מאי המנתשן / Why hamantaschen?
March 20, 2008
Despite the lovely savory hamentaschen recipe posted recently at the Jew and the Carrot, I decided to go oldschool and to make good old-fashioned sweet hamentaschen to bring to my shul for our Purimspiel tonight. But Ethan asked me a fine question while I was baking: what's the story with hamentaschen?
As a kid I learned that Haman (boo!) wore a tricornered hat. These tricornered cookies are called "hamantaschen" which means "Haman's Hat" (actually Haman's Pocket, but close enough) and we eat them as a sign of our triumph over Haman. In adulthood it's become clear to me that this is an anachronism (among other things, tricornered hat? in ancient Shushan? really?) but it's still an entertaining drash, mostly because it allows me to picture Haman as a kind of arrogant little Napoleon.
D'var acher / another interpretation: "mohn" means poppyseeds, and (as this article notes) it was customary to eat poppyseeds and honey at Purim-time all the way back in ibn Ezra's day. These cookies were originally called mohn-taschen, "poppyseed pockets." And then someone noticed that ha-mohn and ha-man sound alike, and started associating poppyseed sweets with our story's villain. (According to this article, poppyseeds were the tradition in Central Europe; the custom of filling the cookies with plum or prune filling is Czech in origin.)
Some argue that hamantaschen are significant, and symbolic, because when they are pinched tight they conceal their tasty fillings. Hiding is something of a theme in the megillah of Esther. Just as Esther hides her true identity, and God's presence is hidden throughout the text, so hamantaschen hide their fillings from view. (My own hamentaschen tend to be kind of exhibitionist, so this explanation doesn't work too well in my house.)
If you're interested in tracing the history of hamantaschen through classical Jewish source texts, there's a great post here
at Seforim blog. Eliezer Brodt cites sixteenth-century Italian Jewish
plays, Renaissance liturgical parodies, and nineteenth-century
Lithuanian memoirs in his exploration of hamantaschen's origins. If you're into the comparative-religions view, you might dig Naomi Chana's
2004 post which
the clear link between Mordechai and Marduk, Esther and Ishtar -- which leads me to wonder whether these notably yonic cookies were originally
cakes for the Queen of
Heaven, like the ones Jeremiah denounces in chapter 7, verse
18 of the book which bears his name.
(While I'm at it, in the spirit of Purim Torah, don't miss Seth Brown's exploration of the three-pointed throwing stars that truly saved the day back in the reign of King Achashverosh: Purim Origins Revealed.)
Enough theory; on to the baking! My recipe includes the zest of an orange, which makes me think of the Sefardic pastry orejas de Aman (in Hebrew, oznei Haman), "Haman's
Ears," which -- according to Cucina Ebraica -- are twists of pastry dough flavored with orange rind and
deep-fried. Though this Ladino
page defines oznei Aman as "una forma de biskochos
en forma de triangolo," and googling the name brings me to this
hamantaschen recipe, both of which suggest that the Ladino name today generally means, well, hamantaschen. (Man: next year, I want to try dulce
de leche as a filling. I might also have to attempt naan-e berenji, rice flour poppyseed cookies from Iran, the part of the world where our tale takes place...)
Making hamentaschen is like making dumplings. If the corners don't seal properly, they lose structural integrity in the cooking; in my first batch today two cookies came entirely apart, turning into discs of dough with filling on top. (I had to eat them. It was tragic, really.) So if you make them, pinch the corners firmly! Whatever they mean, and wherever they come from, they're yummy. B'teavon / bon appetit!
4 c. flour
3 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 c. sugar
1/4 c. orange juice
2/3 c. cooking oil
grated rind of 1 orange
Sift the dry ingredients (including sugar) into a bowl. Beat the eggs, oil, juice, and rind and stir into the dry ingredients. Knead dough lightly until smooth. Roll dough to 1/8" thickness and cut into rounds (I use a biscuit cutter; you could also use a drinking glass.) Put a spoonfull of filling* in the center of each round. Fold edges inward and pinch at the corners /_\ to form a triangle.
*For filling, you can use jam, canned pie filling (apricot and plum/prune are classics, though cherry would probably work well too), nutella...whatever sounds good!
Bake on a greased baking sheet at 375 degrees for 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Makes about 4 dozen. Enjoy!
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