Purim: a festival of feast and frolicking

Holiday: Jews celebrate with cookies that recall their triumph over would-be persecutors.

March 07, 2001|By Joan Nathan | Joan Nathan,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

Purim, which starts at dusk tomorrow, is the most festive of all the Jewish holidays. A reminder of the Jews' deliverance from the threat of annihilation in ancient Persia, it is celebrated with frolic and feasting.

The wicked Haman, for whom the most popular hamantaschen cookies are named, was the chief minister of Ahasuerus, the Persian king. Haman wished to exterminate the Jews of the Persian Empire because he thought one Jew, Mordecai, had failed to show him proper respect.

But King Ahasuerus' newlywed queen, the beautiful Esther, was also, unbeknownst to him, a Jew and the cousin and ward of Mordecai and told him of Haman's plot. At risk to her own life, she helped Mordecai foil Haman's plans.

On the 13th of the Hebrew calendar month of Adar, the Jews were to be destroyed. Instead, Ahasuerus was persuaded to revoke the evil decree, and the Jews triumphed over their would-be persecutors. Every year in the festival of Purim, that victory is recalled.

Today, a festival meal follows in the late afternoon of Purim, in which charity is shown to the poor -- usually in the form of money to at least two people -- and there is the sending of gifts (mishloach manot) to friends and neighbors.

"Every one of our many cousins and nieces had to have a handmade present," wrote Pauline Wengeroff in "Rememberings," a memoir of her life in 19th-century Russia (translated by Henny Wenkart and published by the University Press of Maryland). "All through the days and late into the evening we worked, imagining how each recipient would admire (or envy) our skill and artistry."

Like other holidays, the origins of Purim lie shrouded in mystery and ancient history. Many authorities consider the story of Esther merely an allegory. The masquerading, the general merrymaking is likened to Mardi Gras and even the Persian New Year festival of Nowruz (New Days), celebrated this year on March 20.

"All these natural new-year holidays are based on fertility and rebirth and start from the very beginning in the springtime," said Najmieh Batmanglij, Persian food historian and cookbook author.

Although many American Jews simply celebrate Purim with a reading of the Megillah (Book of Esther) and a serving of hamantaschen, entire communities, like parts of Flatbush and Boro Park in Brooklyn, N.Y., are turned over to masqueraders who go from door to door with their boxes.

On a recent visit there, I saw some families, dressed in disguise, deliver as many as 200 gifts to friends and neighbors. The gifts included fruit, wine and, of course, hamantaschen and other cookies. In the seasonal cycle of Jewish holidays, Purim's gastronomic position is quite important.

As the last festival before Passover, which comes one month later, it is an occasion to use up the store of flour. Therefore, many delicacies -- deep-fried and baked -- are prepared for this holiday.

In Israel, all kinds of delicacies are served: Iraqis and Syrians make sambusak or turnovers filled with chicken or cheese; Jews from Tunisia, Lebanon and Egypt make deep-fried pastries filled with nuts and oozing with honey. And, as Wengeroff noted, "On the very next day [after Purim], my mother and the cook held a long conference concerning the great preparations for Pesach [Passover]. And only a few days later Vichne, the flour merchant, appeared, ... bringing samples of different batches of flour for our matzahs [unleavened bread]." But preparing for Passover is a story for another day.

Fruit-Filled Hamantaschen

Makes about 40 cookies

DOUGH:

1 1/4 cups (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter

1/2 cup sugar

1 large egg

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon orange juice

2 1/2 to 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

FILLING:

1 cup walnuts

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 unpeeled lemon, quartered and seeded

1/2 unpeeled orange, quartered and seeded

1 tablespoon rum

2 figs, coarsely diced

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 cup orange marmalade or apricot jam

To prepare dough, cream butter with sugar until blended. Add egg, vanilla and orange juice and continue to beat until smooth. A food processor is great for this.

Add flour, baking powder and salt and mix or process until ball of dough is formed. Cover and chill 2 to 3 hours or overnight.

Meanwhile, to prepare filling, place walnuts, sugar, vanilla, lemon, orange, rum, figs, cinnamon and marmalade in food processor and pulse until chopped but not pureed. You should have about 2 cups. Set aside in refrigerator until dough is chilled.

Roll dough out on lightly floured board to 1/4 -inch thickness. Cut into 3-inch circles. Place 1 teaspoon filling in center of each circle. To shape hamantaschen, first brush water around edge of circle with finger.

Pull edges of dough up to form a triangle around filling and pinch 3 corners together, leaving small triangular opening in center. Transfer to greased cookie sheet.

Bake at 375 degrees 10 to 15 minutes until tops are golden.

Note: You can fill any leftover dough with chocolate chips as a filling.

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