Pioneering Traditions & Purim Cookies

"I often wonder how Jewish frontier families fared in keeping their traditions alive; perhaps baking a traditional recipe like Purim cookies in the spring was one way these isolated farm families could feel connected to their culture."

Shalom on the Range: a great cookbook name or the greatest cookbook name? This “Roundup of Recipes and Jewish Traditions from Colorado Kitchens” naturally caught my eye on my first deep dive into the culinary holdings at the American Jewish Historical Society. My task was to find a delicious hamantaschen recipe, and Shalom on the Range did not disappoint.

It might seem surprising to come across a Jewish cookbook published in Colorado. While we often associate Jewish culture with big coastal cities, there was a social movement at the turn of the 20th century to resettle Jewish families on rural farms. In New York City, the Jewish Agricultural Society was established in 1900, and offered Jewish immigrants agricultural training and loans to purchase rural property. According to its website, the Society successfully relocated thousands of Jewish immigrants out of the city, often in rural New Jersey or Connecticut. Other, more far-flung, Jewish farming settlements were less successful. According to the University of Denver’s Center for Judaic Studies, a group of agricultural migrants set up a colony in Cotopaxi, Colorado in 1882: “After the ill-fated colony disbanded in 1884, most of the colonists moved to Denver, forming the nucleus of the city's west side Jewish community.”

It’s the descendants of these early pioneers that would eventually compile the Shalom on the Range cookbook. The cookbook was assembled to benefit Shalom Park (now called Shalom Cares), a nursing home that opened near Denver in 1923. Delightfully, some of the recipes in the book include buffalo meat, as a nod to their “wild west” surroundings. But many of the recipes are traditional, passed down over several generations of family. The appeal for many Jewish immigrants of staying in large cities was that of community, important to maintaining many religious practices. I often wonder how Jewish frontier families fared in keeping their traditions alive; perhaps baking a traditional recipe like Purim cookies in the spring was one way these isolated farm families could feel connected to their culture.

Although hamantaschen are the most commonly known Purim pastry in America, according to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks, early Ashkenazic custom was to make whimsical pastries in the shapes of animals; other communities would fry strips of dough and soak them in honey or sugar syrup. This latter confection was called “Haman’s Ears.” When hamantaschen first appeared in German-Jewish communities in the 16th century, the name meant “Haman’s purse,” and the sweet was made with a rich yeast-bread dough.

In fact, 19th- and early 20th-century Jewish-American cookbooks do not contain recipes for hamantaschen. Recipes for Purim cakes, fritters or puffs appear from the 1880s through the 1920s, and are essentially jelly doughnuts, deep fried in butter. In the American Jewish Historical Society’s cookbook collection, hamantaschen recipes made with pie crust begin to appear alongside the fried doughnuts by the 1950s. Cookies, as we know them today, don’t show up until the 1960s and ’70s, when second- and third-generation Americans want to document the recipes of their Eastern European-immigrant grandparents. Americans are famously fond of cookies, and they would have been simpler to make than a deep-fried yeast dough, so it’s not surprising the treat evolved after a generation or two in America. At that point, the cookies also gained the association with Haman’s tri-pointed hat.

But why are we eating Haman’s hat, purse, ears, or any part of him? As the villain of the Purim story, historically Haman was burned in effigy or his name was written on the soles of shoes and stomped into the ground. So eating a piece of Haman, according to Marks, is “symbolically eliminating some part of Haman and erasing his name.”

Of course, if you don’t have the time or the talent to make your own hamantaschen, the AJHS has Russ & Daughters hamantaschen for sale at the front desk as a part of the “Russ and Daughters: An Appetizing Story” exhibit.

 

Hamantashen

Adapted from Shalom on the Range

I tested several fats in this recipe and I found that Crisco makes the tastiest and most versatile cookie. The texture is crispy and light, and since Crisco is parve, you can serve these cookies with any meal. Creaming the orange zest with the sugar and fat releases the essential oils. And don’t use your good vanilla in these cookies; most of vanilla’s flavor chemicals burn off at high heat. Artificial vanilla is just fine, or try a “baker’s vanilla,” a blend of real and artificial extracts.

Traditional fillings are poppyseed and prune, but I like them best with preserves or jam; the tartness of the fruit cuts through the sweetness and fat of the dough, and the melted jam makes the centers of the hamantaschen look like jewels.

 

1 cup Crisco 1 cup white sugar

Grated rind of one orange (about two teaspoons)

3 large eggs

¼ cup fresh orange juice

1 teaspoon vanilla

4 ⅔ cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

 

Filling

Makes four dozen cookies.

1. Whisk together flour and baking soda in a large bowl and set aside. Cream Crisco, sugar and orange zest in a stand mixer on medium-high until light and fluffy, about three minutes.

2. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add orange juice and vanilla. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula.

3. With the mixer on low, slowly add flour mixture, blending until just incorporated.

4. Divide dough into four parts, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least four hours or overnight.

5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll out dough on a floured board, one part at a time, to ⅛ inch thickness. Cut three-inch circles with a cookie cutter. Place a teaspoon of filling in the center of each circle. Re-roll scraps. 6. Fold. Tori Avery has great instructions: “First, grasp the left side of the circle and fold it towards the center to make a flap that covers the left third of the circle. Grasp the right side of the circle and fold it towards the center, overlapping the upper part of the left side flap to create a triangular tip at the top of the circle. A small triangle of filling should still be visible in the center. Grasp the bottom part of the circle and fold it upward to create a third flap and complete the triangle. When you fold this flap up, be sure to tuck the left side of this new flap underneath the left side of the triangle, while letting the right side of this new flap overlap the right side of the triangle.” Pinch the corners together firmly.

7. Place on a parchment-lined cookie sheet and bake until light brown, about 20 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool.

 

***

What’s your family’s recipe for hamantaschen? Do you make them with a unique filling, or have a special trick to fold them? Share in the comments below!

 

Don't forget to share this post!

.

AJHS Temporarily Closed

In support of New York City's efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the American Jewish Historical Society will be temporarily closed. The health and safety of The American Jewish Historical Society’s staff and visitors is our top priority, and we are continuing to closely monitor the evolving COVID-19 Situation.  During this time all in person events will be cancelled or postponed, and the library and other facilities of the five partner organizations will be closed to the public. 

Our building is closed, but our staff, and the stories we work to preserve and share, continue to be here for you.  The stories from our archives will continue to be accessible through our online catalogue, new virtual program offerings, and and digital platforms. Please check social media for ongoing updates and virtual offerings.