Even if you don’t celebrate Purim, or you’ve never actually heard of this Jewish holiday, we bet you’ve seen hamantaschen in your supermarket bakery. These filled cookies are a hallmark of the Jewish celebration hailing Esther’s triumph over Haman.
Curious to learn more about Purim, or to make hamantaschen in your own kitchen? We’ll cover the story behind the holiday, and the reasons for the cookie’s shape and filling. We’ll also share the helpful advice we’ve found to ensure your hamantaschen look and taste delicious.
The Jewish Holiday of Purim
The story of Purim comes from the Book of Esther in the Old Testament. The setting is ancient Persia, where the king chooses Esther to be his new queen (after executing the first one). Haman is named prime minister. Mordechai is Esther’s cousin and leader of the Jews in Persia. Mordechai refuses to bow to Haman, and Haman retaliates by convincing the king to kill all the Jews. Esther reveals to the king that she is a Jew. In response, the king kills Haman, appoints Mordechai as prime minister, and revokes the decree ordering the destruction of the Jews.
Of course, this is a highly simplified version of the story of Purim. Ultimately, Purim celebrates the triumph of good over evil, and the timing coincides with the date on which the Persian Jews rested after vanquishing their enemies -- the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar. On the Gregorian calendar -- the one most frequently used now -- this date occurs sometime in the late winter or early spring. Purim is a joyful, raucous celebration involving costumes, dancing, and feasting, beginning the night before and extending through the next day.
The History of Hamantaschen
Hamantaschen are chock full of symbolism, from the shape of the cookie, to the filling and the name itself. We’ll do our best to unpack the most compelling explanations of the origin of hamantaschen.
The simplest explanation for the shape of this cookie is that it resembles Haman’s hat, which had three corners. It is also thought that the three corners of hamantaschen might represent the three fathers of Judaism: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This explanation leads to an analysis of the name “hamantaschen.”
“Haman” seems likely to refer to Haman himself. “Tash” means weaken in Hebrew, so the name could imply the weakening of Haman by the three fathers of Judaism. On the other hand, “tash” means pocket in Yiddish, and “haman” could refer either to Haman or to “mohn”, which has a similar pronunciation and means “poppy seeds.” This explanation correlates to the traditional poppy seed filling in hamantaschen, which do indeed resemble pockets. If you care to unravel more of the symbolism behind hamantaschen, you’ll be fascinated by the details on Chabad.org. The interconnectedness of Jewish food and history is fun to explore, and it helps gentiles better understand the associated traditions and restrictions.
Tips and Tricks For Making Hamantaschen
But if a cookie is simply a cookie to you, and you’re ready for a new baking challenge, we’ve got some helpful hints for making hamantaschen. They aren’t as easy as they look!
Hamantaschen dough recipes fall into one of two camps: Oil (or shortening), or butter. If you use oil, your hamantaschen will be pareve (as long as all of your other ingredients are pareve). The downside of using oil is the effect on your dough’s texture and flavor. Oil-based doughs can get crumbly, and you’ll miss the flavor of butter.
When rolling your dough, add as little flour as you can. Bon Appetit recommends letting the dough come to room temperature so you can roll it without the dough cracking. It should also be pliable enough to fold without cracking. To help roll smoothly without sticking, Reform Judaism suggests using a silicone baking mat. Food historian Tori Avey recommends rolling your dough at least 1/8-inch thin. She explains that thicker dough is more difficult to fold, and it’s also more likely the folds and seams will burst open while your cookies are baking.
Hamantaschen fillings can include a traditional poppy seed or prune paste, various fruit jams, cream cheese, and even cocoa-based spreads like Nutella. But if you are using a pareve dough, choose a pareve filling. Your filling should be thick enough to keep from dribbling out the seams of your hamantaschen, but not so thick that it’s dry. Hamantaschen dough is unfortunately known for being on the dry side; you’ll want to be sure your filling adds some moisture.
Reform Judaism recommends oven-safe jams or chocolate spreads. Bon Appetit suggests adding vanilla and sugar to poppy seeds to offset any bitterness. For some gourmet filling ideas that are sure to please, check out this wide variety of recipes from Tori Avey.
Cut and Assemble
Finished hamantaschen are shaped like triangles, but you start with dough circles. Tori Avey recommends a minimum diameter of three inches in order to fully contain the filling. Speaking of filling, Tori also recommends using a single teaspoon per cookie. If you overfill them, the seams will burst and filling will leak. Bon Appetit calls for slightly more filling, but their recipe also makes somewhat larger hamantaschen.
But before you add the filling, brush each dough circle with egg wash. This step helps ensure your folds and seams will stick together. After placing a dollop of filling in the middle of each cookie, fold the edges into a triangle. These step-by-step photographs from Tori Avey make it simple. Then brush the outside with egg wash to seal those seams. We like how Reform Judaism recommends an assembly line approach: cut all the circles, brush them all with egg wash, add filling to each one, fold all the cookies, and then brush them all with egg wash once more before baking.
Bake and Cool
Bake your hamantaschen as you normally would bake shortbread cookies, whether that’s on a silicone mat, parchment paper, or directly on the pan. The first two options are especially helpful in the event that your filling leaks. Look for the bottom edges of your cookies to brown before removing them from the oven. Let them cool on the pan for a few minutes before transferring them to a cooling rack. The filling may be quite hot, so allow it plenty of time to cool before sampling your hamantaschen.