by Les Saidel - February, 2012

The Jewish festival of Purim is almost upon us. It is a time to be merry and to celebrate salvation from the evil decree of Haman to exterminate world Jewry (in ancient Persia around 465 BCE). It is also time to be gearing up for your Purim bake with some new and innovative ideas to include in your Mishloach Manot (food gifts to friends).

There are two central themes in traditional Purim cuisine. The first (and most predominant) are dishes that were designed to poke fun at the arch villain Haman. The second theme involves dishes that emphasize the seed/nut/legume diet that Queen Esther ate while in the palace.

Let's start with the good old fashioned Hamantasch, Yiddish for "Haman's Hat." Haman is the villain in the Purim story and to poke fun at him, it is customary (especially amongst Ashkenazi communities) to eat a filled triangular pastry that, as legend has it, was the shape of Haman's hat. According to other sources, the triangular shape symbolizes the pyramidal shape of the dice used at the time, which was cast by Haman to determine the fate of the Jews. The Hebrew word for Hamantaschen, "Oznei Haman", literally meaning Haman's ears, is another slant on the same theme.

A Hamantasch starts off as a flat, round piece of pastry dough, onto which a spoon or two of filling is placed in the center. The ends are lifted and folded over the filling and stuck together to form a triangular shape, with the filling just peeking through in the centre. The traditional filling is "mohn" or poppy seeds, cooked in a sugar and milk syrup and then mixed with grated apple. Other popular fillings are date spread, chocolate spread and even more exotic ones like blueberry jam.

The pastry dough is similar to cookie dough. There are many Hamantaschen dough recipes to be found on the internet, but the rule of thumb is to take your favourite cookie dough recipe and use that. Many make the mistake of using "special" Hamantaschen dough recipes, which are usually stiffer than regular cookie dough so that the shape is preserved when they are baked. Unfortunately this results in a much dryer, crumbly result. Using softer cookie dough will give a much tastier, melt-in-the-mouth end result. Since cookie dough is usually softer, it tends to sag and you run the risk of your Hamantaschen looking like pancakes. To avoid this, it is advisable to "build up" the Hamantaschen more vertically before they are baked, taking into account any sag that may occur.

Another variation on the Hamantasch is to use yeast dough. In fact, yeast dough was the standard dough used in communities of Russian and East European origin and has largely been replaced today in America and Israel by cookie style Hamantaschen. In a few countries, like South Africa for example, the yeast dough Hamantasch is still the standard. Even in places where cookie style Hamantaschen dominate, many remember the "old fashioned" yeast dough Hamantaschen that their grandmothers used to make.

The yeast dough Hamantasch uses dough very similar in texture to a Babke. You may search the internet for myriad Babke dough recipes. The shaping technique is similar to the cookie Hamantasch, with a round piece of dough, a spoon of filling in the center and then the ends folded over in a triangular shape. Unlike cookie Hamantaschen, yeast dough Hamantaschen need to rise before they are baked.

Another East European custom for Purim is to eat a flower shaped challah to symbolize the Rose of Jacob (Shoshanat Yaakov), a poem/song that is traditionally sung after reading the Book of Esther. The Libyan Jewish community eats a similar rose shaped dessert/pastry called Debla.

Another challah of Russian origin, called a Keylitsh or Kulich, is an extensively braided challah that symbolizes the braided rope used to hang Haman.

Kreplach, pastry dough filled with chopped meat (usually eaten in soup - like a dumpling), is another customary Purim dish. Kreplach are traditionally eaten on more somber occasions, when a "beating" takes place (for example before Yom Kippur where flagellation was customary centuries ago, or on the day of Hoshana Raba when willow branches are beaten). The "turn around" symbolism on Purim is also a beating, but this time given to Haman.

Morrocan Jews traditionally eat a challah called Ojos de Haman or Boyoja Ungola di Purim, (Haman's Eyes). This bread/challah has two unpeeled, hard boiled eggs inserted into it for the eyes. It is traditional for the children to decorate the egg shells.

Folares is another pastry that has a hard boiled egg, encased in a pastry "cage" (symbolizing Haman being trapped), eaten by the community of Rhodes.

Bulgarians have a pastry dish called Caveos di Aman (Haman's Hair) containing pasta with olives, hard boiled eggs and spices.

Lebanese and Egyptian communities traditionally eat Ma'amoul on Purim, a pastry filled with pistachios or walnuts. According to sources Queen Esther ate only nuts, seeds and legumes in the palace of King Achashverosh (Ahasuerus) as other kosher food was unobtainable. The Iraqi Sambusak el Tawa, filled with chickpeas follows a similar vein.

Sweet cookies, symbolizing good fortune, are common in Sephardic Purim cuisine. Hadgi Badah is a sweet cookie containing ground almonds, pistachios and spices such as cardamom, followed by inserting a whole nut in the top of the cookie. Koloocheh is an Iranian Purim cookie with walnut and rosewater filling. Ghouribi, a sugar cookie, is eaten by Moroccan Jews on Purim.

Tunisian Jews traditionally eat a pastry called Macrute (this has also migrated to France and is called Macroud there). It is a semolina based pocket pastry filled with dates, honey and spices. Also eaten in France are Palmiers, ear shaped sugar cookies symbolizing Haman's ears.

Another Persian recipe called Nanbrangi, a dessert sprinkled with poppy seeds intended to symbolize Haman's "fleas". A Syrian candy in a similar vein is Simsemiyeh, using sesame instead of poppy seeds.

Turkish and Greek Jewry eat a dish called Haman's fingers, a flaky pastry dough filled with almonds and spices, shaped into cylindrical finger shapes.

There are MANY other Purim delicacies that are not pastry related that are beyond the scope of this article. I have tried to encompass as many different pastry dishes from around the world as I managed to find. If I have left any out, I apologize. Please contact me and I will gladly add them to the collection.

Recipes for all the above are easily obtained by searching the internet.

Happy Purim!

Les Saidel


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