Purim is arguably the most festive holiday of the Jewish year. There are many traditional elements to the holiday — we celebrate salvation from Haman’s plot to eradicate the Jews with costumes, graggers, gift baskets known as mishloach manot and, of course, hamantaschen.
But how did this oddly shaped cookie become a staple of the holiday? Did someone centuries ago really decide that eating the bad guy’s hat was a good way to celebrate?
According to Chabad.org, there are a number of reasons that we eat hamantaschen on this holiday. For one, the name Haman sounds similar to the Yiddish word “mohn,” which means poppy seeds. “Tash” means pocket in Yiddish. Hamantaschen directly translates to poppy-seed-filled pockets. This is why poppy seeds are a traditional filling for the cookie.
“Furthermore,” the Chabad website concludes, “as we read in the Purim story, when Esther was in the king’s palace, she kept her identity secret. The Talmud explains that since the food was unkosher, she survived on various beans and seeds.”
Another explanation comes from the Midrash, where it is stated that when Haman recognized the virtue of the three Jewish forefathers, his strength immediately waned. “Tash” means “weaken” in Hebrew, suggesting that eating hamantaschen celebrates the weakening of our enemies.
Regardless of the symbolism behind the beloved baked good, today we see hamantaschen as a sign of a soon-to- be-bursting waistline. This week, JT’s panel of tasters — managing editor Marc Shapiro, senior writer Hannah Monicken, staff writers Justin Silberman and Daniel Nozick, circulation coordinator Devorah Neuman, audience development manager Esther Apt and photographer David Stuck — sample pastries from all around Baltimore to determine the differences and help find hamantaschen heaven.
— Daniel Nozick
Sweet & Good Catering
Bracha Shor, executive chef, whipped up a batch of caramel, halva, apple, pecan pie, chocolate peanut butter, apricot and raspberry for our hamantaschen tasting.
It was Monicken’s first time eating the treat, which she said was like “a more cookie version of a scone.” The apple hamantaschen, with pieces of apples inside, was “almost like a little apple pie,” she said.
As a lover of chocolate and peanut butter, I went for hamantaschen that was loaded with peanut butter and had the added bonus of delicious chocolate dough.
Shor, who started the business 10 years ago in Israel and brought it to Baltimore when she and her family moved here, said anyone can make hamantaschen, which are very versatile.
“Hamantaschen are very easy to make … and it’s hard to go wrong because you’ve got sugar in there and you’ve got some fat,” she said. “You can do it with your kids; it’s a fun holiday. And the hamantaschen — why I love them — is because you’re supposed to give them [as gifts] and you feel good about each other.”
— Marc Shapiro
As someone who consumes a poppy-seed bagel every morning, I was intrigued to see how Goldman’s poppy-seed hamantaschen would compare with my breakfast favorite.
Simply put, it exceeded all my expectations, passing the taste test with flying colors. It’s no wonder Goldman’s has remained a staple in the Greater Baltimore Jewish community since its founding in 1965.
There was absolutely no lack of flavor from a smooth, doughy and sugary exterior to an interior packed with butter and poppy seeds.
“This is so buttery and delicious,” Monicken said.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the family-owned-and-operated Goldman’s hamantaschen is its diversity of flavors, offering chocolate, apricot and raspberry, among other tasty selections.
Glowing reviews also came from Nozick, who proclaimed emphatically that his chocolate-stuffed hamantaschen passed what he called the “corner test,” when the filling fills the corners of the dough.
All in all, Goldman’s hamantaschen had all the essentials one could hope for when consuming a dessert or, in this case, a late-afternoon casual snack sure to spoil one’s dinner.
And as Shapiro modestly put it, “We’re all big fans.”
The initial impact of a hamantaschen from Sion’s is “like getting hit with a Mack truck right to your taste buds,” according to Stuck, capturing the essence of the pastry as if it were a photo shoot.
Through the course of our taste tests, some hamantaschen were more cookie-esque. However, Sion’s Bakery makes hamantaschen that might be more accurately described as a true pastry.
“This is more like a delicious, sugary bread,” said Monicken. “It definitely tastes like there is a lot of butter in them.”
