Beginning on the evening of Wednesday 24th March this year, and ending on the evening of the following day, is the Jewish feast of Purim, the Feast of Esther. You can read the story of the exploits of this remarkable young woman who saved her people from destruction by the evil Haman in the days of the Persian Empire, in the Book of Esther in the Bible. At this festival, the Jewish people continue year by year to celebrate their deliverance by reading the whole of the Book of Esther and by partying – the children dress up in fancy dress, a lot of noise is made, gifts are exchanged, and special foods are eaten, and a good time is had by all.
In honour of my Jewish friends, and because I value the Hebraic roots of my Christian faith, I decided to join with them in making a couple of traditional foods for us to enjoy.
One of the favourite foods is Hamantaschen, literally “Haman’s pockets” in Yiddish, symbolising the money which Haman offered to Ahasuerus in exchange for permission to destroy the Jews. These pastries are also known as “Haman’s ears” from the Hebrew “oznei Haman.” Traditionally Haman is said to have had misshapen ears, and these delicious little sweet pastries are supposed to represent his pointed ears, or possibly his three-cornered hat. I first tasted these many years ago when a I went with a group of Christians who had been invited by our local synagogue to join in their celebration of Purim, and after the synagogue service we all adjourned to the hall next door and joined the party.
Doing some research online, I found any number of different Hamantaschen fillings that can be used. I tried making the traditional poppy seed filling from the recipe book I have got, but I did not like the results, so I discarded it in favour of the alternative filling made with dried fruit, cinnamon, apple, sugar and the juice and grated rind of a lemon. This is minced or ground into a chunky paste which is used to fill each circle of pastry, pinching the circle into a triangular parcel.
Here is the pastry for the Hamantaschen. It is a sweet, enriched pastry with egg and sugar added. I think I made it a bit too soft and it was rather difficult to handle – it might have been better if I’d wrapped it and left it to rest in the fridge for a while but I forgot to do this.
I divided it into two to make it easier to handle, and rolled out each piece quite thinly, and cut as many 3-inch circles as I could – this quantity yielded about 50.
I finished cutting them at lunch time and had to stop at that point. I could see that some of the first ones were starting to dry out a bit, so I layered them all between damp kitchen paper and returned after lunch. The problem was that during this time they got a little bit too damp, and were very hard to handle without the pastry disintegrating. In future I think I will fill them as I cut them, and make sure I can complete them without interruption.
The Hamantachen being filled and moulded into shape, and placed on a baking tray ready for the oven. The small dish contains water which I applied around the edge of the pastry circle with my finger, so that the parcel would stick together.
The next photo shows the Hamantaschen straight out of the oven, cooling. Because I had had problems with the pastry being so soft and delicate, some of them are a bit misshapen, and one or two ended up with four corners instead of three! Generally, though, they were OK, although one or two got a bit overdone. I am still getting used to my oven which was installed with the new kitchen when we moved two years ago – I have not used it very much until now because I was extremely busy in the first year and of course was out of action last year with cancer and didn’t do much cooking at all; also, I do tend to use the smaller top oven for most things because it is more economical to run. I have to remember that the main oven is a fan-assisted oven and needs to run at a lower temperature than that stated in most recipes. As it was, I took them out five minutes before the due time, and even so, one or two were a tad overdone.
Here are some of the better ones! You can see I have decorated them with hundreds and thousands over a honey glaze.
As for the misshapen ones, well, what can I say? Haman has a pretty bad press and is generally considered to be a forerunner of Hitler, with the same motivation to destroy the Jews from the face of the earth, but what I have done to the poor fellow’s ears almost makes one feel sorry for him (well, almost…) – his ears are not only a bit singed, but he looks as if someone has boxed them and given him a cauliflower ear!! Still, he deserved all he had coming to him!
My hubby and I had some with a cup of tea and they are truly delicious! The filling is reminiscent of that used in the Rugelach (what we nicknamed Death Gliders) that I made recently, but I love the slight tang of the lemon flavour. The pastry is a combination of crisp and melt-in-the-mouth and if I’d brought them all through rather than just a few, I think they’d probably all have gone by now!!
