banquets – not one, but two – she throws for the king, and Haman of all people. It’s the first Purim Oneg. And, although the Megillah does not spell out the menu, I’m sure Esther laid out a nice kosher spread with plenty of Persian slivovitz and followed by platters of those crisp, little, layered honey cakes.
Esther’s eyes caress the king, those succulent cakes melt in his mouth. They’re eating high on the challah, so to speak.
Haman, the quintessential Amalekite, sits in a corner daydreaming of the gibbet for the Jew, Mordechai. Esther, the supplicant who fantasizes a special Gehenna for Haman, in which he eternally grates potatoes for all the Chanukahs yet to come, pleads with the king for her people, Israel. She gazes tearfully at the king like he’s a titanic honey cake. In the background, we can almost hear a silvery “Taps” – with a klezmer lilt – for Haman the Agegite.
My good friend, Herb, loves to hear this Megillah. As I say, he’s a Purim regular. There he is, every year, with his own grogger, just like the Minyan Club members have their own tallis and tefillin. And he’s carrying one of those neat, silver hip flasks just to make sure he obeys the talmudic injunction to be sufficiently zonked so you can’t tell Haman from Mordechai. Over the whole year – 613 mitzvah opportunities available to him – this is Herb’s finest moment of observance.
Well, I love Purim as much as Herb. On what other holiday can you make obnoxious noises and even talk more than the rabbi without being shushed. I guess, like Herb, I’m a Purim Jew.
Ted Roberts is a freelance writer and humorist living in Huntsville, Ala.