I overcame my lazy rolled-cookie reluctance to make these lovely jewels of soft filled shortbread, which I had been craving since I left New York City many years ago. In the process I discovered two things: 1) that rolled cookies are easier than I always think, and 2) even chinese grandma can make a darned good Jewish cookie.
I first discovered hamantaschen at the Hungarian Pastry Shop in upper Manhattan. Fresh from California and friendless, I sought out comfort in one place I could count on: a bakery.
This bakery wasn’t like any I’d been to in the suburbs of California – dark and cramped, with a fluorescent-lit array of rich Eastern European pastries: flaky pastry dough in various forms, filled and layered, custard and cream, raspberry jam and rich chocolate. I scanned the glass-covered case for something simpler, humbler and (as frugal chinese grandma and income-less college student) cheaper – and found the plump and modest hamantaschen off to the side. Were they sweet? Were they dry? What was hidden in that mysterious center?
Not knowing the protocol for sitting at the few crowded tables, I took the cookie in a small brown bag back to my empty dorm room. The trip to the bakery had been intimidating – the choking humidity and heat-heightened city smells, the imploring homeless people, the clamor of rushing traffic and sirens, the brusquely impatient women behind the bakery counter – but back in the quiet of my bare room I found comfort in the crisp, moist cookie and sweet, tangy apricot core.
One of my best childhood friends is Jewish, but I soon discovered that Jewish in northern California is not very Jewish by New York standards. Better preparation for me was Sydney Taylor’s wonderful All-of-a-Kind Family series of books that I had adored as a child, from which I learned about Jewish holidays and traditions in turn-of-the-century New York City.
For all I knew at the bakery, hamantaschen were a Hungarian specialty, but I learned later that though they are available year round in New York, hamantaschen are a seasonal treat for the Jewish holiday of Purim, which generally falls between late February and late March (this year it starts March 20). Haman is the villain of the Purim story, and the cookie’s name – often called Haman’s hat or Haman’s ears – is likely derived from mohntaschen, meaning poppy seed pocket in German (similar in Yiddish). The traditional fillings are poppy seed or prune, but these days flavors run the gamut from fruity to nutty to chocolate. There are some traditionalists who argue for a yeast-based dough, but most of the recipes and commercial hamantaschen I’ve seen have more of a cookie dough base.
This recipe is from Marcy Goldman, who wrote the book on Jewish holiday baking, A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking. I almost never make rolled cookies, and these turned out perfectly the first time, a hallmark of a well-tested recipe. My only minor quibble is that given the sweet filling, the cookie dough itself could get by with less sugar. But sugar adds moistness as well as sweetness to baked goods, so less of it in the dough might also make for a dry cookie. The cookie as is has a wonderfully soft texture, even days later, so I’m sure Goldman knows exactly what she’s doing.
Start with butter and sugar. Goldman uses half shortening, half butter in her recipe. I used all butter, partly to avoid hydrogenated oils but mostly for taste. Some hamantaschen recipes call for margarine or oil in order to keep the cookie pareve (non-dairy, non-meat) for dietary reasons. I think pareve margarine or a mix of margarine and shortening would work well here; though I have seen recipes with oil, I’m not sure if an oil-based dough would be too soft to work with easily. Let me know if you try a pareve version; I’m curious.
Add milk (or orange juice for pareve or taste preferences) and vanilla. Those who like a citrus flavor in their hamantaschen could also add some orange or lemon zest in the dough.
Mix dry ingredients.
And add in batches to wet ingredients.
Mix well. Or take a break while your helper breathes in some vanilla.
If you are mixing by hand or with a hand mixer, the dough may get too thick to stir. You can use your hands to work in the rest of the flour.
Separate dough roughly into thirds and flatten into round disks. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate briefly to make rolling easier.
On a well-floured surface, roll out one disk of dough to about 1/8-inch. Roll it thinner if you like your hamantaschen delicate or a bit thicker if you like them sturdy. We used a wide-mouthed Bonne Maman jam jar to cut the cookies. The dough scraps can be rerolled once and cut again. After that I hand-formed the leftover scraps into simple circles with a little lip on the outside to hold the jam (we can’t let good food go to waste in a chinese grandma kitchen).
