Of all the many, many, many holidays on the Jewish calendar, Purim is the antic cousin, the silly sibling, the crazy aunt. It celebrates the victory of the brave Jewish Queen Esther over the evil Persian Haman, who had decreed death to all the Jews in the land. Esther outwitted the nefarious advisor by reporting him to King Ahasuerus, her husband, who ordered Haman and his ten sons to be executed. There’s a fairly consistent theme of persecution running through Jewish history, as you may have noticed, so the story of Esther and Haman has also come to be a celebration of the many times the Jewish people have escaped potential destruction. We also like the Purim story because it features a female heroine, something of a rarity in historical and religious epics. Esther was pretty fierce, in other words.
Purim celebrations can get pretty wild—it’s a holiday of costumes, street parades, drunkenness and lots of sweets, sort of like a Jewish Mardi Gras, and it’s all sanctioned by tradition. Purim foods include treats made with marzipan, liqueur-soaked honey cakes, and sweet pearl couscous served with milk and sugar. But the best-known Purim confections in the West are undoubtedly hamantaschen, the three-cornered cookies with a variety of sweet fillings, traditionally poppy seeds or prune or apricot jam. Apparently, Queen Esther subsisted on poppy seeds while she was praying for a way to defeat Haman–the best explanation for the Jewish fondness for poppy seeds we’ve heard yet.
The hamantaschen Zanthe grew up eating, from Greenberg’s Bakery on the Upper East Side in New York, were huge, about six inches across–perhaps in an attempt to resemble Haman’s three-cornered hat in size as well as shape?–but we prefer them about half that size. There are a couple of tricks to making good hamantaschen: finding a dough recipe that tastes good enough to stand on its own, perfecting the balance between dough and filling, and sealing the corners securely with egg wash so they don’t leak. Choosing a filling you love helps too: this year we made both poppy seed and chocolate to keep everyone happy (guess who likes which?).
Hamantaschen with Chocolate and Poppy Seed Fillings
There’s enough filling here to make about twice as many poppy seed as chocolate-filled cookies, if you want to want to tinker with the quantities. The recipe makes about 20-24 cookies if you cut with a 3 ½” cutter. This can be a fun baking project to do with kids, as long as you aren’t fussy about how the cookies look (and you may want to give them a quick once-over before they go into the oven).
For the dough:
1 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar
3 large egg yolks
3 sticks (12 oz) unsalted butter at room temperature, in small pieces
Grated zest of 1 lemon
3 ½ cups all-purpose unbleached flour
Dash of salt
1 large egg, beaten, for the glaze
For the chocolate filling:
3 egg yolks
¼ cup sugar
1 ¼ tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
¾ cup milk
½ tsp vanilla extract
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
2 ½ ounces semisweet chocolate chips
For the poppy seed filling:
1 cup poppy seeds
¾ cup of milk
4 tbsp raisins
4 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp honey
1 ½ tbsp butter
Grated zest of one lemon
1 tbsp lemon juice
Put the confectioners’ sugar and the egg yolks in a food processor and blend. Add butter and lemon zest and process to blend. Gradually add the flour and the salt, pulsing until it forms a ball. Divide the dough in half, flatten each into a disk, wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Chill until firm, at least 1 hour or up to overnight.
Meanwhile, prepare the chocolate filling: In a bowl, beat the egg yolks, sugar, cornstarch and cocoa powder until smooth. Pour the milk into a small saucepan with the vanilla extract. Over medium heat, bring to a simmer, then remove from heat.
While whisking vigorously, pour a third of the milk into the yolk mixture, then pour back into the saucepan. Continue to whisk constantly while simmering over low heat until the mixture bubbles and thickens into almost into a runny pudding consistency (this may take a while–be patient!).
Remove from heat, add the bittersweet chocolate and whisk until the chocolate has melted and the cream is smooth. Pour into a clean bowl and cover with plastic wrap, placed directly on the cream. Refrigerate until cool, at least thirty minutes, then fold in the chocolate chips.
Make the poppy seed filling: Combine the poppy seeds with the milk in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, and simmer until thick. Add the raisins, sugar and honey and continue to simmer (adjust heat if necessary) for five minutes. Remove from heat and mix in lemon zest, lemon juice and butter.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 pastry sheets with parchment paper.
Unwrap one of the chilled dough disks and place on a piece of parchment paper that has been dusted lightly with flour. Lightly dust the top of the dough with flour. Cover with a second piece of parchment paper. Let stand at room temperature until malleable. Use a rolling pin to press and roll out the dough into a 1/4-inch- thick round between the sheets of parchment, flipping the dough occasionally (you may need a touch more flour to keep it from sticking). Use a plain biscuit or cookie cutter or glass to cut approximately 3-inch circles, placing the circles on the prepared baking sheet spaced 1 inch apart. Place the baking sheet in the refrigerator to chill until firm while you repeat the rolling/cutting process with the second round of dough. Beat the egg lightly for the egg wash and keep it and a pastry brush handy.
Remove the first pan of dough rounds from the refrigerator. Brush them lightly with the egg wash. Place a heaping teaspoon of the poppy-seed filling or a scant teaspoon of the chocolate filling in the center of each, and press up the sides to form triangles, pinching the ends closed very firmly and leaving a bit of the filling showing. The cookies will open up some as they bake, so don’t leave them too open. Top the chocolate cookies with a few extra chocolate chips.
If the dough is too firm, let stand a minute or two to soften; return the baking sheet to the refrigerator if the dough becomes too soft. You want the dough soft enough to be malleable but not so soft it falls apart. Repeat with the remaining dough rounds, and pop the filled cookies into the fridge to firm up for a few minutes before baking.
Once chilled firm, bake the cookies until golden, about 13-18 minutes, rotating the racks front to back and top to bottom after about 10 minutes. Keep an eye on the bottom of the cookies in particular, as these will tend to brown (or burn) first. Place trays on wire racks for 10 minutes before transferring cookies on parchment to racks to cool completely. Keep in an airtight container once cooled. The chocolate ones will definitely go first, if you have any children in the house.
Adapted from Claudia Roden and Joan Nathan’s recipes