Santa Rosa’s Jewish elders seek to keep Purim baking tradition alive

“It takes a village,” volunteer David Kahn said.|

The email subject line was intriguing: “Making 1000 hamantashen.”

Making one thousand of anything sounds like a daunting task, but these triangle-shaped, filled cookies made for the Jewish holiday Purim are labor intensive enough to feel particularly so — at least to the uninitiated.

But never underestimate the power of a team of amateur bakers motivated by tradition, their taste buds, and a sense of duty to their community.

Team hamantaschen (also sometimes spelled hamantashen), a group of seven retirees, met on three recent mornings in the kitchen at Santa Rosa’s Congregation Beth Ami synagogue in advance of the holiday, which begins at sundown Monday.

They gathered, shoulder to shoulder, around the stainless-steel table, arranged into stations.

“We have the rollers, the cutters, the fillers, the folders and the egg washers,” said Janet Stein-Larson, a member of the congregation’s kitchen committee and co-organizer of this year’s baking day.

“It takes a village,” David Kahn, another committee volunteer, continued.

In a corner of the kitchen at the stove, Leanne Schy tended a pot of poppy seed filling.

“Is this thick enough?” she asked, while spooning some of the ebony filling for Lee Feinstein to look at and offer her opinion. After passing inspection, Feinstein, the other baking day organizer, went back to rolling and cutting dough, happy to be back in a bustling kitchen after two years of COVID precautions curtailed group baking sessions.

“I’ve seen faces I haven’t seen helping in several years,” said Feinstein. “It’s been wonderful, and tripping over each other is no big deal. I’d rather see people and trip over them than be lonely.”

The crew of bakers is looking forward to welcoming the 136-member congregation next week to an in-person Purim celebration, marked with costumes, hijinks, and goodie bags filled with treats, including their homemade hamantaschen.

History of hamantaschen

Purim is rooted in the story of Esther, a Jewish woman, who was married to the Persian king Ahasuerus. The king’s right hand man, Haman, hatched a plot to kill all the Jews in the kingdom. Esther convinced the king to not only have mercy on her people but also to execute Haman for his sinister plan.

Today, the holiday is a celebration of the triumph of good over evil, with feasting and a tradition of giving money to the poor and delivering food to friends, including hamantaschen. Loosely translated, it means Haman’s pocket or purse.

But how did a sweet-filled pastry pocket get attached to a bad guy in the Book of Esther?

Beth Ami Rabbi Mordechai Miller explained that a traditional filling for the pastry is made with poppy seeds, and both the German and Yiddish word for poppy is ‘mohn’ so the pastries were called mohntaschen.

“Some wit thought to add ‘ha’ to it, or ‘hamantasch,’” he said. “It’s a play on words.”

Filling and folding, a labor of love

These days, hamantaschen are filled with a variety of ingredients, and as the group rolled, filled and folded, talk turned to flavors.

Over the course of three days of baking, the kitchen crew made apricot, cherry, date, peach, raspberry and poppy seed, but there was mention of blueberry, strawberry, and even the possibility of peanut butter and jelly filled hamantaschen.

When pressed to name a favorite, Stein-Larson, who grew up in San Francisco eating her grandmother’s prune-filled hamantaschen, was diplomatic.

“Now that I’ve had a diversity of fillings, I’d have to say it’s the chocolate cream cheese that Myrna (another member of the hamantaschen crew) introduced me to,” she said. “But they’re all good for many different reasons.”

Surrounding the filling is a lightly sweet, almost sugar-cookie like dough. Feinstein, who made several batches for this year’s pastries, adds orange zest to hers. The group keeps their dough dairy-free and fillings nut-free to accommodate food allergies, but some who make hamantaschen at home occasionally use butter and cream cheese in their dough.

The oil-based dough the group uses is very forgiving. It’s similar to one that Stein-Larson’s grandmother used, and she says it’s foolproof.

“It’s foolproof in that a child of 3 can roll it out and not over-roll it. That’s why it’s developed the way it is and is as simple as it is,” she said.

Simple enough that, pre-COVID, the kitchen crew would have the children from Beth Ami preschool come in and help make hamantaschen.

“That was a beautiful thing about the holiday, because different ages blended and could mix,” said Myrna Morse, who at 90 was the oldest member of the group. “It’s so important and we’re passing on traditions, too.”

Folding the dough is a little trickier.

Demonstrating how to do it, Feinstein folded the top left third of the circle of dough over a portion of the filling, followed by the right side, slightly overlapping at the top, and lightly pinched it closed. Then she folded the bottom third up, making sure to tuck the left side under the left flap of dough, and overlapping the flap of dough on the other side, then pinching those closed, while leaving a triangle of filling visible.

The hamantaschen were then transferred to baking sheets where Morse painted on an egg wash before transferring them to the waiting oven.