I used my favorite thick, fruity preserves for the filling. I hear Nutella is really good too, but I’m sentimentally attached to my apricot classic.
My kids loved the idea of starting with a round to make a triangle cookie. Brush each round with egg wash (this will keep the triangle seams together) and put a teaspoonful of filling in the center.
Thinking of the circle as a clock face, pinch corners at 12, 4 and 8, folding up the dough between the corners to form a triangle. Some people favor overlapping the folds rather than pinching the edges, but pinching worked better for me.
Goldman’s recipe recommends baking on parchment paper, probably because jam can leak out during baking. My enthusiastic helpers were creative in their hamantaschen shaping, so we definitely had jam leakage in the first batch.
We had fewer cooks in the kitchen for the second batch, so the cookies were more uniformly shaped (and less leaky). We used some black cherry preserves for variety this time around, mostly in our scrap-dough cookies. I don’t have a picture of the second round after baking because it got too dark (flash pictures with my little camera are terrible, especially next to natural light photos). But you can see the improvement in the unbaked cookies.
Let cool a bit before eating – the jam center really retains heat. A couple of my helpers burned their little tongues.
Hamantaschen (or as my four-year-old calls them, “huffinpuffin”) are just as comforting to me now as they were in grim pre-Giuliani Gotham. There’s no friend like an old friend.
I just might surprise my Jewish friends with homemade hamantaschen for Purim this year. Suddenly I’m really feeling the holiday spirit.
Soft shortbread folded in a triangle over a sweet filling, these cookies are traditionally made for the Jewish holiday of Purim. Adapted from Marcy Goldman’s “Almost-Like-a-Bakery Traditional Hamantaschen,” Washington Post, 1996. I believe the recipe is also in Goldman’s book, A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking.
- 2 sticks butter, softened at room temperature, or shortening/margarine for pareve
- 1 1/4 cups sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1/4 cup orange juice or milk
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- About 4 1/2 cups unbleached flour, plus more for rolling dough
- 1 egg, beaten (for egg wash)
- 20 oz (2 1/2 cups) filling of your choice: traditional options include poppy (available canned, eg Solo brand) and prune; also common are apricot (Bonne Maman and Hero preserves both work well) and raspberry; you can also try Nutella or other high-quality preserves
- In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar. Add eggs and mix well.
- Stir in orange juice or milk and vanilla.
- In a medium bowl, mix salt, baking powder and flour. Add in batches to wet ingredients, mixing well after each addition. If dough becomes too hard to mix, use hands and knead gently to work in flour until dough holds together in a firm mass that is smooth and not sticky. Add additional flour if necessary, but in small amounts as too much flour will make the dough tough.
- Divide dough roughly into thirds. Flatten each third into a disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 10 minutes to an hour to facilitate easier rolling.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F, placing a rack in the upper third of the oven. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper to catch leaky jam during baking.
- On a well-floured surface, roll out one disk of dough at a time to a thickness of 1/8 inch. Cut into 3-inch rounds (using a cookie cutter, biscuit cutter or wide-mouthed glass jar) and brush with egg wash. Scraps can be rerolled once, and leftover dough can be hand formed into plain shortbread cookies.
- Place a generous teaspoonful of desired filling in the center of each round. Thinking of the round as a clock, pinch corners at 12, 4 and 8 on the clock face, pulling the dough up to form a triangle. Pinch the edges together to form a slanting wall/roof of dough over the filling, but leave some filling exposed in the center.
- Bake until golden brown, about 18 to 25 minutes.
Makes approximately 48 cookies (depending on how thick or thin you roll the dough).
- To make a pareve version, try pareve margarine or half margarine and half shortening.
- Hamantashen do not spread much during cooking, so you can pack them fairly tightly on the cookie sheet.
- The egg wash is key for keeping the edges of the cookie from separating during baking. You can also use egg wash on the folded cookie (add two teaspoons of milk to give it a less shiny effect), as Goldman does in her recipe, but the hamantaschen I remember from New York were unglazed.
- Add a teaspoon of orange or lemon zest if you like citrus in your hamantaschen.
Here’s the link to a printable version.
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