Hamantaschen, poppy seed filled shortcrust biscuits are traditional Jewish cookies served at Purim. The name means ‘Haman’s pockets’ and there is a story behind it…
I came across numerous Jewish recipes during my search for poppy seed filled bakes which I desperately wanted to make last Christmas. Hamantaschen appeared again and again so I made a note to explore those rather lovely looking triangular cookies.
What is the history behind hamantaschen?
They are traditionally eaten at Purim, the Jewish holiday commemorating the defeat of evil vizier Haman in ancient Persia, who planned on killing all the Jews in the Persian Empire.
His plans came to naught thanks to the hero Mordecai helped by the Queen Esther. Haman hung from the gallows, having allegedly had his ears cut off first.
And there we have it: Haman’s Ears, or oznei Haman, later mispronounced to Hamantaschen as it sounds quite like the German description of the cookies: Mohntaschen - poppy pockets.
‘Haman’s ears’ also make me think of little Polish dumplings called uszka: ‘little ears’. Served with borscht soup, they are most traditionally filled with meat but also with vegetarian mixture of cabbage and mushrooms.
Since there is a lot of Ashkenazy Jewish influence in Polish cooking traditions, I can’t help thinking those ‘ears’ might be related. Especially that there is another Jewish dish eaten at Purim called kreplach, meat-filled dumplings eaten in bowls of soup.
Seems there must have been a lot of ears and some confusion in the Yiddish – Polish food history…
What are hamantaschen cookies?
They are delightful, triangular shortcrust biscuits wrapping a filling of – most classically – sweetened cooked poppy seeds.
These days though the filling can be varied. There is marzipan in my recipe below which is not strictly traditional but rather adorable.
Other fillings include minced dried apricots, thick fruit preserve and pastry cream.
Poppy seed filling
It is unusual to encounter pastry filled with poppy seeds in the UK.
In Eastern Europe, Germany and Austria you can but ready-made tins of prepared poppy seed filling, complete with raisins, spices and citrus peel. Here, I have to make it from scratch.
Poppy seeds need to be ground to almost a powder, in order to make smooth filling. It is best done in a coffee grinder or a spice mill.
The poppy powder is then cooked with milk and sugar and whatever spices seem lovely with it. It’s ready when all the liquid is absorbed and the mixture has thickened almost to the consistency of a paste, which takes about twenty minutes.
You can add raisins to the mixture, and/or chopped citrus peel.
Making the pastry
It is an excellent recipe for shortcrust, which starts with egg yolks and sugar rather than dry ingredients, to which softened butter is beaten in, followed by flour – all can be made in a standing mixer or food processor.
The dough needs to relax in the fridge, naturally, and it can happily be mixed the day before.
Make sure you remove it from the fridge about half an hour before rolling it out, to make the job easier.
And then it’s all fun: cutting out circles, placing portions of filling in the middle, then folding the edges over the filling from three sides, to shape a triangle.
Brushing the edges with egg wash is necessary to make the hamantaschen burnished and glossy when they emerge from the oven after fifteen or so minutes’ bake.
Let them cool down before tasting, though the temptation will be overwhelming.
More Jewish recipes
Kubaneh is Yemeni Jewish bread which tastes almost like croissants and is a tonne easier and more fun to make. Jewish breads are usually excellent but kubaneh, traditionally baked slowly overnight by Yemenite Jews, is outstanding.
Cinnamon and raisin buns rolled up from challah dough are not too sweet and perfect for breakfast. Assemble, freeze and get in the oven the night before for a breakfast treat!
Chocolate babka, a yeasty rich tea bread with chocolate and nut filling. The babka is rolled and twisted so that there are many chocolate layers inside.
More poppy seed recipes
Mohnstollen is a stollen log with poppy seeds, traditionally baked in Germany, Poland (makowiec) and Austria for Christmas. Brioche-like Stollen dough is filled with sweet and spiced poppy seeds and rolled into a log.
Buttery, dense with poppy seeds softened in milk, in the comforting Bundt shape - what's more homely than a traditional poppy seed cake?
Blueberry poppy cake which is not a blueberry pie or blueberry tart but has a poppy seed sponge base. Easier to make than a blueberry pie, this blueberry poppy cake is delicious warm or cold.