Hamantaschen (noun): Jelly or chocolate filled, triangular shaped cookies that crop up around this time of year, and are obviously the superior holiday cookie.
As a certified cookie expert (a.k.a. a product of the elusive freshman fifteen), I can assure you that cookies come in all shapes and sizes, and many are very similar. However,chocolate chip cookies, gingerbread and snickerdoodles all pale in comparison to hamantaschen.
In early spring, there’s the Jewish holiday of Purim, celebrating the Jews triumph over a mass genocide. In addition to having a celebratory feast, we’ve also narrowed in on the triangular shaped cookie market. Growing up, these cookies were all about creative liberty; every year in elementary school, we used to cut out circles of shortbread dough, fill them with a variety of flavored jams and pinch the corners together to form a triangle. The choice between apricot, strawberry, prune, raspberry jam, sprinkles, chocolate chips and poppy seed filling overwhelmed me. If you Google “hamantaschen fillings,” these will be among the few options listed under “classic fillings.” Now, bloggers will launch into their “modern twist on an old classic,” such as goat cheese, salted caramel and cran-apple. My childhood choices have become a thing of the past and my beloved cookies have become gentrified.
This is my journey to rediscover the cookies of my childhood, while attempting to keep up with the changing times. It’s a story of tradition, discovery, and really, really gross-tasting rum extract.
My grandmother used to make a cream cheese-based hamantaschen dough that was the most problematic dough EVER. It was a pain to roll out because it was so sticky and therefore had to be dusted in confectioners sugar first. The cookies would never stay closed for me or my mom, no matter how hard we pinched the corners together, and coming out of the oven they resembled bruschetta.
In Israel, 6,000 miles away from my family, and armed with a (mostly) broken convection oven, the wrong fat content cream cheese and a dream, I set out to make the hamantaschen. After slaving over the dough, and folding instead of pinching (pro tip!) the dough, it was time to construct the filling. I chopped the prunes, apples and walnuts, mixed them together with honey (more stickiness!), and, with my entire weekly funds in the oven, managed to recreate my grandmother’s cookies. They were creamy, sweet, delicious … and undercooked (I told you the oven was broken).
College is supposed to be a time of self-discovery. Little did I know that I would discover myself in a small kitchen in Jerusalem, Israel. I spent countless hours in there modifying my shortbread dough recipe in hopes of making something that wasn’t a pain in the ass to make and didn’t use dairy.
First, I added orange juice, then removed the orange juice, and tried adding date honey, removing eggs, adding cocoa powder, and removing sugar to achieve the perfect dough. I played with the fillings by adding peanut butter and jelly, three different kinds of chocolate chips, a weird jelly that melted and bubbled when it got too hot and anything else that would fit in my teaspoon.
Many, and I mean many, of these ‘recipes’ failed, but I learned some things along the way. What I thought was jelly turned out to be disgusting, but my Hebrew wasn’t that great so I’m not 100 percent sure it even was jelly. Sugar is a necessary component of any good shortbread recipe, or else it just tastes sad. And finally, there’s definitely a limit to how much orange juice is too much.
Rum extract does not belong in cookies. It tastes like rubbing alcohol and pairs very badly with strawberry jelly (still a question on whether or not this was actually jelly), or literally anything for that matter. In my quest for a grown up hamantaschen, I turned to alcohol, the most adult filling I could think of. I mixed the extract that I paid a dollar for, which should’ve been my first warning, with the ‘jelly’, and piped it into the middle of my shortbread cookies before pinching them into triangles. I will eat any type of cookie, but this was absolutely revolting. It tasted like a doctor’s office. After making my brother eat one, they went in the garbage and the rum extract never again made an appearance.
So what did I learn from this experience? As Julia Child said, “In cooking, you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” Without those hours spent in my kitchen, I never would have discovered myself, my tradition or the knowledge to never, ever use rum extract again. However, the biggest thing I learned is that hamantaschen really don’t need all the bells and whistles that the ‘modern baker’ is adding; apricot jam is just fine. Happy Purim!
Sarah Austin is a freshman in School of Hotel Management. She can be [email protected]cornell.edu.