Challah is the traditional egg-enriched plaited loaf eaten each week at Shabbat (or Shabbos as the Ashkenazi Jews pronounce it) – the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, strictly observed as a day of rest, the Queen of all Jewish festivals. It is the most delicious of breads. At Purim it is often made with a sweet icing (frosting) and decorated with coloured strands. I have not made challah for many years. Actually I have not made any bread since my illness last year and when I was making it up till then, it was in the bread maker, which is very convenient – you just put all the ingredients in, press the right buttons and lo and behold, several hours later, out pops a loaf! There’s not much hands-on involvement in its creation and this is something I missed.
When I left school in the early 1970s I took part in a commercial bakery course twice a week (bread bakery and confectionery) and I learnt how to knead the dough correctly and how to mould it for various shapes of loaves and rolls to ensure even rising. There was quite a bit of science involved and the whole process has always fascinated me. Part of the joy of real hands-on bread making is the tactile experience – the stretchy consistency of the dough and how it responds under one’s hands, and the most divine aroma. It has a magical quality too, containing a living organism (yeast) which makes it grow and transform into something truly wonderful, and there is also the feeling whenever I make bread, that I am continuing something which has been done throughout the millennia – a process that has changed very little, apart from modern mechanisation enabling mass production, and one feels a historical connection with one’s distant forebears back to Bible times. There is so much spiritual significance attached to this staff of life and it’s an amazing feeling, getting stuck in and producing it from scratch with one’s bare hands. For anyone who hasn’t tried it, I recommend it!
Anyway, enough of the waxing lyrical, and back to the practicalities!
Here is the dough which is formed once the flour, water and yeast, with a little sugar and salt, have been thoroughly amalgamated and vigorously kneaded until the consistency becomes elastic. At this stage it speaks to you – it squeaks as you stretch it across the table!
I put it in a bowl and covered it with a towel, and put it in the airing cupboard while I made the Hamantaschen and had lunch. During this time, the magic began. See how it has grown!
The next stage in the process is the “knocking back” – turning it out onto the table and kneading it again, to knock all the carbon dioxide out of the dough, which has been produced by the reaction of the yeast with the sugar. When left to rest, or “prove” again, this ensures even rising with no oversized bubbles. Vigorous kneading is required.
Once it was knocked back, I divided it into four equal parts and rolled each out into a long sausage.
I pressed their ends together in order to begin to form the plait.
Working the four-strand plait. It’s very easy – you just weave the lengths alternately over and under, until you reach the end.
The completed plait. I have tucked the ends underneath to finish it off. It is on the greased baking sheet that will take it into the oven, but first, it requires proving again.
Before putting it back into the airing cupboard, I glazed it with beaten egg white. This egg white was left over from the yolk I used in the Hamantaschen pastry. If I hadn’t had this handy, I would have used whole egg for the glaze.
When I went to rescue it from the airing cupboard a couple of hours later, it was about to crawl out of the door! See how it has spread and grown in volume.
The loaf in the oven.
Finally, out of the oven and cooled somewhat. There is a lovely way to test whether the loaf is cooked or not – you turn it over and knock it on its bottom and if it sounds hollow, it is done. Lovely sound.
I wish we had scratch-and-sniff Internet so that you could enjoy the full experience – one of the best aromas on earth, along with new-mown hay and freesias and freshly-brewed coffee, is the smell of bread baking, and it permeated through the whole house!
My hubby and I had a simple pasta meal tonight with some Bolognese sauce that I had made, and grated fresh Parmesan cheese, accompanied by a big chunk of this bread, still warm from the oven. I don’t think there will be much left for frosting…
I wish all my Jewish friends a very happy time this Purim.
Some Exciting News
This week I heard from Jane Marbaix, the author of the soon-to-be published new book on Zentangle which I am privileged to be a part of. She has the advance copy and she emailed me a photo of the spread with my design. It’s so exciting to see it in print. Here is a sneaky peek.
The book is due out in May. More news as I get it.
This post has been edited after my error regarding the translation of “Hamantaschen” was pointed out to me by more than one person. Thanks for the info, and my apologies for the mistake!