We never celebrated Purim much when I was a child. On years when there is only one month of Adar – the month that Purim is in, which is repeated in leap years – it was the yahrzeit, or death anniversary, of my maternal grandmother. That said, even without the somber occasion, Purim was a bit too…gaudy for my understated parents. The holiday celebrates the redemption of the Jewish people in the Persian Empire from the machinations of the evil Haman, as narrated in the biblical Book of Esther – named after the heroine of the tale. Historically, this has been a day of much celebration and much drinking. Yet this has somehow morphed in the modern era to a day of mandatory fun masked as chaos, complete with costumes and a lot of yellow. My father hated chaos, my mother hated yellow. Purim was not really a thing in our house.
One memory does stand out from Purim though: poppy seed hamantaschen. Fluffy, triangular cookies, sweet – but filled with the nuttiest, most beguiling poppy seed filling on the inside. I was hooked. Even as my peers went for chocolate chip, apricot, or sprinkle-flavored hamantaschen, I stayed loyal to the poppy seeds. Which, in some ways, is in keeping with history.
Hamantaschen come from the intersection of Jewish folklore and European pastry. On the one hand, filled cookies – and especially those with poppy seeds – were common in the medieval Europe where Ashkenazi cuisine developed. On the other hand, there is the command to simultaneously obliterate the name of the evil Haman (and, metaphorically, Amaleq) while remembering what he did! At some point, the cookies, which may have been called Mohntaschen in German (poppy-pockets) became Haman-tashen, Yiddish for Haman’s pockets. And thus the humble hamantasch was born.
I have attached two recipes here: one for my poppy seed filling (the mohn), and one for the hamantaschen more generally. You can, of course, also fill your hamantaschen with other things: apricot, prune, and berry jams are traditional fillings, and I have been known to make Nutella ones. (This year, I’m making quince hamantaschen with the jam I made this past November.) The poppy seed filling goes very well in a cake. Do note that this poppy seed filling is especially strong.
Poppy Seed Filling (Mohn)
Makes about two cups (I usually make a double batch)
3 tbsp butter
1 cup milk
One egg, beaten
2 tbsp shlivovitz or other brandy
5/8 cup white sugar
¼ tsp cinnamon
1 ½ tsp cornstarch dissolved in 1 tbsp water
¾ cup poppy seeds*
- In a small or medium saucepan, melt the butter.
- When the butter is melted, add the milk and bring to a boil.
- When the milk is boiling, reduce the flame. Take a bit of hot milk out of the pan and mix into the beaten egg to temper it. Then, add the egg, shlivovitz, sugar, and cinnamon to the pan and mix in thoroughly.
- Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring continuously to prevent the mixture from burning.
- Once the mixture is boiling, add the cornstarch and water and mix in thoroughly. Boil until the mixture is thick.
- Add the poppy seeds and mix in thoroughly, or until the mixture is dark. Remove from heat and allow to cool and set, preferably refrigerated.
*Author’s note: though it is traditional to grind the poppy seeds, I actually prefer to leave them whole – it adds a wonderful nutty flavor to the filling.
5 1/2 cups white flour (sifted)
1 tbsp baking powder
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 tsp salt
2/3 cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup water
Have some filling on hand – look above for a mohn recipe. I also recommend a good, thick jam. Such as my quince jam!
- Mix the dry ingredients together until thoroughly mixed.
- Cut the water and oil into the dry ingredients and mix together – with your hands, a big fork, or a pastry cutter – until you get a dense dough. Cover and set aside for a while – I recommend refrigerating the dough overnight.
- Preheat the oven to 350 F/175 C.
- When you are ready to make your hamantaschen, roll out your dough to between 1/8” and ¼” of an inch thick (about 4-7mm thick) – I recommend a slightly thicker hamantasch. Cut the hamantaschen into circles of about 3 inches/7cm in diameter.
- Place no more than a teaspoon of filling into the center of each Then fold the edges of the circle over the center of the filling to make and seal the triangle. I recommend this order:
- Lift the left-hand flap of the cookie and fold over the filling.
- Then, fold the right hand flap over the filling, and push down a bit over where the right hand flap overlaps the left-hand one.
- Now, fold over the bottom flap. Have it fold over the right hand flap, but under the left hand one, and push down on the overlaps. This seals the cookie.
- (For a demonstration of excellent hamantaschen technique, visit Tori Avey’s blog.)
- Place, evenly spaced, on a greased cookie sheet. Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until the cookies are golden.