Filling orders for Purim's filled treats

Bakers roll out dough to make hamantaschen

March 12, 2003|By Suzanne White | Suzanne White,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Kosher bakers who cater to Baltimore's Jewish community are elbow-deep in flour and toiling at a frantic pace to prepare for the merry Jewish holiday of Purim.

From their industrial-size ovens come a triangle-shaped pastry called hamantaschen (pronounced hah-mahn-tah-shuhn) that is both delicious and symbolic.

The filled cookielike pastry celebrates the rescue of the Persian Jews from a wicked man named Haman. The story, with more intrigue than a modern-day soap opera, is told in the scroll of Esther and will be recounted in synagogues during the holiday, which starts at sundown Monday.

According to the story, Esther was the young and beautiful Jewish wife of King Ahasuerus. Haman, the king's evil minister, persuaded Ahasuerus to kill all the Jews in his kingdom. Esther fasted, eating nothing but seeds, and prayed for her people to be spared.

Her prayers were answered, and a traditional pastry was born, representing Haman's triangular hat (although some insist the hamantaschen resembles his ears). Those seeds Esther ate during her fast are remembered, too, with the poppy-seed filling that is popular in hamantaschen.

During Purim, synagogues will be bursting with noise when children, dressed in costume to resemble Esther and other players in the story, rattle noisemakers at the mention of Haman's name. A traditional part of the holiday is giving food to the poor, friends, relatives, schools and nursing homes.

"They'll be plenty of customers getting hamantaschen for families to give to others and to put in prepared baskets," said Scott Zangwill, owner of Schmell & Azman's Bakery on Reisterstown Road. "We'll be going around the clock trying to keep up with the orders."

The spirit of old Jewish bakeries lingers at Schmell & Azman's in large part because of the presence of Rabbi Ben Cohen, a soft-spoken man with a cascading gray beard, who works part time ringing up braided challah bread, Hanukkah cookies, hamantaschen and other baked goods for patrons.

"Here's two cookies for you," Cohen said to a girl and her older brother visiting the bakery with their mother, who leaves the shop with a couple of hamantaschen and a loaf of rye bread.

Like other nearby kosher bakeries that anchor the community, Schmell & Azman's makes hamantaschen with an assortment of fillings: cherry, apple, blueberry, apricot, chocolate chip, lemon, peach and pineapple.

Children scramble for the cherry hamantaschen with the bright red filling, but many adults and traditionalists favor the muhn (poppy seed) version because of its ties to Queen Esther. Muhn is the Yiddish word for poppy seeds, which to many Jews also sounds like the name Haman.

"I love hamantaschen. I eat it all year long," says Cohen, who confesses to a nibble or two from the bakery's display case. "Mainly, I like the cookie-dough taste."

Embracing the spirit of giving during Purim, the rabbi plans to deliver sweet hamantaschen and other food gifts to at least 30 people, many of whom live in his nearby Park Heights neighborhood in Pikesville.

Bakers at Adler's Bakery in Pikesville began cranking out their version of hamantaschen a month ago, when inquiring calls started pouring into the bakery.

"Ours are a tender cookie-cake dough and not overly sweet," said Seth Adler, who does baker's duty during the weeks leading to Purim. "They bring back early childhood memories."

Customers are sent out the bakery door with a smile, especially if they purchase what Adler calls the "the Texas-size hamantaschen," measuring 4 1/2 inches across. They sell for $1.35 and go fast.

At Goldman's Kosher Bakery, Max Cohn and staff, which includes his father, a baker who passed the skill onto his son, are turning out hamantaschen by the thousands. Within a few days, "Every nook and cranny will be filled with hamantaschen," Cohn said. "It's always a busy, hectic holiday. ... We have hamantaschen year-around, but the people come out of the woodwork when it comes to Purim."

In the heart of the bakery is a mammoth double-rack rotating oven capable of turning out 160 dozen mini-hamantaschen, or 80 dozen large pastries, every 19 minutes. Cohn introduced Baltimore to a new hamantaschen when he offered customers a mini, a sugar-free and a dairy (cheese) version of the pastry.

"The reason for the cheese hamantaschen is that we have a separate dairy kitchen on the premises," Cohn said. "All other items are pareve [no butter or milk]."

Cohn also makes a softer- to-chew yeast-dough haman- taschen for his older pa- trons and sells the traditional cookielike dough raw for people who want to enjoy making the pastry at home.

"All they have to do is take it home, put in their favorite filling and take it from there."

David Conn, director of the Maryland Jewish Alliance, will be making a hamantaschen delivery to Annapolis, transporting 250 of the pastries to the office of Montgomery County Del. Adrienne A. Mandel.

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