“There's just one right way to make hamantaschen and that's the way your mother made them," Fred Merriam says to no one in particular but generally everyone gathered around the stainless prep station in the kitchen at Temple Schaarai Zedek.
Busy hands roll and cut dough then plop apricot, prune or poppy seed filling onto the circles. The dough is gathered and pinched into a three-cornered pastry package, the hallmark shape of the symbolic Purim cookie. Baking trays are slid into hot ovens and the process continues.
The aroma of baking cookies fills the room, wafting into the halls and leading the curious and hungry into the kitchen. Merriam's words hang in the air, too, speaking to tradition and family, important partners in holiday cooking. On this day, members of the temple's women's organization, the Sisterhood, and a couple fellows, bake hamantaschen — really, edible religious lessons — for the Jewish holiday of Purim, which begins at sundown tonight and continues through sundown on Thursday.
On several Wednesdays in February, the Sisterhood bake hamantaschen as a fundraiser for the religious school, and past efforts have purchased computers and other equipment and supplies. The cookies are a bit pricey at $10 for a dozen, but no one argues much because they are for a good cause. Plus, these days, people don't have so much time for baking, says Sharon Ravner, Sisterhood president. So for five years, the volunteer bakers have given time and expertise to fill the void and bellies.
(Call the temple on W Swann Avenue at (813) 876-2377 to see if there are still cookies left for sale. Many bakeries sell hamantaschen at this time of the year. They can often be found at Publix. )
Merriam, a retired college professor, and Artie Sherman, Ravner's father visiting from New Jersey, are the only men in the kitchen. Neither wear the blue "Girlz in the (Sister) Hood" aprons that several women have tied around their waists. Merriam protects his clothes with a "Hagar the Horrible" apron.
Sherman has his own way of making hamantaschen, traditional neither in shape nor filling, but fast becoming a must for young children. He stuffs his circles with chocolate chips and then pushes the dough into a three-cornered shape, a little lumpy, but compact nevertheless. His signature flourish is a chocolate chip pushed point side down into the center of the finished shape.
"Keep making the chocolate ones, Dad," Ravner says, when dough begins to dwindle. "We need those for the kids."
Schaarai Zedek is the largest temple in the Tampa Bay area — the fourth largest in Florida, Rabbi Richard Birnholz says — with about 1,000 families in the congregation, many of them with young children.
Some bakers bring favorite equipment from home, such as Sara Kurtz, who totes a baker's scraper to help release the dough from the stainless counter. There's a lot of catching up around the work table. How are your kids? When is your surgery? What's on the vacation calendar for this year? And, ironically, even talk about Girl Scout cookies. One baker has to leave early to make deliveries.
Communal cooking encourages that camaraderie.
The Purim story
There are many symbolic holiday foods in Judaism. At Hanukkah, foods cooked in oil — latkes and doughnuts mostly — are eaten to represent the meager oil that miraculously lit the lamps in the reclaimed Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Leavened bread is given up during Passover in remembrance of the quickness with which Jewish slaves had to flee Egypt. They did not have time to let bread dough rise and that is why unleavened matzo crackers have such a presence at the Passover Seder feast.
And Purim has hamantaschen, a cookie that recalls the reason for the holiday. While the bakers-for-a-day roll, fill and pinch dough, Rabbi Birnholz recounts the story, much the way he must tell it to the congregation's young members.
Purim commemorates the deliverance of Jews from the evil Haman in ancient Persia. The story is told in the book of Esther in the Bible. Haman supposedly wore a hat that had three corners, Birnholz explains, and that's the genesis of the cookie's shape. In Yiddish, hamantaschen means Haman's pockets, which describes the well that holds the filling. (Another story says that the cookies resemble ears, and in Israel they are called "oznei Haman," meaning Haman's ears.)
Interesting, though, that the bad guy gets a sweet named after him.
"Yeah, but what happens to the cookies? They disappear," Birnholz says.
Another symbolic ingredient is the traditional poppy seed filling. It can be made from scratch, but the Sisterhood buys it in cans. (The prune and apricot fillings are made by the Sisterhood, as is the dough. Their cookies are made with butter but some recipes call for vegetable oil and others shortening.) The many poppy seeds in the filling, Birnholz says, represent the lies that Haman told about the Jews.
Fred Merriam has another take. If you drop poppy seeds, they scatter quickly, he says. So, hamantaschen filled with poppy seeds is a way to spread the victory story every which way, like rolling poppy seeds.
While the bakers continue the assembly line process in the kitchen, Merriam moves to an adjoining hall to bag cooled cookies. There's not a lot of sampling because the cookies have a higher purpose. Still, a few misshapen ones beg to be nibbled.
"The ones that ain't pretty, out they go," Merriam says. He pauses and smiles, "No, in they go."
We suppose that's what his mother might have said.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.