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