Tomorrow evening, Jews in America, Israel and around the globe will celebrate Purim, a holiday known for costumes, carnivals and noisemakers. Even rabbis and synagogue presidents dress up for a playful re-telling of the holiday story during Purim spoofs called spiels. With all the fun of the holiday, it’s also important to remember Purim’s more serious underlying themes of persecution and survival in the face of the planned genocide of ancient Persia’s Jews. Based on events over 2,000 years ago, these themes resonate throughout the centuries and in today’s world as well. By speaking up and speaking out, justice will triumph over evil.
At the center of the Purim story is the powerful and wealthy King Achashverosh, his brave new bride Queen Esther, her wise uncle Mordecai and the villain of the story, Haman, the king’s advisor who was determined to rid the land of the Jewish “outsiders.” As queen, Esther conceals her Jewishness in order to work with Mordecai to help save their people. All of the evil plans, court intrigues, power shifts and the eventual triumph of good over evil are recorded in the Scroll of Esther or the megillah, which is read aloud as the holiday begins each year. Tradition demands that each time the name of Haman is uttered, it is drowned out by noisemakers and yells so that no one has to hear the name of this evil man.
One of Purim’s special traditions is the sharing of hamantashen and other gifts of food with friends while it is also traditional to give gifts to the poor, particularly donations of money that recall the price put on the head of every Jew in Esther’s Persia. We are taught to give generously on Purim. One never knows what tomorrow will bring.
As for hamantaschen, special treats associated with the holiday, folklore says the three-cornered shape of these filled pastries represents the shape of Haman’s hat. However, the word taschen meant “pockets” in old German—as in Haman lining his pockets with the King’s riches—while mohn is the poppy seed paste that is the most traditional filling for the pastries. Some people say they were originally called “mohntaschen” but eventually the name became haman-taschen for obvious reasons. And why poppy seed? It recalls the clandestine way Esther was able to maintain her Jewish identity and keep kosher in the palace by eating vegetarian including seeds and nuts.
Here are two hamantaschen recipes, one an easy take on the classic Ashkenazic (Eastern European) hamantaschen and the other a three-cornered savory treat from Sephardic cuisine. The recipes are provided by Susan Barocas, who most recently led the launch of the Jewish Food Experience project in Washington, DC.
This recipe makes a non-diary, crispy pastry that is good with a variety of fillings. The oranges juice and zest add extra flavor. The dough also makes a good cookie including thumb print that can be filled as desired.
5-5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour*
3 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 cup orange juice or water
- 2 teaspoon grated orange rind
Fillings of choice including poppy seed (mohn in Yiddish), prune butter (lekvar), hazelnut chocolate spread, lemon curd, thick fruit preserve, crumbled halvah
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease baking sheet or cover with parchment paper. Add flour and baking power to a bowl and blend with a dry whisk. Use the whisk to beat the eggs in separate larger bowl. Add oil, sugar, vanilla and orange juice or water and beat until well blended and creamy. Mix in grated rind. Add flour mixture to the wet ingredients gradually, mixing in completely each time with a wooden spoon. Once the dough can be formed into a ball not too sticky to handle, knead it together until smooth.
All of the steps up to this point can also be done in a food processor fit with steel blades. Blend the wet ingredients, then add the flour gradually until a ball forms and continue to roll, fill and fold.
Once the dough is in a smooth ball, pull off a large piece and roll to ¼ inch thick on a lightly floured board or counter. Cut into 3 to 3 1/2-inch rounds; the top of a glass works quite well. Place about 1 teaspoon of filling of choice in the center of each round. Moisten around the edge of the dough circle, then fold into a triangle, pinching each corner closed and leaving some filling showing. Bake 20 to 25 minutes just until starting to barely golden brown. Yield: about 3 dozen
*To add some whole grain, you can trade out up to half the all-purpose flour for white whole wheat flour.
Spinach and Cheese Burekas
The three-cornered filled pastry burekas are perfect for Purim. Sold in bakeries and roadside stands in Turkey, Israel and around the Middle East as “fast food,” burekas are perfect to prepare ahead, quick to heat up, nutritious and easy to eat on the go.
2 10-ounce packages frozen chopped spinach, completely defrosted
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
1/4 cup shredded kashkaval or white cheddar cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/8 teaspoon ground pepper or to taste
Dash of nutmeg (optional)
1 package filo dough, defrosted
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
- Sesame seeds (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease baking sheet or cover with parchment paper. Place the defrosted spinach in a strainer and press out as much water as possible with the back of a large spoon or squeezing with clean hands. Set aside the “dry” spinach. In a mixing bowl, place the crumbled feta cheese, Parmesan, eggs, salt, pepper and, if desired, nutmeg. Blend well. Add the spinach and mix until thoroughly blended.
Open package of filo and carefully unroll the dough. Cut stacked sheets of filo the long way into 3-inch wide strips. (A pizza cutter works great for this step.) Keep the dough soft and pliable until it’s ready to be used by wrapping in plastic wrap or aluminum foil or by covering with a very slightly damp cotton towel.
Very lightly brush the top of a filo strip with melted butter. Place about 1 teaspoon of the filling in a corner. Pull apart the corners of the top 2 or 3 filo strips by the corner with the filling and fold it over so the corner crosses diagonally to the opposite edge and covers the filling. Then fold up to square off the corner again and fold a third time diagonally the opposite direction, then square off. Continue folding this way to the end of the strip. (Folding a bureka is exactly like folding a flag.) When folded to the end, brush the edge of the dough with butter and wrap it around the triangle bureka to close it. Butter is like glue to filo dough!
Brush the outside of each triangle very lightly with melted butter. If desired, sprinkle with sesame seeds. Place on the prepared baking sheet and bake 15 to 20 minutes until golden. Baked burekas can be refrigerated or frozen, then reheated as needed. To reheat, place defrosted burekas on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven until heated through, 10 minutes if defrosted or 20-25 minutes if frozen. Yield: about 24 3-inch burekas
Matt Nosanchuk is an Associate Director in the White House Office of Public Engagement.