All human history attests
That happiness for man,—the hungry sinner!—
Since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner.
-- Lord Byron, Don Juan. Canto xiii. Stanza 99
It has been many years since I’ve had proper hamentaschen, which to me means my grandmother Lillian’s hamentaschen. This is only in part my own fault: The last time I tried to make her recipe, my aging gas oven gasped its last just as I heated it up to bake the goods. That event precipitated three months of eating sandwiches and microwave foods from a makeshift setup in the dining room and $60,000 in renovations. Not unexpectedly (if somewhat illogically), I was a leery of trying that recipe again.
Over the next few years, I tried other recipes. I’d purchased a book of Jewish holiday crafts, stories and recipes, and naturally my daughter Talia wanted to make those recipes, rather than the one scribbled on an index card. Since part of the purpose of the book had been to engage us both with the traditions and the (now fabulous) kitchen, I could hardly say no.
But these weren’t my recipes, or my tastes. We tried the butter version – too like a shortbread. We tried the oil version – I couldn’t get the dough to stick properly. We filled with pie filling – the lazy-mom’s version… feh! We filled with chocolate chips – Talia was delighted, but the texture was all wrong. The ideal, to my mouth, was cakey rather than crispy, and filled with a savory mixture of golden raisins, prunes, apricots and… something.
Hamentaschen, for those who are not familiar with this gift to the world, are filled cookies baked for Purim, an early spring holiday celebrating Queen Esther’s courage in speaking up for her people. Bad guy Hamen (for whose triangular hat the cookies are shaped) takes the death sentence he planned to mete out to the Jews. And in commemoration of this noble victory, Jews forevermore stave off constipation with the prune-filled sweets.
There are as many versions of the cookie as there are Jewish kitchens. The matrix of options is almost mind-boggling: The cookie can be milchig (made with dairy) or parve (suitable for either meat or milk). The filling can be tangy, sweet or super-sweet. An endless array of options for tasting and testing. (As long as the oven doesn’t let you down.)
The last butter version was a disappointment. For the cookies to be shaped around the filling, the dough needs to be chilled to stiff-but-workable. I couldn’t get the ratios right, and the dough either melted in my fingers or crumbled into sweet dust.
My cousin Malcom’s wife Kara came to my rescue when I announced in a Facebook status update that only an extra stick of butter seemed to save the day. ‘They can’t be Lillian’s, then, because hers were parve and they were perfection.’
She was right. Lillian’s were perfection. Why was I looking somewhere else when I already had what I craved?
So. Grandma Lillian’s hamentaschen. Know that Grandma Lillian was a wretched cook – her baked steak was legendary for its jaw-strengthening properties. Her percolated coffee, re-perked throughout the day, could hold a teaspoon upright. Her salads featured a bright arrangement of fruit (both fresh and tinned), boiled eggs, radishes and greens of uncertain provenance. But the hamentaschen were, as Kara reminded me, perfection.
A Friday evening I prepared the dough and chilled it. On Saturday morning Kara and Malcom’s daughter Tsaudik (only a few days younger than Talia) came over to play. At mid-day I convinced both girls (pictured above) to help me assemble, squeezing little triangles together.
The oven worked. The aroma was just as I recalled. The great-granddaughters paid little attention to the whole process, more interested in creating outfits for the cats (and trying to catch one) than creating with me. That was fine. More than fine. It was perfection.
Grandma Lillian’s Hamentaschen:
Keep in mind this makes approximately 300 cookies. I usually make half the recipe, but this is the unaltered version:
6 eggs (5 makes crisper)
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups oil, (Lillian used Wessen)
2 oranges--juice and zest
1/4 tsp salt
5 tsp baking powder
6-7 cups flour
-mix all until barely dry, (adding flour as you go)
-chill overnight to make it stiff and workable
-roll out on a floured surface, (not too thick, thin is better)
-add about 1/2 tsp filling and form into triangles.
Filling: Grind up packages of prunes, white raisins, dark raisins, apricots. Lillian added a small jar of apricot jam, juice and zest of one lemon.
Bake at 375 for 10-16 min.
Robin Neidorf lives, writes and cooks in Minneapolis. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars, where she wrote a memoir about her grandmother Lillian for her thesis. Current projects include essays on being a community volunteer and notes towards a book about preparing for an interfaith-friendly Bat Mitzvah.
(this post originally appeared on April 2, 2010)