What Are Hamantaschen? Here's What You Need to Know About This Delicious Purim Pastry
A true treat baked and enjoyed on the joyful Jewish holiday of Purim, hamantaschen aren't just cookies—they're cookies with a backstory. Depending on the recipe, the size may vary (miniature or palm-sized) and the fillings and dough types veer from traditional to the unexpected, but one distinguishing feature never wavers: Hamantaschen are always three-cornered pastries. "Haman is the villain in the story of Purim, and the triangular shape is said to represent Haman's hat," explains Beth A. Lee, author of The Essential Jewish Baking Cookbook ($21.49, amazon.com) and founder of the food blog OMG! Yummy.
Purim, Then and Now
Purim, a carnival-like holiday celebrated annually on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar (this year beginning at sunset on March 16 and ending March 17) commemorates the survival of the Jews of the Persian Empire in the fifth century BCE, who were under threat of annihilation. Haman, chief minister to King Ahasuerus of Persia was the evildoer conniving to organize a pogrom against the Jewish people. His plan was thwarted by King Ahasuerus's wife, the young Jewish queen Esther, and her relative Mordecai, who declared Purim a holiday after a resounding victory over their enemies. Haman met his end in the gallows.
Today, the Purim festival is celebrated by exchanging gifts and making charitable donations. Children dress up in costumes resembling Queen Esther and King Ahasuerus. In synagogue, the Purim story is recounted or acted out, and whenever Haman's name is mentioned, people hiss theatrically or shake noisemakers. And, of course, everyone eats hamentaschen (because nobody can eat just one hamantasch).
Riffing on the Classics
Home cooks who hew to the classics fill their three-cornered pastries with apricot or raspberry jam, prune butter (referred to as lekvar), or ground poppy seeds (also called mohn). Not-so-traditional fillings may include chocolate (like the chocolate-filled hamantaschen pictured above), homemade Nutella, figs and walnuts, cream cheese, lemon curd—the list goes on, and we haven't even touched on savory iterations!
The hamentaschen are also fashioned from thick dough, and naturally, variations abound. "There are three basic types of hamantaschen dough: oil-based, butter-based, and yeast-based," says Lee. Following in the footsteps of her grandmother, Lee makes hers with oil—olive oil, that is, which is a bit of a departure from the neutral oils like canola or vegetable oil that traditional recipes may call for. And her hamentaschen recipe mirrors her bubbe's in other ways. "Zest is not traditional, but my grandma used to put some orange juice in her dough, and I adore citrus of all kinds, so it wasn't a big leap for me to add lemon or orange zest to the dough recipe," says Lee.
Chocoholics, on the other hand, may opt for chocolate chips, chopped semisweet chocolate, or cocoa powder in the dough — or push further into decadent territory by dipping the corners in dark chocolate.
Insider Tips to Bake By
Fillings and dough types go the gamut; ditto the nuances that can make your next batch a hit with your family—or stand-ins for hockey pucks. "They are fairly simple to make, but subtle steps make a difference, and like everything Jewish, there are disagreements about how to prepare them," explains Lee. For example, after the dough is rolled out, it's cut into circles with a cookie-cutter, with a spoonful of filling placed in the center. The sides are then enjoined to form a triangle, either by pinching the corners or folding. Lee advocates for pinching.
The consistency of the dough also factors into any hamantaschen success story. Before you begin the process of filling and forming the cookies, pay attention to the dough's thickness. "Too thick is clunky to work with and eat, too thin will fall apart," says Lee, One last piece of baking advice from this hamentaschen maven: Chill the dough for at least one hour before popping the hamantaschen into the oven. "Chilling can help them stay together and not explode or deform while baking."