Purim: A Celebration for All
by Zehorit Heilicher, Tastemaker in Residence
A popular Jewish saying claims that most Jewish holidays can be described in one sentence: “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!” The upcoming holiday of Purim definitely fits in this category. The holiday celebrates the story of Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai: a tale of court intrigue and drama, cruelty and compassion. Esther was a Jewish girl, slated for the Persian king’s Harem, who ended up becoming his queen. In her royal role, assisted by her uncle, she foiled the plans of Haman, the king’s advisor, to humiliate the Jews and to commit genocide.
The story is told in “Megilat Esther” – the Scroll of Esther, read in synagogues throughout the Jewish world during the month of Adar, which occurs during the early spring. Over centuries, the Jewish communities around the world have celebrated the courage of a young woman and the rescue of the Persian Jewish community with festive meals and costumed parties. It is a rather raucous and fun time: kids and adults dress up in costumes and attend the reading of the scroll in synagogues. If you are aware of the phrase “The whole megilah” – this is the origin of the saying: reading the whole megilah – the whole scroll. Each time Haman’s name is called during this reading, congregants shake noisemakers, called groggers, masking his name and creating lots of noise.
In Israel, the holiday boasts parades, as well as costume and food competitions. Traditionally, costumes focused on characters from the Purim story. However, as you can see below, the joyful nature of the holiday expanded to include clowns, fairy tales, movie & Disney characters and much more.
No Jewish holiday is complete without its unique food. Purim is no exception, featuring Hamantaschens (in Yiddish), also called Ozney Haman (in Hebrew). These are triangle shaped cookies, filled with an assortment of fillings, such as poppy seed, apricot and my two personal favorites: date and chocolate. The shape of the cookies is said to resemble Haman’s hat in an act of defiance, after all we are EATING his hat… These cookies end up in an exchange of goodies referred to as Mishloah Manot – the gifting of meals: a Purim tradition of sending goodies to loved ones and neighbors.
My kids were never fans of fruit fillings, so chocolate became the favorite filling in our house. Shocker, I know. One of my favorite memories of Purim is of my son Ethan and two of his non-Jewish high school friends, Aaron and Erica, toiling at my kitchen counter at rolling dough, filling circles and learning how to crimp the corners. Our conversation naturally revolved around the nature of faith, the practice of religion and the power of rituals. We exchanged stories, perspectives and learned a lot about each other. Those were good times!
For your own taste of Purim find a recipe for chocolate filled Hamantaschens here.
Adapted from: “Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking" Marcy Goldman
Makes about 40 cookies
1/4 cup vegetable shortening
3/4 cup unsalted margarine, or butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup vanilla soy milk, or milk
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 jar chocolate hazelnut spread, (such as Nutella)
1 large egg white, beaten
1/2-cup coarse sugar, optional
1/2 cup chocolate sprinkles, optional
1. Dough: In a large bowl cream together the shortening, the butter or margarine, and sugar. Add the eggs and blend until smooth. Add the soy milk or milk and the vanilla. (If the mixture seems curdled, add a bit of flour to bind it).
2. Fold in the dry ingredients. Mix to make a firm but soft dough. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead lightly to form a large, smooth ball. Divide the dough in half, wrap each piece in plastic, chill for 10-20 minutes. Preheat oven to 350F and line baking sheets with parchment paper.
3. Roll out one piece of dough on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of 1/4 inch. Cut 3.5" rounds with a cookie cutter and brush the rounds with the beaten egg white. Fill each round with a generous teaspoonful of chocolate hazelnut Spread or another filling (apricot or cherry work well). Fold in the edges of the circle to form a triangle of pastry encasing the filling. Brush the pastry again with the beaten egg white and, if desired, sprinkle with the sugar or chocolate sprinkles. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.
4. Bake until golden Brown (18-22 minutes). If you prefer, this dough can be made ahead and refrigerated up to 2 days or frozen for a couple of months. Allow the dough to warm up before rolling it out.