I did not appreciate hamantaschen as a kid. The ones they served at our synagogue were doughy and dry and left a skeezy film on the roof of your mouth. Also, they had prunes in them and looked like vaginas.
Mostly, I associated them with the lame carnivals that accompanied the Jewish holiday of Purim, where you tossed ping-pong balls into plastic cups swimming with sickly goldfish in the synagogue basement. I inevitably won a goldfish or two, which they’d put in a plastic bag, and the fish always died on the car ride home. My desire to eat hamantaschen died at synagogue.
The way I learned it, hamantaschen (pronounced HOM-en-tosh-en), triangular cookies sporting an open pocket in the middle filled with poppy seeds or fruit preserves, are meant to mimic the three-cornered hat of Purim’s villain, Haman. Though the story is most likely apocryphal and meant as satire, Haman was supposedly an official in the Persian Empire around 500 B.C. who threatened to wipe out all the Jewish exiles throughout the empire—a plot that was foiled by a man named Mordecai and his adopted daughter, Queen Esther. In the end, Haman hangs from the gallows he built for Mordecai.
But instead of getting esther-taschen or mordecai-taschen we get hamantaschen, which means, more or less, “Haman’s pockets.” Haman is so reviled that his name gets booed whenever it’s mentioned in synagogue. So naming a dessert after him is kind of like calling a pie Himmler Cobbler. (Scholars, of course, have further complicated things by pointing out that hamantaschen is probably a play on mohntaschen, an eastern European pastry pocket from the 18th or 19th century. Either way, it’s based on revenge, or a pun, two things we Jews appreciate.)
When I married Sarah, I started eating hamantaschen again. “I used to make them with my mother when I was growing up in the dorm,” says Sarah, whose parents were resident masters at the University of Chicago from 1984 to 2000. Her mother, Mary Ann, was a hilariously straightforward lady who, when I first met her, asked me my salary as a magazine editor, then couldn’t stop laughing when I told her. This was somehow endearing. The hamantaschen she made were blunt and buttery, like her. I ate many.
Mary Ann died in 2004, and in the years since, Sarah hadn’t made the recipe often. My family, who spends 90% of our waking hours in the kitchen, misses Mary Ann desperately—even my 15-year-old daughter, Hannah, who never met her. So this Purim, I persuaded Sarah and her brother Ben to teach us the recipe. What better way to draw a line between generations?
The first thing I learned was that Mary Ann’s recipe uses butter. The hamantaschen I’d hated as a kid used margarine in accordance with the laws of kashrut. Though butter is kosher, says Aryeh Bernstein, a Chicago-based rabbi, most Purim feasts tend to include meat, which you can’t eat at the same meal as dairy. “It’s rare to make hamantaschen with dairy,” Bernstein says. “So, yeah, margarine is an acceptable (though disgusting) solution.” Also, the punitive hamantaschen of my youth had been baked like cookies; Mary Ann’s uses an active dry yeast dough. According to Gil Marks, author of Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, traditional hamantaschen were made with kuchen, a rich yeast dough. Score one for Mary Ann.
After proofing our yeast, the four of us sniped at each other over 1) how long to knead the dough; 2) how much flour to use; 3) whether the Ramones counted as Purim music; 4) how warm a temperature the dough ball should be kept in; and 5) whether apricot or poppyseed filling was superior. As far as I can tell, the playful verbal jousting enriches the dough, which went into a warming drawer for an hour, covered with a towel.
When the dough came out, we couldn’t find the rolling pin to flatten it, but it turns out an empty plastic wrap roll dusted with flour works just as well. The key, after getting the correct thickness (1/4") and size (about a 4" diameter) for each piece, was resisting the urge to overheap the filling into the center. A tablespoon is more than enough.
Then came the crucial moment: shaping each circle into a triangle. I learned to get a bowl of water and keep my fingers wet, so that when I pinched the corners they stayed closed. One false move during this step means the difference between a gorgeous geometric marvel and something approximating a gangrenous battlefield wound. Mine, of course, were far closer to the latter.
Our first batch came out of the oven a bit ragged. Puffy but pale; some with too much filling, others not enough. The filling on others (mine) had rebelled completely and tried to escape. “It looks like a jelly donut someone sat on,” Hannah said.
Flavor? Dry. A little nutty. The bottoms got browned but the tops did not. Regardless of topping, they were undersweet, underwhelming, and unappealing in a completely different way from the hamantaschen I hated as a kid. Hannah, who can put away a dozen chocolate chip cookies in a sitting, ate half of one. I was crushed.
“Is this what you remember them tasting like?” I asked Sarah.
“Exactly,” she said.
We gave the second batch an egg wash, and they certainly came out looking more golden and crisp-edged. But the difference in flavor was negligible. There was no denying how dense they remained. How uncraveable. How mediocre. And that’s when the truth came out.
“Eh, mom didn’t really like hamantaschen anyway,” Ben said. “This wasn’t her favorite recipe.”
But . . . but—
“There’s a reason people only make hamantaschen once a year,” Sarah said. “It’s just not a very good dessert.”
Hannah nodded her head in exactly the same authoritative and dismissive way her grandmother once did.
My recollection of Mary Ann’s hamantaschen, like so many memories, must have softened over time until the truth became elusive and partially obscured from view, like the filling in a substandard dessert that’s apparently not as great as a cookie or a pastry. I thought I loved my mother-in-law’s hamantaschen. As it turns out, I just loved my mother-in-law.
Purim is not a significant event in the Jewish religion; it falls under the familiar “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat” category of Jewish holidays, of which there are many. So it makes sense that Purim gets a deeply flawed pastry to commemorate it. “If hamantaschen are named after a bad guy,” says Hannah, “At least it’s a shitty dessert.” She’s got a point. Whether or not Haman existed, after 2,500 years it’s hard to imagine a worse punishment.
Makes about 30 pieces
- 2 envelopes active dry yeast
- ½ cup + 1 pinch (1/8 tsp.) sugar
- 1 cup butter, melted and cooled
- ½ cup milk
- ½ cup sour cream
- 1 whole egg and 2 egg yolks
- 4-5 cups flour
- 1 can poppyseed filling
- 1 can prune filling
- 1 can apricot filling
Put the yeast in 1/4 cup of very warm water—not hot—with a pinch of sugar. Stir once. Let sit for 5 minutes. It should foam and double in size if the yeast is alive. If not, start over with new yeast.
Combine the yeast mixture with all other ingredients except filling, adding flour gradually until it is a soft (but non-clinging) dough stiff enough to knead. Do not add too much flour; the dough needs to be soft. Knead for a few minutes until it is very, very smooth. You might need to flour the surface you knead on.
Grease a large bowl and place the dough in it. Cover with a towel against drafts and put in a warm place. The top of a radiator is perfect. Let sit and rise until doubled—an hour minimum, maybe more in a place with less warmth.
Remove dough. Taking a small portion (about the size of a lime), roll it out with a floured rolling pin on a lightly floured surface into a circle of about 4” diameter to make a thin sheet (1/4" thick). Put a tablespoon of filling in the center. Fold up into a triangle to make the hamantasch shape. Pinch each corner together with a little water on your fingers to make it stick. This dough has a lot of butter and hates to stick. If it doesn’t stick, the whole thing will come open.
Place the filled hamantaschen on a greased cookie sheet. Leave some distance between each one, because they will puff up. Cover with a towel and let sit in a warm place for about an hour until they puff up a little more.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, then bake for 20 minutes or until slightly browned.