A tradition worth passing down

Although hamantaschen are available all year round at Grossman’s Noshery in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square, to this group of bakers the association with Purim and the fact that they’re homemade makes them special and worth all the effort.

“Costco carries them (too),” said Stein-Larson. “They’re not as good. They’re prettier, but they’re not as good tasting.”

The tradition, which this group has been doing together for about a dozen years, is more than just a tasty holiday treat.

“A kitchen is a great place for a religious institution,” said Rabbi Miller. “When people go into a kitchen and work together, it tends to be a glue that can bring a community together.”

Stein-Larson’s husband, Jeffrey, bagged and labeled the hamantaschen as they cooled, readying them for the freezer where they’ll stay until next week, then updated the crew with the number of hamantaschen they made each day.

After three days of baking, the final count came out just shy of one thousand hamantaschen — 918 to be exact, about one batch of dough too little to meet their lofty goal, but an accomplishment, nonetheless.

As the final batch came out of the oven, puffed and golden brown, the hamantaschen got a final seal of approval.

“Oh, that’s gorgeous,” said Stein-Larson.

Without missing a beat, Morse quipped, “Put a Miss America sash on them.”

Dairy-free hamantaschen

Makes about 48 hamantaschen

This dough, from Beth Ami member Lee Feinstein, is dairy free, making it an appropriate dessert for meals where meat is served (i.e. kosher).

[section: ingredients]

5 extra large eggs

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup canola oil

Zest of 2 1/2 oranges

4 cups flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon Salt

Filling (see recipes below)

For egg wash:

1 egg, beaten, with 1 teaspoon of water

Dissolve sugar into the eggs. Add oil and zest and mix. Combine dry ingredients in a separate bowl and whisk to mix. Add to egg mixture and mix until just incorporated, kneading and adding a little more flour, if necessary, to a consistency that can be rolled out on a floured surface.

Chill dough thoroughly, wrapped in plastic wrap, in the refrigerator, at least a couple of hours and up to a couple of days.

When ready to fill, preheat the oven to 375F.

Roll out the dough to about 1/8” thickness. Cut out rounds with a glass or cookie cutter. Drop about 2 teaspoons of filling on the center of the circle. If the dough has too much residual flour brush edges lightly with water so they will hold together when folded.

To fold the dough:

Take the top left third of the circle of dough in your fingers and fold toward the center over a portion of the filling. Do the same with the top right third of the dough circle, folding toward the center, and slightly overlapping the upper part of the left hand fold to create a tip and pinch together. Next, fold the bottom third up, making sure to tuck the left side under the left fold of dough, and overlapping right hand fold of dough. Pinch each side closed while leaving a triangle of filling visible.

Place on parchment covered baking tray and brush on egg wash. Bake about 15 minutes in a 375 F oven, or until lightly golden around the edges. Let cool completely before serving.

Cream cheese hamantaschen dough

Makes 24 hamantaschen

This recipe from Beth Ami member Leanne Schy, makes a rich dough. If serving to someone who keeps kosher, make sure it doesn’t accompany a meal with meat.

½ cup butter

½ cup cream cheese

2/3 cup sugar

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 ½ cups sifted all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon salt

In a large bowl with an electric mixer, cream together butter, cream cheese, and sugar. Beat in egg and vanilla extract. Combine flour and salt then add to the butter mixture, mixing until just combined.

Wrap dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate until well chilled.

Proceed as above to roll, cut, fold, and fill.

Adjust oven temperature for cream cheese dough to 350 F, and bake for approximately 18-20 minutes.

Poppy seed filling

Makes filling for approximately 48 hamantaschen

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

1 ½ cups poppy seeds, ground (see note)

1-2 lemons, juiced

1 cup bread crumbs

1/2 cup raisins

Add sugar and water to a saucepan over medium heat, until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and add remaining ingredients and stir to combine until mixture is thick and not crumbly. The mixture should cling well to a spoon. If it seems too thin, return to medium low heat and cook until more liquid evaporates. Allow to cool before filling dough.

Note: ground poppy seeds can be found at European markets. If you can’t find them, grind poppy seeds in a spice or coffee grinder.

No cook fruit filling

Makes filling for 24 hamantaschen

1 pound dried fruit (apricots, figs, blueberries etc.)

Juice of 2 oranges

½ cup finely chopped walnuts (optional)

Put fruit into a mixing bowl or large measuring cup. Pour juice over the fruit, cover, and let sit overnight. Alternatively, you can just pour the juice into a bag of dried fruit, reseal and allow to sit overnight.

The next day, put the mixture into a food processor with sugar and lemon juice to taste. Start with a tablespoon or two of sugar and teaspoon of lemon juice, adding more as needed. You’ll need less for fruits like blueberries and strawberries, more for tarter fruits like apricots. Puree until smooth and thick, but not runny, being prepared to adjust as you go. Stir in nuts, if using, then proceed with filling the dough.

You can reach Staff Writer Jennifer Graue at 707-521-5262 or

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