Jewish holidays share a common pattern: They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat. (That’s not my joke. Feel free to share it as you please.)
Purim is just a little bit different: They tried to kill us. We won. We extracted vicious revenge. Let’s drink. In fact, let’s drink until we can’t tell the good guy (Mordechai) from the bad guy (Haman — cue raucous booing and groggers to drown out his name).
When you get to the “Let’s eat” portion of a Jewish holiday, there’s usually something substantial involved: Passover has its matzoh balls, Hanukkah has its latkes and Shavuot has its cheese blintzes. Purim, however, to soak up all that alcohol you’re commanded to drink, has cookies. Just cookies — hamantaschen, or Haman’s hats. (More raucous booing.) Eating our enemy’s very hat is just more vicious, delicious revenge, extracted millennia later in kitchens and in synagogue social halls every year.
The sisterhood organizations at most area synagogues probably spent last weekend baking up a storm to prepare for the start of Purim on March 14. You can also buy them at a handful of bakeries around town. But kvetching about how the hamantaschen you find around here just aren’t as good as — fill in the blank: those in New York City, those in Montreal, those your bubbe used to make, the ones you used to be able to find two decades ago or, inevitably, Fishmans’ — that’s as much a tradition as downing a glass or three after the purimschpiel.
But, before we join in the kvetching, a little primer: hamantaschen (the singular is hamantasch but, seriously, nobody ever says, “One hamantasch, please”) are triangular cookies with various fillings — poppy seeds, apricot, and prune are canonical; chocolate, almond, cherry, blueberry, and the like are acceptable. The New York Times may try to tell you that you can make them savory. The New York Times is playing with fire.
You can close up the triangles completely. You can leave a little hole at the top so the filling is visible. You can make them thin and flat. You can make them tall and substantial. Either way, someone will tell you you’re doing it wrong.
You might say, as I said to my husband early in our marriage, “Oh. It’s a sugar cookie, filled with jam.” You will then get a look. After 14 years of making and eating hamantaschen, I feel qualified to say: These are so much more than sugar cookies, filled with so much more than jam.
We found hamantaschen at Byerly’s, It Takes the Cake, Crossroads, and Cecil’s. We called Rye — which makes such fantastic rugelach — and they said they expect to start baking hamantaschen maybe Tuesday. As if to say, Nu, why the rush?
Byerly’s hamantaschen (above) are the biggest and flattest of the four kinds. At the St. Louis Park location, which has a special kosher section of the bakery, we found prepackaged boxes of poppy, prune, and almond flavors. They are of the completely closed genus of hamantaschen, with a sprinkle of poppy seeds or other topping to indicate what’s inside. These do, indeed, taste like generic sugar cookies, with an aftertaste of something like butter-flavored shortening. But we did like the nice, thick, chewy layer of poppy-seed filling in the center.
When we first arrived at It Takes the Cake, the woman behind the counter shook her head — no more hamantaschen. We’re out. You should have pre-ordered. We hesitated a second and she looked at us, assessing us for goodness-knows-what, and finally said, “Well, I might have one tray in the back. But they’re blueberry.”
It Takes the Cake makes some of the best challah in the area, so we had high hopes. And the New World–style blueberry hamantaschen almost lived up to them. These are the thick-walled, open variety of hamantaschen (above), made with a softer dough. But, while the blueberry filling was firm and tart, the cookie itself was just a little too bland.
On to Crossroads, home of a dozen varieties of rugelach and, in season, a half dozen varieties of hamantaschen (above). These, too, are the thick, open-topped kind. They are hefty and substantial, chewy on the sides and crunchy at the pointed corners. But there is some serious variation in size and color, with some baked way beyond golden brown.
At Cecil’s deli counter there are fully 10 varieties of hamantaschen (above), including one topped with fairy-pink sprinkles and another with the fat chocolate bits known as jimmies in East Coast ice cream shops. And, while I personally am not a fan of the thin, flat, closed hamantaschen, I have to admit these are the best of the bunch. It’s amazing how a tiny bit more salt can make a sugar cookie taste like more than just a sugar cookie. Soft in the right places, crunchy in the right places — these are as good as it gets.
Unless, of course, you’ve got a couple of hours to spare to make hamantaschen at home.
Making hamantaschen is a multistep process, best begun with a clean expanse of clear counter, all your ingredients prepped and ready, and a few small helpers at hand.
The dough is simple. It’s (ahem) sugar cookie dough made with oil instead of butter, so it’s easy to work with and doesn’t need to be chilled before rolling out. Long ago I settled on the recipe below from The 2nd Avenue Deli Cookbook, which is perked up with orange and lemon zest.
For the fillings, you’ve got basically one choice.
These are next to the pie fillings in the canned fruit aisle of your grocery store. I have tried just about everything you can name and always go back to the cans.
Making your own poppy seed filling is easy and satisfying, but poppy seeds can be expensive to buy in bulk. Regular jams and jellies tend to be too thin and runny. Chocolate chips and peanut butter sound like a good idea — but they scorch before the cookies are done. Dulce de leche sounds like an even better idea, but it boils in the oven, overflowing like a sweet, hot volcano. Stick with the cans.
And stick with homemade — or with whatever particular sort evokes the sweetest childhood memories for you. And let the rest of us kvetch about your poor judgment.
Adapted from The 2nd Avenue Deli Cookbook
1 c sugar
½ c vegetable oil
juice and zest of one lemon
zest of one orange
1 tsp vanilla
4 c flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
3 cans of Solo filling (e.g., poppy, apricot and almond)
for topping: 1 beaten egg, some sugar to sprinkle on top
Heat oven to 375˚F.
In a stand mixture or by hand, beat together eggs, sugar, oil, juice, zest, and vanilla until well mixed.
In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt.
With mixer running on low, add flour mixture in two batches. Beat until a soft dough forms. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead a couple of times.
Have prepared: rolling pin and 4-inch round cookie cutter; baking sheets covered in parchment paper or silicone liners; open cans of filling, with two spoons each; egg wash (one egg beaten with 2–3 tablespoons of cool water), sugar for sprinkling.
Take one-fourth of the dough and cover the rest lightly with a towel.
Roll it on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of about 1/8 inch, being careful to work it as little as possible.
Cut circles and place them on the prepared baking sheet, reserving scraps with the rest of the dough under the tea towel.
When one baking sheet is full, spoon 1–2 tablespoons of filling in the center of each circle.
Form into triangles by pinching one edge into a V and using that as a guide to make the other two corners. Pinch seams together tightly, leaving an opening in the top about as big as a quarter.
Brush thoroughly with egg wash and sprinkle generously with sugar.
Bake 12–15 minutes until very, very lightly golden brown on the seams. Repeat with remaining dough.
Makes about 36 hamantaschen.
Byerly’s, 3777 Park Center Blvd, St. Louis Park, MN 55416; 952.929.2100
It Takes the Cake Bakery, 10902 Greenbrier Rd, Minnetonka, MN 55305; 952.544.0303
Crossroads Delicatessen, 2795 Hedberg Dr, Hopkins, MN 55305; 952.546.6595
Cecil’s Delicatessen, 651 Cleveland Ave S, St. Paul, MN 55116; 651.698.6276