The general consensus from the team was that the best part of the batch from Sion’s was the lemony taste of the cookie itself, breaded in a thick, juicy dough.
Mauricio Espiniosa, a cashier at Sion’s, shared that while elderly patrons prefer classic flavors such as prune or poppy seed, younger customers gravitate toward chocolate and fruit flavors. “If I had to choose one, I would say that the poppy-seed hamantaschen are the best ones here,” he said.
— Daniel Nozick
If sizable and substantive is how you like your hamantaschen, head over to Gourmet Again or Lenny’s Deli, both of which sell (very large!) hamantaschen made fresh by local bakery American Hearth.
Trying these, we were a little intimidated by the size (“This is a real undertaking,” I remarked at one point), but that quickly turned to enjoyment. The most frequent descriptors among our group of intrepid tasters were “thick,” “rich,” “crumbly” and “melty.” Can’t go wrong with that, right?
The poppy-seed variety proved popular with Nozick, who remarked on the dense filling. If you’re a traditionalist and partial to the poppy seed, you’ll be happy with this amount of flavor. Angela, behind the bakery counter at Lenny’s, told me that that poppy seed is actually their most popular flavor, almost always selling out in a couple days.
The chocolate filling with chocolate drizzle was a big hit with Stuck, who, in his alliterative way, called it “mammothly magnificent,” as well as “volumizing, vivid and voluptuously huge.”
Poppy seed and chocolate are pretty different flavors, so I take it as a great sign these can do both versions well. Just maybe don’t overdo it on your entrée before dessert if these are your chosen hamantaschen varieties.
So that, as they (probably don’t ever) say, is how the hamantaschen crumbles at Gourmet Again and Lenny’s Deli.
Prepackaged and individually wrapped hamantaschen from Borough Park, Brooklyn bakery Stern’s is available at Seven Mile Market thanks to Shaye and Sara Biller, the husband-and-wife owners of BBB Distributors.
Baked under the guise of Brooklyn’s Central Rabbinical Congress, the hamantaschen are pas yisroel and parve.
The JT team sampled the raspberry hamantaschen, and Nozick was delighted to read the packaging, which stated that the tasty treats are “baked just for you!”
The sweet filling made for a delicious dessert, and my colleagues liked the dough, which was a good middle ground between soft and hard. Like the dough, the size was also a good middle ground, somewhere in between the mini and large hamantaschen other bakers sell.
“What’s nice about these is each one is individually wrapped,” Sara Biller said. “You can take one out of the package and just put it in your mishloach manot.”
— Marc Shapiro
The first thing Shapiro said upon opening the box of hamantaschen from Pariser’s Bakery was, “Oh wow, these are enormous. You’re going to need to eat less of a meal if this is going to be your dessert. This is like a second course.”
In all fairness, we only sampled the large hamantaschen from Pariser’s — it also offers small and medium sizes.
Motti Margalit, owner of Pariser’s, has been a baker his entire life. He worked in a bakery with his parents in Israel and served as a baker in the Israel Defense Forces during his mandatory service before coming to the United States and joining Pariser’s in 1999.
“Our dough is different from everyone else’s,” he said. “It is a combination of Israeli and American style. It is not a yeast dough, it is more of a cookie dough; but cookie dough gets hard and crunchy, this not so much.”
Pariser’s best seller is its chocolate hamantaschen; chocolate is Margalit’s favorite flavor alongside prune. Although not included in our samples, Pariser’s, which is always open to new ideas, will have unique flavors such as chocolate-chip cookie-dough hamantaschen as Purim draws closer.
It is understandable that chocolate is Pariser’s best-selling flavor. I said it was “the best-looking chocolate hamantaschen I’ve seen in ages. This is what I expect a chocolate hamantaschen to look like — they must have gotten this fudge in the cookie with an IV or something.”
Similarly, Monicken sees why prune is Margalit’s other favorite. “I didn’t think I was going to like the prune,” she said, “but it is actually really good. It is less crumbly than some other ones.”
I had the only question: Which hamantaschen are made by real Jewish grandmothers. They should mark those boxes with stickers.
— Daniel Nozick