top of page

Hazzan Steve's Message

Updated: Feb 28


My family growing up were Food Jews. Really not religiously inclined but culinarily

attuned to the Jewish calendar. You could tell where we were in the calendar by the

Jewish holiday foods my mother prepared or purchased. And Purim meant

hamantaschen. Mom bought Passover sweets (macaroons of various sorts infinitely

superior to the ones we find in cans these days, Passover nut cake that you could buy

by the inch, marzipan robed in chocolate) from the two bakeries near our Long Island

home, and taigelach for Rosh Hashana from one of them (that is a whole other story),

but hamantaschen she made herself.

Purim still means hamantaschen, openly confessing the Ashkenaz-centric nature of my


Let us start with pronunciation issues. I suppose you can get by saying something like

HAH-min-tash-en. But the first vowel really is not an “ah” sound. It is something

halfway between an “oo” and an “uh”. The last “en” bit is really not quite a separate

syllable from the preceding “tasch”.

And then there was the annual good natured argument between my parents about how

to pronounce the Yiddish word for the hamantaschen’s poppy seed filling. In my

mother’s Galitzianer Yiddish learned from her maternal grandmother it is “muhn”, the

vowel being perhaps just a bit shorter than that first hamantaschen vowel. Yiddish was

my father’s first language (English his second, even though he was born in New York),

his mamaloschen learned from his Byelorussian parents. My father said “moon”, the

vowel being not quite as long as the “oo” in “moo”, but much more moo-ish than my

mother’s “muhn”. The argument was really beside the point, because my mother filled

her hamantaschen with lekvar, usually prune but sometimes apricot.

While we are on the subject of fillings, what are acceptable hamantaschen fillings? This

is, of course, entirely a matter of taste and tradition. Or perhaps, like what constitutes a

bagel, not something that should be left entirely to taste (those doughnut-shaped things

with raisins in them are not bagels). The filling made with poppy seeds, whether muhn

or moon, is an excellent choice, as are prune or apricot lekvars or jams, and maybe

cherry or plum jam or preserves. Peanut butter is interesting, but pushing the envelope

and a bit messy. Chocolate? I think not. Cheese, it turns out, is traditional in some

circles. And thereon hangs a tale of hamantaschen history.

You may know about “The Settlement Cookbook”, first published 1901. Its subtitle tells

the origin story: “Tested recipes from The Settlement Cooking Classes, The Milwaukee

Public School Kitchens, The School of Trades for Girls, and Experienced Housewives”.

“Settlement” refers to the Settlement Houses organized in Chicago, Milwaukee, Boston,

New York, and other places, all having the goal of assisting the economic and social

integration of the wave of immigrants to the U.S. from Eastern and Southern Europe

from the 1880s into the 1910s. The Settlement Cookbook was not a Jewish cookbook,

not having a focus on kashrut, but more intended to enable the immigrants, Jewish and

not, to adapt their traditional recipes for American kitchens and to learn American

foodways without entirely losing their European roots. So, not a Jewish cookbook but

one with many Jewish recipes and used by many Jews, then and even now.

I have my own well-worn copy of The Settlement Cookbook, from a revised edition

printed in the early 1970s. I mostly use it for baking recipes, including Passover

desserts. My mother had a Settlement Cookbook, probably an edition of the late 1940s

or early 1950s (I think one of my brothers has that book). I have my maternal

grandmother’s copy, which says it is the twelfth edition copyrighted in 1921, two years

before my mother was born. This is precious to me, falling apart, with recipes in my

grandmother’s handwriting (mostly for cakes, cookies and puddings) written in the

inside back and front covers, and jotted down in summary form on slips of paper or

used envelopes or clipped from magazines or newsletters and stuffed in between the

now brown and crinkly pages of the book. In these handwritten recipes, flour or sugar

or liquids are sometimes given in “a glass of” measurements; the glass of course meant

a small leftover yahrtzeit candle glass.

I digress, as is my want. Back to hamantaschen. You will not find a recipe for

hamantaschen in the index of any of these Settlement Cookbooks. With persistence,

eventually you will stumble on an entry for “Purim cakes (Haman pockets)”. Neither my

1970s Settlement Cookbook nor my Gran’s from 1921 has a complete recipe for

hamantaschen. Instead, there is a short description (on page 81 in my book) of how to

make Haman pockets, with cross-references to other recipes for the dough and filling.

Here is what my copy says:

After first rising, roll out any Kuchen Dough, pages 76-77, to ¼ inch

thickness, cut into 4-inch rounds, brush with oil, spread Poppy Seed

Filling, page 83, or Cheese Filling, page 94, on each round. Fold 3 sides

to meet over filling, pinch together to make a three-cornered cake. Brush

top with warm honey, let rise, and bake in a moderately hot oven, 400º F.,

until golden brown.

The summary in my Gran’s book is similar, except it says to use either a “Cholla” dough

(which is a variant spelling of challah, it turns out) or Parker House roll dough, and it

only mentions poppy seed filling, not cheese.

This is really different from the hamantaschen I grew up eating or any you are likely to

find in American Jewish settings now. The acceptable fillings have multiplied over the

last 100 years, trending sweeter and simpler in flavor profile, certainly. But what is

really interesting is that the prescribed dough is a yeasted dough enriched with eggs

and with just a bit of sugar, otherwise used for bread, rolls, or the formerly ubiquitous

Middle and Eastern European kuchen. How different this must taste (and feel in the

mouth) from the more sugary and rich cookie dough we have come to expect. The

referenced cheese filling, by the way, is made with dry cottage cheese, egg yolks, butter

and sugar.

Purim is coming in about a month, on the 14 th of Adar II, the day before the next full

moon. I can’t wait to try hamantaschen made the old way. I’ll let you know how they

turn out.

Here is my mother’s recipe (copied by me and not, alas, in my mother’s handwriting):

2 eggs

½ cup butter, melted

½ cup sugar

Rind, juice 1 lemon

2 cups flour +

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

Mix dough.

Roll out 1/8 inch

Cut in rounds. Fill with lekvar, muhn, etc.

Bake at 375º about 20 minutes.

If doubling recipe, use 5 cups flour.

Notes: My mother used salted butter. If like me you use unsalted, you may want

a bit more salt, but not much. Mom used table salt, rather than kosher salt, and

that makes a big difference. Mom says “2 cups flour +”, and this recipe usually

needs a bit more than two cups of flour, or else the dough is too soft and too

greasy. I chill the dough before trying to roll it. Do not trust the baking time; you

want them nicely brown and not burned, and whether that takes more or less

than twenty minutes in your oven is on you. I’d line the baking pan with

parchment, but Mom never did and the dough is high in fat, so….

With blessings for a week of safety and community,

Hazzan Steve

 החזן שלמה זלמן עיט בן מרדכי מרגלן

36 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Rabbi Lisa

5/29/24 This Shabbat brings the new month of June, which means it’s time to kick off Pride month. While Pride month is a secular observance, it has everything to do with Jewish values. The past few ye

Hazzan Steve's Message

When Is Your Jewish Birthday? Does That Matter? Thanks to a firm but friendly shove from my mashpiah, my spiritual director, I find myself open to clues or hints or messages from malachim (messengers)

Rabbi Lisa's Message

5/15/24 When Israel became a state in 1948, three new holidays were added to the Jewish calendar: Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance day, which we began at sundown on May 5th), Yom HaZikaron (Memorial


bottom of page