Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Queen Esther

Spring, schming. Today was an absolutely raw, filthy day out there, a mixture of rain and sleet and snow, with the odd bit of hail thrown in for fun. With no umbrella and a not-warm-enough coat, I squished home from the subway in a thoroughly cranky mood. You know how you always check the packages on the mail table in the lobby, even when you’re not expecting anything, because hey, who knows? And today of all days, a box was waiting for me, a completely unexpected gift from my old pals Shifra and Stephen. Inside, with the kettle on and my sopping wet coat off, the box turned out to be a trove of Purim goodies, from those little crankable noisemakers to a plate of hamentaschen, dried apricots, pistachios, chocolates, and biscotti, plus a kitty-cat mask and a sheet of really bad jokes.

Purim is kind of a cross between halloween and carnival, celebrating the triumph of the Jewish Queen of Persia, Esther, over Haman, who was a very nasty piece of work. Every synagogue has a Purim carnival (spin art! throw the beanbag in Haman's mouth! goldfish raffles!), and during the reading of the Megillah, or the Book of Esther, noisemakers are cranked up at every mention of Haman's name, and there are costumes, masks, plays, and lots of general party action. In the Megillah, there's actually an injunction “to send gifts [manot] to one another,” especially food. And of course, the best Purim treat of all are hamantaschen, or Haman’s hats: triangular-shaped cookies with an apricot, prune, or poppyseed filling.

Unfortunately, most bakery hamentaschen are pretty sucky, using a thin, bland sugar-cookie dough and the barest scrape of rubbery fruit. My mother, however, used to make these cookies herself when my sisters and I were little, and hers were rich and lemony, with fat spoonfuls of real lekvar in the middles. Where regular jam would turn runny, leak, and burn during the baking process, the almost solid lekvars--made from poached and pureed dried fruit--stay put. Canned lekvars can be found in the kosher section of most supermarkets, but they're usually filled with preservatives and junky sweeteners. Luckily, homemade lekvars are delectable and easy to make, and the leftovers can be used like jam. For the best apricot filling, it's worth browsing around in a Middle Eastern grocery store to find cellophane-wrapped sheets of apricot paste, which resemble inch-thick rectangles of fruit leather.

So many thanks to Shifra and Stephen for brightening up a gloomy day, and this recipe is my manot to you.


2 sticks (1 cup) margarine or butter, or a mixture of the two
1 1/4 cups sugar
3 eggs
1/4 cup orange juice
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp grated lemon rind
4 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 1/2 tsp baking powder

Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs. Stir in OJ, vanilla, and rind. Fold in flour, baking powder, and salt. Divide into 3 disks. Wrap each disk tightly in plastic wrap and chill for several hours. (Otherwise dough will be too sticky to handle). Roll out each disk into a round approximately1/8 inch thick. Cut into 3 inch rounds and transfer rounds onto a parchment-covered baking sheet. Drop a teaspoon of filling onto the center of each round and fold sides into a triangle around filling. Bake at 350 degrees for 18-25 minutes, or until pale golden.

This recipe makes a lot, but if you don’t feel like baking a whole bunch of cookies at once, the dough and fillings can be kept in the fridge for up to two weeks, letting you bake off a small batch whenever you want.

It’s important to put the dough rounds onto the cookie sheet before filling; once filled, the cookies are rather fragile and tend to stick to the counter and tear, leaking filling, when you try to wedge a spatula under them to transfer. You’ll save yourself much heartache and gnashing of teeth by filling them directly on the sheet.

Apricot Filling

1 lb apricot paste
3/4 cup water
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup orange juice
2 TB orange zest
1 1/2 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup sugar

Tear apricot paste into small pieces. Mix all ingredients in saucepan. Toss and stir over low heat 10-15 minutes until softened and getting mushy. Let cool 5 minutes. Process to a puree. Taste and add sugar as necessary. This makes a lot!

Prune Filling

3/4 cup water or OJ
1/3 cup lemon juice
2 cups pitted prunes
1 cup raisins
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. cinnamon

Mix all ingredients and stir over low heat until prunes are soft and plump. Keep under a boil, and watch that it doesn’t burn or stick to the pan. Cool 5 minutes, then puree. Taste for sugar and chill.

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